Are Industry 4.0 and Environmental Sustainability Compatible?

Jan 29, 2021
5 min read

Introduction

Numerous studies have been carried out regarding the sustainability aspects of Industry 4.0 and its impact on the environment. We examine how classical technologies in the form of assembly line forms of production techniques employing automated robots to the latest technologies wrt additive manufacturing have impacted both the natural and the man-made environment. This impact results in a net positive impact or resulting in just the degradation of both the entities. We also explore in this blog post whether both, Industry 4.0 and environmental sustainability, can coexist or is it just an oxymoron. Both of these subjects seem to be poles apart while considering sustainability, but the truth is that looking from an optimistic viewpoint, environmental sustainability and 4IR need to be looked at with a fresh perspective, offering hope and a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Industry 4.0 is currently underway and is taking shape in the form of extension of the world wide web to computing devices and smartphones, and connecting all the devices that we use in every possible application, ranging from cars to transport mechanisms to education and e-learning. Leveraging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing, we are currently transforming the way of life on 'mother-ship earth' and creating a synergy with man and machine to catapult us to the next stage of evolution and growth. It is to be noted that this scenario creates a significant impact not only on the natural environment but also on the very social fabric that binds humanity together. Thus, the exploitative measures need to be re-fabricated to incorporate a sense of responsibility, a sense of belonging, and a sense of respect for all the kinds of resources that we use as factors of production, right from the human capital to the bounty of the earth. Environmental sustainability plays a huge role in Industry 4.0, and the main essence of this concept is increasingly adopted and practiced by people, both in work and other spheres. It is the need of the hour, considering the level of damage we have inflicted on our planet, and how to accelerate nature's healing process. By using the tools and processes that Industry 4.0 provides us, we can create a perfect balance with these two seemingly paradoxical entities, inferences that we have picked up from the 'great acceleration,' discussed in the first article of this series.

Possibilities and Solutions that Industry 4.0 offers

Concerning environmental sustainability, preserving mother nature, and helping our planet cope up and recover from nearly a quarter-century era of deep exploitation is the need of the hour. By contributing to our individual and collective efforts, we as human species, chiefly responsible for creating imbalances in the natural cycles and contributing to climate change, we can change climatic and societal transformations into a highly positive and profoundly transformation event of our history. So, what is the role of industry 4.0 in the context of the environment, its preservation, and healing? Industry 4.0 is giving us powerful and widely available tools so that we all can help spaceship earth to recover and restore its pristine beauty and glory. By realizing that we are not the only stakeholders of earth, but it also belongs to other species and living beings; we can end man-animal conflicts and create a web of new and balanced food webs and ecosystems, that take into account sensible use of resources and natural bounties.

Is This Kind of Utopia Possible?

Readers may raise questions about how to connect the ongoing industry 4.0 transformation and environmental sustainability so that both these aspects contribute to the well-being of the planet and ensure the fruits of both technology and nature are available to everyone. Simultaneously maintaining the natural balance and creating processes and techniques that help in optimal resource use lead to a better growth model that can replace the defunct economic model on the brink of a major upheaval.

Changing Mindsets About Production is the Key

With technologies like additive manufacturing leading the way from exploiting natural resources to their sustainable use, the fourth industrial revolution has already opened up new possibilities for us. Industry 4.0 uses resources in a way that redefines the efficiencies with which we currently operate, chiefly pertinent to capital resource-rich economies and lands where natural resources are in abundance. While considering sustainability, we also need to reorient our manufacturing processes as opposed to the entropy law, which states it is natural for any system to transform from a state of a high order to a high disorder. The entropy law implies it is natural for a system to go from a high state of order to disorder. But as suggested by the famous physicist Stephen Hawking, if the thermodynamic arrow of time reverses its direction and the universe starts to contract instead of expanding, will it reverse the order of the systems as well, i.e., will the systems transform from a state of high disorder to order, and we consume things first, and they can be manifested after they have been consumed? Is this the kind of healing touch we are looking for to stop the destruction of our natural habitats and prompt environmental sustainability? The same is the case with 3D printing, which is currently in a nascent stage but can be used to reduce, reuse, and recycle materials. With the resources available on the Earth, 3D printing can be used to put them in a high order of sustainability and efficiency, leaving near zero-waste, thus protecting and nurturing our planet.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability should also be seen as an act of re-balancing and the trade-offs that need to be carried out to achieve a near-perfect system in the near future. This is the dilemma that humanity has grappled with for ages, where we need to transform materials from one form to another, natural as well as man-made so that we find our "justification of existence." We need to assume the control of our resources in a way that deems it fit to transform any material, say, for example, plastic, into biodegradable plastic, and regulate the use of the resources in a manner that does not exploit nature. The same is the case with the tremendous amount of e-waste generated, chiefly produced by high income and middle-income countries. It is common to ship e-waste from low-income countries, where most of the e-waste is processed and set as a true example of reusing and recycling. Now, the time is ripe to achieve a high degree of sustainability, where such kind of e-waste is processed at the source of their use, rather than shipping it from somewhere else. Another pertinent example of this can be of satellite derbies that can threaten the existence of other in-use human-made satellites, in case-of a 'space race' and anti-sat warfare. This extends the reach of our sustainable practices to the realm of our immediate spatial neighborhood.

Looking Ahead

In the context of environment and sustainability, humans have to find a way that leads to a positive impact on both the natural and human-made environments. We need to find ways to expand our consciousness where systems related to factors of production work in tandem with all entities, both men and the machines, to devise ways that impact the sustainability aspect in a positive way. By transforming our production capacities, transportation capacities, way of living, and our association with both the animated and inanimate world, we can create a better and brighter future, making human impact a constructive one, rather than which leans on the exploitative side.