How sustainability can be a driver for digitalization

Sustainability is becoming an important driver for change in the industrial sector as companies look to improve profits while being safe and environmentally-conscious.

By Suzanne Gill May 18, 2023
Image courtesy: Brett Sayles

Digitalization insights

  • Industrial companies are turning to digital transformation to meet sustainability goals, which are becoming increasingly important to remain competitive in the market.
  • Digital transformation involves the integration of digital technologies to improve profitability, safety and environmental sustainability.

Industrial organizations are working hard to meet zero emission goals, implementing solutions that enable decarbonization and developing new technologies and processes to create circular economies. There is heavy investment in renewable energy solutions, electrification and carbon capture, plus a greater focus on energy efficiency and optimization and improved management of water consumption and waste. “The need to make step change improvements to meet sustainability goals has created a new driver for digital transformation,” said Julian Annison, digital transformation director at Emerson.

According to Annison, digital transformation can basically be defined as the application of the latest advanced technologies to solve problems and propel operational performance to new levels. It requires organizations to rethink their work practices and empower their personnel with the knowledge and tools they need to perform their jobs more effectively.

Annison argues that the implementation of digital transformation must be driven by a business strategy, be that to improve profitability, safety or environmental sustainability.

“Digital transformation can have a profound impact by creating opportunities for significant improvements across several key metrics, including production, safety, reliability, operator performance and sustainability. It can eliminate repetitive tasks and allow workers to focus on exceptions to normal operations, solving problems, and identifying opportunities for value creation.”

Making improvements

When it comes to making sustainability improvements, Annison says that organizations need to pinpoint exactly where they can be more sustainable and identify specific steps to make improvements. “Digital transformation can help to find these pain points – Data is critical as it enables informed decisions. Digital transformation takes existing data as well as insights from new sensors and makes them actionable, giving plant managers the power to detect issues before they arise, to mitigate problems and optimize operations. This same data can show trends and critical insights to help improve productivity, safety and reliability in not just one plant but across an entire enterprise. Having implemented changes, it is then possible to track and report on progress made. Data can be collected at every stage of production to discover which processes need to be made more efficient.”

He went on to explain that today there are a broad range of digital technologies available that can help manufacturers hit their environmental sustainability targets. These include emissions monitoring, control and reporting tools such as detection systems that rapidly identify leaks and provide real-time access to mission-critical data. Fully integrated solutions are available to reduce the flaring of gasses and to detect emissions, plus continuous emissions monitoring systems and certified flow meters for CO2 emissions reporting. Technologies once considered out of reach by many organizations, such as digital twins, artificial intelligence and machine learning, are now much more affordable.

“Environmental sustainability strategies are a critical issue for industrial manufacturers and a new driver for digital transformation, but it is not the only compelling reason for the integration of digital technology in all areas of a business, continued Annison. “Industrial organizations are under constant pressure to remain competitive by improving their business performance, and this is still the fundamental challenge driving digital transformation. Companies realize the importance of embracing the rapidly changing digital landscape if they are to reach or maintain top quartile performance.”

Increased profitability

Expanding digital intelligence throughout a plant can help increase productivity and profitability by reducing process variability and energy consumption. It allows engineers to anticipate equipment failures early to minimize unscheduled downtime and increases safety by reducing operator errors. It also enables organizations to improve their environmental sustainability, which is becoming an increasingly important consideration. Companies are facing progressively tighter limits on greenhouse gas emissions, carbon taxes, the need to comply with existing and new environmental legislation, and exposure to litigation in the event of compliance failure. In addition to these regulatory demands, there is also an ethical drive for increased environmental sustainability.

“An organization’s digital transformation journey can start from any point,” Annison said. “There is the option to begin small, perhaps addressing a key issue such as pump health at a single facility and then building from there. Alternatively, it is possible to explore company-wide programs across a full impact area, such as reliability, safety or sustainability. It is, however, advisable to start by identifying your most pressing challenges — the nagging issues that are affecting your operational performance — as these will represent opportunities for immediate improvement and a quick return on investment. These issues can be broad — such as too much unplanned downtime — or as specific as pressure relief valve problems. Determine the specific problem areas and then apply proven, scalable and secure digital solutions that will directly address those issues. This is a sure way to achieve results from digital transformation initiatives.”

In conclusion, Annison highlighted that digital transformation is also about people as well as technologies, and it involves combining digital technologies with workflow, process and cultural changes to facilitate operational improvements. “This requires a clear strategy, based on a company’s key business objectives,” he said. “If that is in place, digital transformation can be a game-changer in terms of exploiting technology and expertise better than ever before, to deliver performance optimization.”

Driving change

Gareth Jones, local division manager for drive products and system drives for motion at ABB agrees that, when it comes to digitalization, sustainability is without a doubt very high up the list of priorities. “We are seeing more and more emphasis placed on it almost on a daily basis,” he said. “I believe there are several drivers behind this – Firstly, there is now widespread acceptance that urgent action on climate is required. Not a week goes by without a new weather record being broken somewhere in the world, and it is clear that maintaining the status quo is simply not an option any more.”

Meanwhile, the global energy crisis is also focusing minds on sustainability issues. “Where previously if a company wanted to reduce their electricity costs they could shop around for a cheaper deal, now there are no cheaper deals, and so the focus needs to be on improving the energy efficiency of what we already have,” Jones said.

Upgrading legacy equipment comes with an upfront cost, yet increasing energy prices have, paradoxically, made the business case for energy efficiency even more compelling. “Payback times that used to be measured in years are now becoming viable in a matter of weeks or months, and so applications that previously were too expensive or difficult to upgrade are now becoming viable, and will very quickly make back the initial investment through reduced energy costs,” said Jones.

“Even in industries where sustainability was traditionally low down the list of priorities, people are now asking questions of their suppliers about  how recyclable the equipment is. These are conversations that simply weren’t happening 10 years ago, and it goes to show that there is an increasing expectation among customers that products have to be greener and more sustainable. Investors also increasingly want to invest in green companies, or companies that have plans to be green. To that end, the value of a business is now impacted directly by how credible their plans are to operate in a lower carbon world.”

In response, ABB’s Energy Efficiency Movement has been developed to help organizations find the hidden energy saving opportunities across their facilities, while also providing the framework to support them in developing a realistic plan to reach Net Zero.

Jones believes that the role of energy managers is also changing within the industrial sector. “These are now very senior roles, often reporting directly to board level and their remit is growing. They are now essentially ‘change managers,’ managing the transition towards decarbonization across all aspects of the business — from operations to fleet management,” he said. “Another major driver is technology, and specifically digitalization. There is no such thing as too much information in industry, and advances in sensor and analytics technology, underpinned by developments in cloud computing and digital connectivity, are now enabling application-specific insight and data-driven decision-making on an asset-by-asset basis.”

Digitalization facilitates granular analysis of a motor’s condition and energy performance by using smart sensors to measure actual performance directly and continuously, without the need for manual inspection. This allows minor problems such as overheating or excessive vibration to be detected and rectified before they turn into major failures, helping equipment to last much longer while saving time and money. To put this in context, replacing a worn bearing on a motor is typically a one-hour job, yet a major rewind caused by a bearing failure can put a motor out of action for several days, or mean that it must be replaced entirely.


It certainly appears that sustainability has recently become one of the key drivers of digital transformation in the industrial sector, due to the significant gaps that need to be closed and pressures faced by organizations to meet environmental targets. It also looks to be the driver with the most funding to implement change.

– This originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website.

Author Bio: Suzanne Gill is editor, Control Engineering Europe.