Strategies for Manufacturing

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FROSCH R.A., GALLOPOULOS N.E., Strategies for Manufacturing, Scientific American, 1989

Type Article
Link pdf
Topics Circular Economy


When innovators have incomplete knowledge, their innovations may “lead to undesirable side effects”, e.g. on environment.

Already in 1989, these two authors contemplated this problem, and suggested to shift from the traditional process of industrial activity (raw materials used in individual manufacturing processes to generate products to be sold and waste to be disposed of) to an “industrial ecosystem”. An industrial ecosystem is a system in which “the consumption of energy and materials is optimized, waste generation is minimized and the effluents of one process […] serve as the raw materials for another process”. This shift must obviously involve manufacturers [--> a circular economy starts with the design phase], but also consumers: in fact, in order to foster the industrial eco-system, the latter have to i. recycle the products they purchase at the end of life, and ii. demand for products more environment-friendly (“If the industrial ecosystem approach is to become widespread, changes in manufacturing must be matched by changes in consumers' demand patterns and in the treatment of materials once they have been purchased and used.”). The two authors highlight that recycling involving consumers is more difficult than recycling during manufacturing. “An effective infrastructure for collecting and segregating various consumer wastes can dramatically improve the efficiency of the industrial ecosystem”. --> This effective infrastructure could be created through the IoT (think about the use of RFID for recycling: see Internet of Things – An action plan for Europe).

In order to create sustainable industrial systems, “important is the way in which the inputs and outputs of individual processes are linked within the overall industrial ecosystem. This linkage is crucial for building a closed or nearly closed system”. --> Today, this linkage could be made through IoT (think about the Supply Chain of Things: it might involve not only those actors which contribute to the creation of the final product, and not only the end-user, – as the Service-Dominant Logic suggests –, but also those actors which take care of recycling and reusing the products which are at the end of their lives, and the actors who use the effluents of one process of manufacturing as raw materials for another one). But for this we need a distributed data management infrastructure; otherwise, we won't create an industrial eco-system, but – at best – a series of industrial ecosystemS.

Regulations must become more flexible in order to not hinder the development of an industrial eco-system, and they must even introduce incentives for sustainable manufacturing and charges for pollution (acting on taxes, for example: even if some argue that this would be a market distortion; but the authors reply that taxes make environmental costs internal, and therefore – if tax reliefs and fees are set suitably – they would simply harness manufacturers' “competitive drive to reduce costs”, which is a general market imperative which leads businesses who don't respect it to perish, independently from the fact that pollution costs become internal). The two authors in fact underline that some existing regulations “make waste minimization more difficult than waste disposal” – for example because of the strict requirements associated with treatment of wastes – (--> example of existing challenging regulation); and that there are no direct advantages for manufacturers who try to be more sustainable (--> example of lack of a regulation which could foster circularity). Regulation should allow technological change, in order to be really effective in fostering an industrial eco-system.--> Policy-making is an across-the-board tool for fostering the economical, social and technical enabling factors of a circular economy (cf. with EEA report).

For the widespread diffusion of the concepts of industrial ecology, engineering and technological education should change in order to include them, and these concepts should also be recognized by governments, by industry, and by the media.

The authors state that the objective of an industrial ecosystem won't be attained soon, as “[c]urrent technology is often inadequate to the task, and some of the knowledge needed to define the problems fully is lacking”. --> This knowledge issue could be overcome through monitoring, and today this monitoring could become more deep and systematic through the IoT (as current technology, at least potentially, is adequate to the task).