Sustainability has moved from a topic of discussion to a business imperative. The Tech-Clarity survey on executive strategies reflects the impact of environmental, sustainability, and governance (ESG) on manufacturers. According to Tech-Clarity’s Jim Brown in Executive Strategies for Long Term Business Success, the percentage of companies that see ESG as critical to success has grown by double digits.

However, acting on sustainability goals is a challenge for businesses today. The critical thing to remember is that these questions and goals must be data-driven and addressed systematically to make decision-making a complex combination of leveraging and extending data traceability via the digital thread to operationalize sustainability.

Take a systemic approach to sustainability goals

There are many ways in which manufacturers can improve their sustainability. For example, they could focus on:

  • Buildings, vehicles, and similar items directly attached to the business
  • Product contents and impact on the supply chain
  • Product functionality affecting sustainability positively (or negatively)
  • Consumables like energy, water, waste
  • Energy consumption of a plant during operation
  • Impact of users on a product and how it impacts their ESG goals

Companies can focus on anything from green products to the energy transition to supporting circularity with new business models. There are infinite ideas and opportunities. These are often complex, confusing, and sometimes contradictory ideas and demands from multiple angles.

Manufacturers must start by building a corporate culture and enable methodologies that support sustainability goals and benefits. At this stage, a systemic approach is essential to navigating the complexity, relationships, and tough decisions needed to ensure progress. It is essential to set requirements and goals so that you can take a holistic view toward understanding how actions will impact the target and the business. After taking in all the various demands of their internal stakeholders, companies should develop specific goals that can be monitored and tracked. This Tech-Clarity eBook shares five ways to improve ESG results with a systems engineering approach:

  1. Develop sustainability requirements
  2. Focus on product sustainability
  3. Focus on manufacturing sustainability
  4. Focus on service and operational sustainability
  5. Tracing sustainability progress with analytics

Let’s look at these five ways a systems engineering approach can improve ESG results in a bit more depth:

1.    Develop sustainability requirements

The first step is to develop your requirements consistently using a systems-oriented approach to these challenges. Requirements should be based on tangible criteria, such as reducing energy consumption by X, extending a product’s useful life by X, or reducing transportation requirements by X, etc.

A systems-oriented approach allows companies to map sustainability requirements to product, procurement, manufacturing, and service plans and creates the structure to develop reporting and other metrics. With the help of enterprise technology, companies can collaborate on shared digital thread data, which can be viewed at varying levels of detail and in different contexts. This facilitates greater traceability and supports informed decision-making.

2.    Focus on product sustainability

When developing sustainable products, paying attention to product composition is crucial. For instance, engineers can refine designs by simulating design alternatives. This not only optimizes performance but also enhances sustainability. Engineers need to anticipate how choices in design, such as selecting specific materials, components or suppliers, will affect the overall product, considering more than just its sustainability aspect.

In focusing on design, it is essential to enable design for sustainability so that design decisions are made in the initial phase and not after the fact. The digital thread can be used to understand the implications of their design choice(s) on sustainability and to measure the impact on requirements. This implies that artifacts traceable via digital thread have sustainability-related properties that can be used in selection or comparison. While this information is not readily available today, many organizations are developing sustainability-related information services for various industries, such as Mindful Materials, which focuses on building designs.

Companies need to establish comprehensive digital threads. This will enable them to fully grasp the sustainability implications of their design decisions and accurately assess their impact on requirements. According to Jeff Stroh, senior director of Digital & Information Systems Management of McDermott International:

“We need to give engineers visibility to the impact of their decisions…Tools should provide feedback and suggest alternates, along with providing rules and guidance.”

3.    Focus on manufacturing sustainability

Designers have to ensure that manufacturing processes focus on the sustainability of their products. Production can significantly affect a company’s environmental footprint, including the energy, emissions, water, and supplies consumed and what was sourced into the BOM.

A systems-oriented approach enables companies to link their sustainability requirements to tangible products, procurement, manufacturing, and service plans. It creates a framework for developing reports and other metrics. Enterprise-wide technology allows companies to work on common digital thread data that can be viewed at different levels of detail and in various contexts, supporting traceability and decision-making. This level of transparency makes it an indispensable tool for companies striving to achieve their goals.

It’s important to understand that there will be manufacturing process trade-offs to be made. Determining the effects and compromises of manufacturing on sustainability depends on data. Manufacturers must gather, analyze, and broaden sustainability-related data from their laboratories, facilities, and supply chains. This enables them to model different manufacturing scenarios to navigate through complex decisions. For instance, firms might shift towards additive manufacturing to facilitate lighter products, yet this shift can significantly alter the impact on materials, mechanical properties, and energy consumption.

4.    Focus on service and operational sustainability

The environmental impact of a product extends far beyond its shipment or installation. Manufacturers must consider ongoing factors, including power consumption and emissions, during its operational life. An alternative strategy for boosting operational sustainability involves improving serviceability. This ensures eco-friendly service practices, extends the product’s usable lifespan, and supports implementing circular economy principles. Improving service also provides strategic benefits by becoming a trusted partner with customers.

Manufacturers must understand their product and how it operates as a system to improve sustainability. This needs an enterprise-wide digital thread and digital twins of the manufactured product. These models help makers test and improve their products to be more sustainable and meet other needs. By connecting a digital copy of the product to the internet, they can track its real-life use. This helps them make better predictions and decisions.

5.    Tracing sustainability progress with analytics

Manufacturers need to track their progress on sustainability to check if specific goals are met and to evaluate the outcomes of their decisions against standards across all areas. Reporting on these metrics is crucial to pinpointing and handling progress, challenges, and potential risks.

It is important to be able to report on requirement metrics to identify and manage progress, issues, and risks. Regulations and customer demand change. When changes are detected, engineers must be able to define sustainability requirement changes, assess their impact, and decide how to fulfill them optimally. Finally, reporting is critical to show compliance and document sustainability achievements for executives, investors, regulators, customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Tracing sustainability via Digital Thread

Establishing digital thread capable of tracing sustainability is an exciting endeavor that requires a thoughtful and comprehensive approach. We can achieve this goal by exploring every possible avenue and gathering data from various sources, including our supply chain and our own experiments. By analyzing this data, we can gain insights into how each decision and design tweak can impact the bigger picture and create a repository of reliable data valuable for sustainability reports and product passports. Note that different industries may have different data requirements. These can be easily addressed via a robust digital thread and the modeling capabilities in Aras Innovator®. Achieving this requires a collaborative effort that involves bringing everyone to the same page and automating documentation using cutting-edge technology. However, it is essential to remember that we don’t need to rely only on the latest technology available. We can leverage the tools and systems we already have, whether ours or part of the supply chain or third-party sources. We can achieve a comprehensive and holistic view of the ecosystem by combining data from various sources, such as PLM systems, project management tools, and quality management solutions. Establishing this infrastructure and ecosystem is key to ensuring a sustainable future.

Read the Tech-Clarity eBook here for more details on operationalizing sustainability with the digital thread.