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Making sustainable production a reality

It can be tough for manufacturers to find money to invest in sustainable production technology, but modern IT capabilities are making it easier.

Proponents of green manufacturing in the United States acknowledge manufacturer awareness and adoption of sustainable production technology has been low in the last decade, often falling short of the expectations of environmentally-savvy consumers.

"Here in the States, this has been an extremely slow process," said Tom Murray, senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Part of slowness is due to our current lack of regulations mandating greener practices and part is due to the difficulty of obtaining budget for new production technology that supports sustainability, Murray explained. If hard return on investment is not immediately promised, it is still difficult to justify this type of investment, he added.

The good news? Manufacturers, like every other type of company, stand to benefit from newer types of technology, including cloud offerings, for which greater sustainability is a happy side effect. Cloud, for example, reduces or eliminates the amount of hardware a company runs on premises, migrating transactions and processes to a provider for the sake of efficiency. Cloud therefore reduces a company's carbon footprint, or the amount of energy it consumes -- a major tenet of sustainability.

Moving toward sustainable production

Companies that turn off their own data centers, moving computing workloads to a provider, stand to benefit significantly, according to sustainability experts. "Cloud service providers' data center architectures are so optimized, and they are doing more and more to power those data centers with renewable energy and more sustainable sources of electricity," said George Favaloro, managing director of the U.S. sustainable business solutions practice at the Boston office of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Cloud computing companies are some of the most innovative applications of sustainability around. They do more than any individual manufacturer could do on its own," he said.

The EPA uses cloud itself, in the form of, said Murray. "We are practicing what we preach on cloud computing. is saving us loads of money" in terms of labor costs and power savings, he added. The EPA has also embraced webcasts as a way of getting its message out without requiring people to travel to an event.

Sustainable production means innovation

Murray has been working for the past 10 years to help U.S. manufacturers be more innovative and sustainable to remain competitive in the global marketplace. The EPA works with a group called Economy, Energy and the Environment (E3) that consults with manufacturers to foster sustainability. E3's Green Suppliers' Network promotes sustainability throughout manufacturing supply chains.

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Digital communications technology in general -- and collaboration platforms in particular -- are also potent methods of improving sustainable production. "If a large player wants all of its supply chain partners to start to tracking and managing their energy or water usage, it's a lot easier to do using distributed systems," said Favaloro. "You can put a template out there and the suppliers can use that template to report back. It's much simpler and more efficient than manual methods."

Certain industries are beginning to standardize and benchmark power usage expectations for their suppliers, added Favaloro. For example, in the electronics industry a group called the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC) shares power usage benchmarks on its website and has a Code of Conduct for members to follow.

The EICC's Environmental Reporting Initiative encourages electronics manufactures to share their carbon, water and waste indicators with the group to pinpoint opportunities for improvement. None of these activities would have been possible without Web and collaborative technologies, Favaloro said.

As a gradually rising economy begins to lift U.S. manufacturers, they may be more inclined to retool production processes to use green technology. "This is starting to grab hold very slowly," said Murray. In the meantime, by using IT to cut down on travel and track and disseminate resource usage data, they are going greener every day. 

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