Technological advances in manufacturing and supply chain management are creating highly valuable opportunities for a more sustainable manufacturing industry. These advances can help organisations reduce carbon emissions, but they can also cut costs, streamline processes, improve customer service and open up new markets.

“Industry 4.0 is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It enables advanced manufacturers to connect big data and analytics with automation and robotics, improving cost, productivity, profitability and operations.”
Queensland Government, Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing & Water

A plethora of advanced technologies continue to emerge – sensors and telemetry, artificial intelligence (AI) or machine intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, digitalisation, quantum software and programming, blockchain technology, cloud computing, internet of things (IoT), nanotechnology, robotics, 3D printing, design in manufacturing, cybersecurity and sustainable manufacturing processes.

Sustainability benefits of advanced technologies

Technological advances are being applied in multiple ways to create more sustainable manufacturing processes, organisations and economies. Here are just a few examples of uses and potential benefits:

  • Online and wireless sensors, when used in conjunction with real-time data analysis software and statistical analysis methods like lean manufacturing and Six Sigma, can help control manufacturing processes, reduce costs, improve quality, and eliminate waste.
  • Machine learning algorithms can help recognise and improve quality by recognising defects straight away, and with continuous learning, optimise processes and minimise waste.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) can inform and accelerate efforts to design out waste and pollution, optimise circular economy business models and streamline infrastructure needed to keep materials in use.
  • Blockchain technology can provide a transparent and traceable ledger which can help both to identify counterfeit or illegal goods and provide credibility for sustainability certification as well as demonstrate regulatory compliance.
  • IoT technology can help monitor the temperature in factories and modulate and regulate the use of electricity to maintain a comfortable temperature for employees without wasting electricity. IoT technology may also identify when machinery can shut itself off between products to save energy.
  • Design for sustainability helps to improve resource efficiency, disassembly, and re-manufacture of items to enable a circular economy. Investing in the capability for local materials recovery and re-manufacture or recycling can help build supply chain resilience and sustainability. This is particularly important for critical input materials required for manufacturing. E-waste may be a particular area of investment.
  • Robotics can help with assembly and disassembly, streamlining processes and enabling better recovery of materials.
  • Nanotechnology and other material sciences can lengthen the life cycle of a product through protective modifications to a product or smart materials. One example is using enhanced coatings that make a product more durable, water-repellent, self-cleaning, self-healing or resistant to corrosion. Advances in nano-technology manufacture can also lift the performance of products and minimise waste in manufacturing.
  • Augmented and virtual reality can reduce the need for teams in multiple locations to travel and thus lower their ecological footprint. In combination with photo-realistic rendering capabilities, it can also reduce the number of physical prototypes and thus cut material waste.
  • Bio-engineering fields such as 3D printing biomaterials, genetic engineering, cybernetic medical devices, robotic biomechanics, and neural engineering can create new possibilities, improve outcomes and feed into research and development processes.

Manufacturing illustration

Governments are promoting advanced manufacturing

Cover of QLD Advanced Manufacturing PlanThe Queensland Advanced Manufacturing 10-Year Action Plan and Road Map highlights several areas of targeted support required to transition to a more sustainable industry. These aims for manufacturers include:

  • Lift awareness of advanced manufacturing technologies (including robotics and automation, digitalisation, virtual and augmented reality, and nanotechnology) and world-best practices
  • Understand the real cost of purchasing new technology
  • Identify the cost savings achievable through the adoption of world-best practices in areas such as digitalisation, design in manufacturing and sustainable manufacturing
  • Build the expertise for using new technology to increase productivity and competitiveness
  • Implement new technologies and practices in a way that aligns with current business capabilities, existing and future required skill sets, and identified goals
  • Benchmark performance, pre-and post-advanced manufacturing technology investment, against international best practices.
  • Quantify the value of technology investment
  • Improve information communications and technology literacy.

The NSW Government also has a plan, the NSW Advanced Manufacturing Industry Development Strategy (pdf). Victoria does too: Made in Victoria 2030: Manufacturing Statement (pdf). In addition, the federal Australian Government is promoting the growth of Advanced Manufacturing in Australia.

How to take advantage of advanced manufacturing opportunities

Because advanced manufacturing is seen as a priority, a range of help and information is available. For example, the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) is a national organisation that aims to transform Australian manufacturing. It co-funds innovation projects, provides helpful resources and offers free education via its Manufacturing Academy.

For manufacturers based in Queensland, regional Manufacturing Hubs provide advice and support related to advanced manufacturing. You’ll also find regional councils and industry bodies promoting sustainable business and advanced manufacturing precincts, such as Advanced Manufacturing in Moreton Bay.

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If you’re in NSW, the state government is investing in an Advanced Manufacturing Research Facility in Western Sydney, due to open in 2023. It aims to connect manufacturers with the latest technologies and create opportunities to translate ideas into products through practical research.

Other organisations research the potential of specific technologies, such as CSIRO’s Lab22, which is developing metallic 3D printing to streamline manufacturing processes. On-demand, custom 3D printing can improve sustainability by radically reducing transport and storage. It can also improve customer service. For example, read about how Lab22 helped a Perth-based company manufacture 3D-printed bicycle parts.

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If you live in other states or countries, search online for ‘advanced manufacturing’ to find government strategy statements and support resources. It’s also advisable to research possibilities for your specific industry. A good way to do that, as well as networking with other manufacturers, is to review case studies of how advanced technologies are being applied. Look for evidence of new technologies boosting environmental and economic sustainability, and explore the potential of advanced manufacturing for your organisation.

Industry case studies

Industry links for further information

Related Green Street Resources

Edited and updated by Carolyn King based on an original research article by Margaret Brownjohn.