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When less is more - making manufacturing clean, green, and lean

When less is more - making manufacturing clean, green, and lean

04-08-2021 | Insight
“Constraints have always been catalysts for catapulting innovation,” says Pieter Busscher, senior portfolio manager of the RobecoSAM Smart Materials Equity strategy. 1 Drawing parallels with historic innovations that led to the discovery of iron that defined the Iron Age and the steam engine that epitomized the first Industrial Revolution, Busscher explains how material and process constraints matched with human ingenuity helped foster breakthroughs that transformed civilizations and economies. That same spirit of innovation is alive within the Smart Materials Equities strategy and is helping Big Industry transform to the new, net-zero norm.

Speed read

  • Resource constraints and emission restrictions will squeeze manufacturing margins
  • New technologies are making industrial operations leaner and cleaner
  • Net-zero pathways should provide tailwinds for smart manufacturers

Material constraints that transformed civilizations

Constraints have always been catalysts for catapulting innovation

Busscher cites the substitution of iron for bronze as a classic example. When tin for making bronze ran short, metallurgists were forced to find alternatives, accelerating advances in smelting to separate iron metal from surrounding ores. Iron, a superior metal, ultimately supplanted bronze as production costs declined and supplies increased. A modern-day equivalent to the discovery of iron is the discovery of graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms.

Graphene is stronger yet lighter than steel. In addition to graphene’s strength, its ability to efficiently conduct electricity and heat makes it suitable for a wide range of commercial applications, from electric batteries needed to power cars, heat pumps and industrial generators to energy-efficient lighting in homes and buildings. Raw materials like graphene engineered in labs could replace the use of natural resources pulled from the Earth.

Innovations in processing that spawned revolutions

Nearly three millennia after the discovery of iron, constraints of another sort resulted in one of the most important innovations in history – the steam engine – ushering in the first Industrial Revolution. What mechanical power was for 18th century manufacturing, computing power is for the 21st century. With the rise of big data, automation and robotics, manufacturing has entered its fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact will be equally transformative across industry sectors.

IoT applied in the factory is revolutionizing production lines. Busscher says computer-aided software, factory automation and robotics are enhancing design, prototyping, and production phases. As a result, fewer materials are wasted pre-production, in-production and even post-production.

Impact innovations describe technologies that reduce the negative impacts of industrialization

Impact constraints – a 21st century conundrum

Traditionally, constraints have been focused on resource supplies and manufacturing productivity. But uniquely 21st century constraints are now emerging as centuries of environmental ignorance and abuse now require retribution and reprisal. Alongside pressure to scale up production, manufacturers will be pressed to scale down emissions, pollution and excess waste, the byproducts created in the process. Busscher uses the term ‘impact innovations’ to describe technologies that reduce the negative impacts of industrialization. He says companies in this space are helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions, recycle waste and using biomass to create materials and products that are easy on the environment.

Busscher emphasizes that while recycling has been practiced for decades, smarter recycling technologies are emerging to match the growing complexity and volume of society’s waste streams. He says electronic waste (e-waste) is already the fastest-growing waste category and much of it is heavily laden with base, precious and rare-earth metals needed to power the electronic devices of a digital economy as well as in the magnets and batteries needed for electrification and green power generation. Similarly, the volume and diversity of plastics has also increased as have recycling methods to retrieve reusable compounds.

Finally, advances in biomass and bio-based substances are helping reduce the need for fossil-fuel ingredients in many materials on which society depends. From large-scale bio-concrete and steel-strength timber to small-scale bioplastics and bio-adhesives, Busscher adds that biomaterials parallel the functional performance of their fossil-based counterparts but are less energy intensive when produce and more environmentally friendly when scrapped.

Smarter recycling technologies are emerging to match the growing complexity and volume of society’s waste streams.

Decarbonization pressures – squeezing margins, igniting innovation

The climate warnings of scientists and conservationists are now impossible to ignore and carbon emissions have become public enemy No. 1. Decarbonization is now a prioritized target within national economies as well as on geopolitical agendas. At least half of the G20 have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and a critical pillar in many national climate strategies is putting a price on carbon via taxes or carbon trading schemes (CTS).

Figure 1 | Rising carbon prices will increase production costs

Source: BloombergNEF, Bloomberg Green

The graphic illustrates historical (black line) and projected (blue) carbon prices within the EU carbon market (the world’s largest). Rising carbon prices is becoming an integral factor in company production costs and should induce companies to switch to cleaner and more resource efficient technologies.

As carbon prices increase, so too will the cost of production for heavy-emitting industries intensifying incentives to reduce their total emissions. To help stimulate R&D and accelerate time to market, the world’s biggest markets (the US, China, and the EU) have announced financial support over the next several decades to underwrite domestic investments in clean tech and infrastructure. As production ramps up and economies of scale are reached, the costs of low- and zero-carbon technologies will fall. According to the UN, by 2030, zero-carbon technologies could be competitive in sectors representing over 70% of global emissions.

Busscher stresses that the companies in which his fund invests are creating solutions that not only make manufacturing leaner but enable industries to shift to operating environments where pollution pricing and net-zero emissions are the new norms.  

Smart Materials investment clusters

The strategy invests in innovation diversified across the manufacturing value chain. Within the strategy, innovation is concentrated into four key investment areas:
1This article is based on a slightly longer paper with the same title.
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