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Efficiency has always been a priority for manufacturers. A century ago, industrial engineer Frederick W. Taylor showed how to apply scientific methods to factory work. Similarly, the lean manufacturing movement is about wringing waste out of production processes while maintaining quality -- arguably, another precursor to today's more environmentally aware green manufacturing initiatives.
Lately, the impetus for wise resource use comes more often from well-funded pressure groups, concerned shareholders and foreign governments brandishing environmental regulations. That's why green manufacturing processes and their sibling, sustainability, are top priorities in most businesses. Green is not just good, it's pretty much mandatory in an age of unprecedented demand for renewable energy and intense debate over climate change.
The encouraging news is that corporate self-interest lines up nicely with the greater good. Using less water in manufacturing helps the environment and saves money. Reducing air pollution minimizes legal penalties and can even be a moneymaker through the purchase and sale of carbon credits. Then there are the public relations benefits: Rare is the company that won't tout its greenness in press releases and annual reports.
In addition to using fewer resources in production, many manufacturers have achieved a solid ROI from building their brands around sustainability, notably in consumer electronics. Enterprise software vendors are helping to automate these green processes by offering sustainability software that integrates with key processes such as procurement, product design and warranty management.
Experts say green manufacturing requires a detailed plan for sustainability that, perhaps counterintuitively, should start with nailing down compliance issues, then changing the corporate culture so that everyone is rowing the sustainability boat in the same direction. Sustainability must also be embedded throughout the manufacturing process. It turns out that a strategy that is itself sustainable can have some unexpected roots -- the methane gas emitted by cows, for example, which British confectioner Cadbury identified as the source of 60% of its greenhouse gas emissions.
Green manufacturing opportunities will be easier to exploit if the Internet of Things spreads cheap, ubiquitous access to real-time data around the world. The technology could very well become the nervous system of global sustainability.
Read more expert advice on green manufacturing
Learn about sustainability software
Understand the role of ERP