Technologies provide clear opportunities to eliminate the annual $1 trillion of waste in global manufacturing supply chains by matching supply and demand more efficiently. Adopting circular economy principles worldwide can yield more than $700 billion annually for fast-moving consumer goods like food and clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. With nearly 300,000 local manufacturing jobs, the Bay Area is shaping technology-led sustainable manufacturing and also stands to benefit from this. According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, about half of Bay Area local jobs are in computing and electronics, but others areas such as food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, and clothing can also gain advantage.

The full cycle

The global drive for sustainability has reached new possibilities. Sustainable technologies are helping companies streamline operations from the beginning of the supply chain, through the production processes, and, finally, how it can be reused, recycled or safely discarded.

At the beginning stages of sustainable manufacturing, location tracking using RFID chips provides transparency on sustainable sourcing for goods and parts. Driverless truck platoons for transport and delivery may someday reduce fuel use.

High-tech advances

“Sustainable manufacturing creates products through processes that are economically sound, minimize waste and are safe for workers and consumers.”

In the production stage, significant advances have come from the internet of things — advances some are referring to as hyperefficiency. Data from networked sensors can be computer analyzed to find operational efficiencies to reduce energy use. Operations and automation technologies are now blending, albeit conservatively, with sensors, the cloud and connectivity devices for real time analysis and management. 3D printing, termed additive manufacturing, yields less material waste compared to traditional manufacturing techniques, which remove material to form an object.

New ways of thinking have emerged about the sustainable end of a product’s life. In the conventional linear economy, some 80 percent of materials wind up as trash. New technologies are empowering the circular economy, where recovery and reusability are paramount. For example, Apple is using disassembly robots to reclaim and reuse materials from its products. The World Economic Forum works to accelerate the circular economy through catalyzing public and private sector collaboration.

Green for all

New technologies have enhanced sustainability in manufacturing — and are themselves game-changers for how products are made. Sustainable manufacturing creates products through processes that are economically sound, minimize waste and are safe for workers and consumers. Importantly, sustainable technology is accessible for all sizes of businesses, not just large corporations.

As technology democratizes manufacturing, with tools such as 3D printers becoming available in dedicated spaces and even homes, educating individuals about sustainability principles alongside technical skills will become increasingly important for creating a capable, modern manufacturing workforce. Small and medium size businesses can access guidance like the Small Business Association’s Green Business Guide and the OECD Sustainable Manufacturing Toolkit to see how the sustainable technology drive can benefit them.

Sustainability is also good for business: The global market for sustainable business operations is expected to reach between $1.5 to 4.5 trillion by 2020. It has become a major force changing how society makes, consumes and, increasingly, reuses material goods. Businesses that embrace these technologies and rapidly transform their enterprises will set their companies on course for success.