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6679ae3a01b5bc9f89e21a13 Sustainable Is Profitable Esg

Sustainability Isn’t Hard: You’re Already Doing It

June 25, 2024
Reframe your ESG policy as serving profitability.

Whether you’re a CEO begrudgingly addressing sustainability for shareholders and regulators or a plant manager tasked with greening operations and not knowing where to begin: You’ve probably already begun and just don’t realize it.

That’s one of the chief lessons Eryn Devola, head of sustainability for Siemens Digital Industries, handed down to manufacturing leaders at Realize Live 2024 in Las Vegas earlier this year.

A mechanical engineer by training, Devola designed parts and did quality and reliability work in the white goods industry at the beginning of her manufacturing career. She then took a plant manager position at a Siemens facility that manufactures train controls, wayside equipment and anything you might see at a railroad crossing.

Devola’s challenges included better understanding process flow, running a lean program to reduce scrap and eliminating processes that required hazardous or environmentally unsound substances, all smart business practices meant to increase efficiency, productivity and profitability.

Devola didn’t realize until much later that carrying out these business practices also was like taking a master class in sustainability. In her experience since, profitability and sustainability overlap most of the time.

We sat down with Devola at Realize Live to discuss sustainable operations, circular design and how manufacturing leaders can view sustainability as an opportunity, not an onerous obligation.

IndustryWeek: Which industries currently best achieve sustainable operations?

Eryn Devola:Where you see the most sustainable operations are those [industries] that are just coming online now, those that are able to take advantage of technology that’s available today that may not have been available 20 years ago. You see some of that in some of the EV factories that they’re retrofitting, [but] where you’re making greenfield investment, you have the greatest opportunity to impact that at the beginning. Batteries, semiconductors, some of the EV manufacturing within automotive, those are some places where you see them really see achieving great efficiency and great strides in their sustainable operations.

IndustryWeek: So which industries best practice circular economy?

Devola: It’s not necessarily one company. It’s usually a series of companies coming together to complete an entire value chain or to make a circle.

You really do need to work with partners … This is something we’re thinking about in our own hardware portfolio. … What are the next lives for the products we’re making now and then is that something that’s in our core competency, to collect them, to refurbish them? Or, is it something we want to partner with people on? Maybe it’s logistics that we want to partner on, maybe [for] some of our bigger equipment it makes more sense for us to bring people on site. All companies are grappling with this.

IndustryWeek: Which industry has best discovered secondary and possibly tertiary uses for resources?

Devola: We’ve given a lot of thought now to decarbonization and the energy system. The thinking on circular economy is still coming. Really being able to design something, knowing what its next life is going to be when I design it, this is just starting to happen.

If your product has a 15 year life cycle, that problem is still 15 years from now, how to actually collect it or refurbish it or repurpose it in that time frame. … How can I design it to be easy to disassemble? How can I design it to be modular and upgradable? That I can solve today, and some of those other pieces will come as we mature. … It’s hard to see who’s doing it perfectly now because to do that, you’d have to have already been planned it 15 years ago, and we just weren’t thinking in this way.

IndustryWeek: How does modularity play into sustainability efforts, exactly?

Devola: Simplicity usually blends to modularity. So, when you think about “How simple can I make this design?” If it’s simple to pull a piece out, to put a piece back in. … We love to customize everything, and that that customization makes it much harder to have a clear waste stream that you’re trying to work through and manage if the waste looks different, and every time you do it.

We’re starting to see a lot of this as some things go more electrical. I used to work in appliances, so take my dishwasher [as an example]. I don’t need a new tub and I don’t need a new pump [but] maybe I want a new skin for the outside. Maybe I want to take out a control and put in a new control. If I design that dishwasher in a modular way, I can upgrade my existing product, get the value the customer really needs, and not waste resources on things that are unimportant – the tub, the wire harness, things that really don’t provide any direct customer value.

IndustryWeek: How do we draw a connection between practical plant management and sustainable operations if they are, as you say, just beginning?

Devola: The first thing is, you’re already doing it. The biggest thing I could tell a plant manager who’s nervous about starting, and they hear sustainability – their CEO has somewhere committed to some sort of sustainability target – is there’s a good chance you’re already doing some of this by reducing waste and getting rid of waste. Whether this is in your throughput, whether it’s in your scrap production, whether it’s in eliminating a substance that you don’t want to have to manage anymore. All of these things help you become more effective. They also help you become more sustainable.

If you feel like you’ve already become as energy and resource efficient as you can within your operation, then it becomes a little bit about looking outside your walls. How are you moving products to you or from you? What do your distribution channels look like? How far are you moving things? What type of suppliers do you have? What type of equipment are you buying [and] what’s the [carbon] footprint of that type of equipment?

IndustryWeek: If manufacturers are already pursuing sustainability practices and it’s just a matter of reframing the discussion, and if manufacturers groan about having to pay attention to sustainability when they first acknowledge the need to, would dropping the “sustainability” label serve everyone?

Devola: I think it’s about framing … educating people that when you’re saving 30% in energy costs, you’re also saving CO2 unless you’re already fully on renewable. Being able to put the benefits in the context. We have customers who didn’t realize, or sustainability wasn’t the motivation for the project, when we say to them, “You’ve got this operational cost reduction target. This also gives you CO2 benefit.”

We’ve had a couple customers say, “I didn’t think about it that way, and now this will help me sell this internally, because I didn’t know how I was going to tackle this CO2 target I was getting from my management. You’ve helped me see that I’m doing these two things actually simultaneously.”

It’s helped them get more clarity, more funding for things that they’re looking to do anyway. And so, that’s a huge education we’re trying to drive from our side…to acknowledge and quantify the differences [manufacturers] are already making.

About the Author

Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca is a veteran technology journalist with particular experience in vision system technology, machine learning/artificial intelligence, and augmented/mixed/virtual reality (XR), with bylines in consumer, developer, and B2B outlets.

At IndustryWeek, he covers the competitive advantages gained by manufacturers that deploy proven technologies. If you would like to share your story with IndustryWeek, please contact Dennis at [email protected].


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