Engineers are able to make a huge contribution to all aspects of their company’s ESG footprint, and indirectly to influence that of their customers and wider society, by considering solutions not only from a technical and commercial viewpoint, but by also including ESG improvement as part of their design criteria. By challenging specifications and offering alternative solutions which achieve the same end goals with better ESG outcomes, engineers can have a pivotal and transformative role in the quest for ESG improvement.
1 Don’t over specify
Here the concept of marginal gains is key. By making a series of small improvements that, individually, have an negligible effect, significant performance improvements can emerge when their contributions are combined. Imagine if every embedded, desktop and server side computer consumed 1W less than is currently the case – that’s billions of devices, meaning thousands of megawatts saved, even before we start looking at other electronic devices such as communication switches, radios and so on. There is a valid argument that including additional capacity in any device specification provides protection against future upgrade requirements and so increases the in-service life that in turn has benefits for the end-of-lifetime impact. Here, engineers need to take a realistic approach to avoid over-specification, even allowing for future, unidentified requirements (which, of course, in many applications never actually materialize).
2 Don’t under specify
Equally important as the real-time resource utilization of devices is the total lifetime resource cost of ownership. Saving a watt on a device’s power consumption is a false economy if the fitted device is so unreliable that a maintenance engineer has to drive out to its location regularly to fix something. Truck rolls are expensive financially and environmentally, so spending more upfront to increase the in-service reliability of the overall system impacts positively on both its commercial and environmental cost. On the computer side, for example, this might involve overlooking commercial grade PCs in favor of industrial grade, fanless equivalents. Equally important is to consider what tools are available to enable remote management, upgrade and fault diagnosis of the implemented systems. Having and using such tools can significantly reduce both the lifetime environmental impact, and the operational costs of systems by reducing the need to visit the site, whilst at the same time having positive benefits for security, efficiency and manpower.
3 Think about edge gateways
One of the big questions when looking at a system upgrade from a sustainability perspective is ‘do you really need to replace everything?’
Disposing of waste has a significant environmental impact, and this is especially true in the electronics industry, which uses many relatively harmful or rare substances in the manufacture of products. In the industrial sector there are still a lot of older devices in service, produced at a time when the use of harmful materials was less regulated than today, and it is doubly important that these are dealt with properly.
Instead of replacing an entire system, could some parts be retained?– for example, a flowmeter on a pipeline, or a PLC controlling a local factory process might be working perfectly well, but be incompatible with a new communications system being implemented. Instead of replacing the legacy device, an edge gateway can be used to convert between the communications and data models of the two systems, allowing the legacy device to remain in service.
The notion of combining the function of several physical devices into a single edge device with a virtualised environment is already gaining a lot of traction in, for example, electricity substation applications, and it has substantial potential to bring efficiencies to other industries as awareness of the concept grows.
4 Embrace AI and ML Technology
Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), especially those in Machine Learning (ML) and Edge Inference are bringing the cost of implementing and deploying these technologies to the point where they are relevant within the design phase of almost any system or upgrade. AI can enable the continuous monitoring of machines, installations and processes, identifying negative trends in performance, or out-of-bounds conditions before they affect operational outcomes, thereby improving yields, utilisation and operational efficiency, all of which have a positive impact from an environmental perspective.
AI coupled to optical systems monitors and controls access to restricted or unsafe areas, limiting access to authorised personnel or vehicles through face recognition or automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). Boundary control improves safety by ensuring the shutdown of machines or processes should an unauthorised person enter a hazardous area. Detection and assessment of the number of people in an area feeds in to the environmental control systems, optimising the heating, ventilation and lighting for that area in real-time. Similarly, optical inspection, carried out more consistently and accurately by a trained AI inference edge device than by human inspectors, improving yields and therefore good environmentally, elevates the human role from one of repetitive inspection, to one of supervision, quality improvement and problem solving, resulting in higher levels of worker engagement and job satisfaction.
5 Consider sustainability
We often look at the environmental impact of the last trip the finished goods take, but fail to consider the environmental impact the supplier has incurred in bringing together the raw materials needed to manufacture the devices. Often, having manufacture close to the raw materials is a better option for the environment than having a short trip for the finished goods.
How does the manufacturer get the energy they need to make the devices? Are they located where electricity still comes from high-carbon sources, such as coal-fired power stations, or are their supplies from renewable sources? Are they taking their own steps to improve their environmental impact, for example by installing their own solar or wind energy generation? What are they doing to reduce the use of hazardous materials in their production processes? All of these are questions may be difficult to get meaningful answers to, but they are still worth asking to get a feel for how much environmental considerations are guiding the thinking of the suppliers being considered.