Sustainable Manufacturing Through Obsolescence

Sustainable Manufacturing Through Obsolescence
Sustainable Manufacturing Through Obsolescence

The amount of worldwide e-waste generation is expected to exceed 50 million tons by 2020. Americans specifically, throw away an estimated 55 billion USD in e-waste material each year. This article explains how manufacturers can achieve sustainable manufacturing through obsolescence management.

The US Department of Commerce defines sustainable manufacturing as, “the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities and consumers and are economically sound.” For plant managers wanting to meet these criteria, they’ll need to look far beyond optimizing the efficiency of their equipment, but consider their machines’ entire lifespan, from assembly to disposal.

Most of the discussion on e-waste revolves around consumer electronics like phones and laptops, but improper disposal of industrial parts such as robots, controllers and motors have just as damaging effect on the environment. So, how can manufacturers keep pace with technological advancement while moving towards sustainable manufacturing practices?

Technology is evolving at an increasingly rapid rate. Consequently, parts, components and even whole machines are becoming obsolete much quicker than before. One part becoming obsolete in a factory, could result in a plant manager sourcing an entirely different alternative. In turn, peripheral healthy equipment may no longer work with the new part, and therefore need replacing also. Where these parts end up is part of the e-waste epidemic.

Sourcing an exact replacement for a broken part, to prevent the unnecessary waste of healthy parts, could reduce this issue, but relies on factories having an obsolescence strategy in place.

Planning is essential in developing a long-term obsolescence strategy — to achieve sustainable processes and avoid unnecessary revenue losses. A manufacturer should take note which of their existing components should be replaced or repaired before the need for an immediate upgrade.

Some manufacturers might deem it necessary to write off the entire system when a part breaks down, but this often isn’t necessary. Instead of implementing a costly overhaul, manufacturers could implement a replacement plan that takes account of the financial effect, downtime and environmental impact of a change to equipment. This approach could significantly reduce the e-waste that a facility generates.

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is an analysis technique to assess the environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life. This is a good place to start when implementing an obsolescence strategy. When equipment fails or breaks down, manufacturers should opt for a used or reconditioned part rather than buying a brand-new motor, for example. Reconditioned parts offer huge cost savings and a positive environmental impact, especially if one component replacement saves an entire machine from obsolescence.

Sustainable manufacturing looks to minimize waste and reduce environmental impact through the reduction of energy use, water use, emissions, and waste generation. Obsolescence management is an integral part of this waste management process and could significantly reduce the amount of e-waste that is disposed of annually in the US. It comes down to assessing current systems and resources, conducting risk analysis on all parts and securing access to obsolete spares.

About The Author


Mark Howard is the US country manager for EU Automation

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