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Razor Insights

Big Data and Sustainability

Written by Dr Tom Helliwell
Published on
Digital technology is the key to solving climate change. By using Big Data, we can drive sustainability goals in industrially intensive businesses.

Humans can use industry to completely reshape the world to our benefit – as we’ve seen over the Twentieth Century – but it comes at the cost of climate change.

Digital technology is one of our very best tools to solve this problem. Here’s what you need to know about using Big Data to drive sustainability goals in industrially intensive businesses:

  • Big Data is digital, yes. But not exclusively so - has a place in physical systems too
  • Passive data collection is useful, if you know which variables and data points to measure
  • There’s an easy case for investment in tech for sustainable manufacturing operations right now

Ready to learn more? Let’s go!

Big Data

Big Data is a tidal wave sweeping across the globe, with the volume of data increasing rapidly; according to the United Nations (UN), 64.2 zettabytes of data was created in 2020, which is a huge 314% increase from 2015. And by 2025, they predict that the amount of data generated each day will reach 463 exabytes globally.

This trend is not only going to continue, but increase exponentially. In fact, the UN says “the world’s capacity for storing information has roughly doubled every 40 months since the 1980s''. So, if that isn’t evidence enough that “data is the new oil” as Clive Humby OBE said, what is?

Passive is the way to go

Passive collection forms a huge part of our data output – it’s all of the data that is collected continuously when we all interact with our phones, our banks and our social media. It’s easy to collect because we can now store and process it more easily, and with less expense.

The core idea around Big Data, and the movement towards data in general, is the concept of measurement. Social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are great examples of this, where the focus is not solely on what we interact with, but also how we interact with them. This allows them to build up a model of each unique user, which is then used to drive further engagement and targeted advertising.

So, the question for us is: can we apply the same approach (continuous measurements) to processes and behaviours within our business operations? What happens when we do - how can we become superhuman alongside our machine friends?

Since Big Data is not limited to the software world, many manufacturing businesses have rapidly expanded their applications to physical systems. This allows them to monitor different properties of assets in real-time, continuously, and over long periods of time.

A brilliant example of the business impact comes from Siemens Gamesa, leader in the offshore wind industry. They have a fleet of assets – 10,000 wind turbines around the globe – each with more than 300 sensors that transmit an incredible 200 GB/day of data. Not only can they almost instantly see what is happening on a turbine back in their diagnostic centre in Brande, Denmark, but they can also understand the why – enabling them to anticipate the need for servicing months ahead and prevent unscheduled downtime. This transformative technology is now being installed for critical manufacturing assets and energy-hungry systems in organisations large and small.

Both for the sustainability themes of carbon emissions and that of saving energy, there are now more technologies available to passively collect this data, and understand your organisation in this context better than ever before.

The economic and political context

Back in March 2021, the UK government presented the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy (IDS); “this strategy sets out how industry can decarbonise in line with net zero while remaining competitive and without pushing emissions abroad.” Under the IDS, carbon emissions would reduce by at least two-thirds in 2035 and 90% by 2050.

Manufacturing is a significant contributor to GHG emissions, meaning that standards are likely to appear in the near-term. One of the issues that was identified by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC)’s report (released in Summer 2022) was that organisations are faced with an array of different carbon accounting standards as well as inconsistent language and terminology which is split over enterprise/organisation or product type standards. There is not an established ‘universal’ standard as of yet.

The HVMC’s report claimed that more than 40% of the UK’s consumption-based carbon emissions come from manufacturing and believes that there is a trend to move manufacturing offshore is being used as a shortcut to reducing overall carbon emissions. Through understanding the UK’s contribution we can encourage organisations to take steps towards understanding their own situation. Fortunately, the business case for doing so has already started to add up.

What does this mean for UK businesses?

Common concerns amidst the manufacturing industry include supply chain issues, skills gaps and the rising cost of raw materials compared to lagging sale prices. We’re also seeing a huge interest in sustainability, due in part to its financial implications, as well as the energy cost crisis we’re experiencing. This is not the only incentive however – access to finance for green investments and the potential for penalty-enforced regulatory requirements in the future.

We can far more accurately understand production costs by measuring the energy consumption of manufacturing processes. And now that they’re higher than ever before, the inclusion of this information helps with financial modelling and having an accurate understanding of product margins.

Creating a business case to invest in technology that enables sustainable manufacturing operations is easier than ever before. Great, but it still begs the question: how can manufacturers use data-intensive tech to address sustainability and energy use?

We’ve identified 4 key features that manufacturing companies can focus on, when it comes to improving sustainability:

  • A credible and accurate method for measuring carbon footprint.
  • A real-time view of resource and energy consumption and how this relates to commercial assets, their utilisation and product costs.
  • A method of collection, storage, analysis and reporting of this information to drive actionable improvements.
  • Digital product lifecycle management to encourage business models that implement the circular economy.

There are 3 immediate areas that can meet these requirements in order of difficulty:

  • Enterprise-wide visibility of sustainability KPI’s with real-time data.
  • Data-driven optimisation of processes and operations.
  • The strategic creation of data ecosystems across supply chains, geographical regions and industry sectors, so as to optimise the production and consumption of energy and minimise the generation of carbon emissions.

How it’s done

A frequent lament by manufacturers is; how do I get started with both reducing my energy consumption and modelling my carbon output? Closely followed by the assumption that it will take some serious investments.

Consider your entire enterprise – what's the first step in quantifying its sustainability credentials? If we take a manufacturing facility, typically made up of areas of storage, production, offices and areas for respite and rest, we can apply much of the thinking and work that has been developed for the monitoring assets industry at large and extend it into assets that are manufacturing-specific. We’ll quickly get the visibility and KPI’s we desire, if we present this data - whether it’s historical or real-time - to the right people.

The building industry itself has been busy working away in areas such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Building Management Systems (BMS). Whilst the BMS is a broader concept, taking into account everything from smoke and motion detectors, lift and access control, Building Energy Management System (BEMS) focuses exclusively on energy - surprise surprise! BEMS are computerised system-of-systems for monitoring and control in power, lighting, Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC). Although there have been a number of cases where such systems have supported a reduction in energy consumption when considered by manufacturing organisations, BEMS tends to overlook the power-hungry productive assets on the shopfloor. In this case, we would suggest a new system that includes both BEMS and energy-monitoring systems for productive assets.

Once you understand the typical power usage of a productive asset, it’s possible to map the scheduling to a forecasted power consumption. If you have a fixed or variable energy contract, you can then quantify the actual cost of energy for a given manufacturing process. In the case of single-piece flow, or batch production, this can be broken down to an energy-cost per part. In principle, this can go even further; using the current energy composition at the time of production to generate an estimate of the carbon-emissions released for a single product to be manufactured. It’s this visibility of energy consumption and carbon emissions which allows an organisation to begin investigating approaches for process and operations optimisation.

What about on the largest scale, where the question is, “how can we make sustainability more accessible and easier for everyone?”

Two words: data ecosystems.

We need to collaborate and centralise data into national clouds, share data between supply chain members, energy consumers and producers. If production is scheduled and energy use forecasted, we can optimise both by sharing data from each side. For example, when tackling carbon emissions, the main focus at a national level will be to utilise spikes in green energy (i.e when it’s windy).

The ambitious future of sustainability

Sustainability covers more than you might think: all businesses rely upon supplier organisations goods and services to in turn, enable them to offer their goods and services.

With that in mind, there’s now an emerging argument that this entire network is mutually accountable for the environmental and social effects of their activities. Which means they must commit to business practices which positively address these effects.

Digital Product Passports might just be the answer.

It’s an ambitious goal which requires a company to continuously monitor and audit implemented policies and procedures in suppliers and supply chains to increase their own ‘2nd order’ sustainability that extends beyond their immediate business.

How does this work?

Let’s take waste as an example.

Policy #1 = minimise all material that requires treatment, repurposing or disposal that is generated as a by-product of productive or operational activities.

Your solution = ➡ Eliminate all possible avoidable waste generation with revised products and better process design ➡ Reuse, recycle or otherwise repurpose remaining waste.

Policy #2 = products should be repurposed.

Your solution = ➡ Design and manufacture products in a way which allows you to repurpose them and maximise post-use recovery value. ➡ Give customers access to these services.

Data collection and storage is still a big challenge for many organisations due to: an inability to actually identify a first step and difficulties in establishing a viable means of acquiring data, alongside how it can be processed, stored, and consumed. A leader within an organisation needs to present a credible vision of how data can be used to drive efficiencies – whether that’s for sustainability or standard business.

The impact of the cloud on sustainability

The ‘blinking corridors of the data centre’ which make the digital industry possible have an environmental impact themselves. Some companies believe that simply using the cloud itself is a sure-fire way to help contribute to a reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions. This is because some cloud providers are consciously providing energy to these data centres from exclusively renewable sources. Some public clouds, many private data centres and most on-premise servers will use whatever the local energy composition is – often partially carbon-emitting so called “dirty” electricity grids.

However, when it comes to the intelligent utilisation of computer resources, cloud computing itself provides a role in reducing carbon footprint. This is achieved by allowing flexible scaling based on demand, adaptive sharing of resources, elimination of assets that would otherwise need management and maintenance. Cloud reduces the total cost of ownership in IT and has enabled new software applications that allow smart grids, smart buildings, optimised supply chains and carbon quantification.

A way of thinking about the cloud, now offering a full gamut of services from Instagram, to Google Drive to on-demand Simulation as a Service, is to remember it has an inherently physical manifestation – it’s the copper cabling, fibre optics, 5G towers, exotic cooling systems, power distribution substations and pylons criss-crossing our landscape. With that in mind, we must think like a scientist and entertain not just what the data in the cloud represents, but how it is manifest; in the flow of electrical currents, the rare earth metals that comprise the computer components, and the heat (a byproduct of computation) which partially addressed the noisy, turbulent, air flows of fans and air conditioning units.

Where does Team Razor apply sustainability?

We have a responsibility to care for and protect the environment in which we operate. We are fully committed to minimising the impact of our activities on the environment, which means we endeavour to:

  • Assess our organisational activities and identify areas where we can minimise impacts.
  • Minimise waste through careful and efficient use of all materials and energy.
  • Maximise recycling, through careful separation of waste.
  • Purchase sustainable products wherever feasible.
  • Encourage employee involvement in environmental action and promote a culture of environmental responsibility within the organisation
  • Reduce risks from environmental, health or safety hazards for employees and others in the vicinity of our operations.
  • Aim to include environmental and ethical considerations in investment decisions where appropriate.
  • Assist in developing solutions to environmental problems.
  • Continually assess the environmental impact of all our operations.

How do we manage, monitor and achieve these goals?

Our software partner, Microsoft, has taken a pledge to become Carbon Negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030, and by 2050 will remove all the carbon that the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975. This is the case across the hyperscale data centres maintained by the big names, as demonstrated in a Nature report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, back in 2018.

At Razor we put technology and our clients' ambitions together to develop strategic roadmaps that can deliver transformative business impacts with sustainability in mind.

Interested in what that would look like in your business?

Come and have a chat with our experts – we’re developing a sustainability framework for companies in production, manufacturing and other industrial processes.