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How Automation Aids Sustainability?

As humanity explores ways to accelerate the achievement of sustainability, automation presents great potential. If used correctly and conscientiously, we can mitigate negative impact, otherwise we may be accelerating the pace of destruction.

Automation exists in various forms that are not entirely mutually exclusive-- manufacturing automation uses machine and software technologies to takeover mundane or repetitive tasks in the production process, while intelligent automation exists as a mix of artificial intelligence (AI), business process management (BPM), and robotic process automation (RPA) to handle data-driven, decision-making tasks.

In its various forms, automation undoubtably has the power to remove inefficiencies caused by human error, improving speed of delivery and quality of deliverables. It also frees up capacity to take on more creative and value-adding work. But what does that mean for sustainability?  

Where automation can reduce error, it can reduce waste. In the manufacturing space, the ensured quality of automation prevents raw materials from being invested into products that will ultimately be scrapped as defects. In 2021, the WEF estimated that $861 billion is lost per year due to poor quality in goods—consider the raw materials and the energy and resources wasted to extract and process that amount. At a basic level, automation can help to reduce significant losses caused by errors that take place at the production level.  

Intelligent automation goes a step further by identifying patterns and problems to optimize and forecast for production. The predictive functions help to tackle waste from the planning stage and stop unnecessary production from taking place from the get-go.  

Automation can also help to support industries crucial to sustainability, such as recycling, increase capacity to carry out integral functions such as waste sorting.  

However, automation is a double-edged sword. While its potential is vast, unchecked, it can have adverse effects on the environment. Firstly, the construction and use of automation technology requires electricity, which depending on the power source, could drive up carbon footprint. Secondly, demand for such technology could lead to further exploitation of natural resources for production and subsequently, new challenges for recycling and waste management. Finally, as automation helps to scale up manufacturing, the risk of irresponsible production and consumption practices grows too.  

As we harness the power of automation, it is thus imperative that we do so with proper sustainability objectives and frameworks in place.  

<div class="story_highlight">Research is based on information from World Economic Forum.</div>