Nowadays, digitalization covers all the areas of our lives and promises ways in which it can improve them. That also applies to the current ecological challenges. According to a white paper from the consulting and market research company IDC, information technology and data are important levers for achieving sustainability – especially in manufacturing companies. The basis for this Microsoft-supported study was a survey of 150 decision-makers from German companies in process manufacturing and discrete manufacturing who are responsible for sustainability-related measures and strategies. Another of its findings is that industrial companies with a high degree of digitalization can implement sustainability initiatives much more quickly. To do so, they generally need less than twelve months, and often even less than six. In contrast, IDC estimates that companies with a lower level of digitalization need one to two years.
Its study also found that making optimal decisions in terms of sustainability requires a comprehensive and holistic digitalization approach that takes as many data sources as possible into account. The topic is complex, after all – hence the need to examine information from a variety of areas, such as production, logistics, sales or suppliers. Anyone aiming to tackle sustainability in their company should therefore have a platform where all this data is collated. In the ideal scenario, that platform is based in the cloud. The IDC white paper suggests that these types of platforms need to be as flexible as possible so they can be adapted quickly to constantly changing requirements and general conditions. Experts hold that cloud architectures are the best foundation because they “offer the necessary agility and can be scaled flexibly”.
Data from globally distributed suppliers that play a role in sustainability can also be collected on a central platform in the cloud. Here, IT experts talk about a “data lake” into which all this information flows. When Germany’s Supply Chain Due Diligence Act comes into force in the coming year, these sorts of concepts will become even more relevant.
However, companies can also access services via the cloud – for example, to increase their energy efficiency in production. Such services come from well-known IT providers, but also from technology corporations or mechanical engineering firms that actually use the cloud platforms of the major providers themselves. Bosch, for instance, has developed an energy data management system that runs on Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure. The German company’s industrial customers can use the system to determine, compare and optimize the efficiency of their machinery and locations. In technical terms, the Bosch platform is capable of things like regulating hall ventilation based on current needs, using waste heat from various production processes and managing system shutdown.
Bosch also uses the platform for its own production locations, including its plant in Homburg. There, sensors are installed in the systems on an assembly line for diesel injection valves to measure energy and resource consumption. The data is transferred to the cloud and analyzed. This makes it possible to identify and capture potential energy savings in compressed-air control, for example. Artificial intelligence (AI) is playing an increasingly important role in evaluating this and other data. In fact, the more data is available, the more difficult it is to process it without the help of AI. Corresponding systems are also used in optimizations that can be put into place after analysis in areas like production. Alexander Britz, a sustainability expert at Microsoft, therefore regards AI as one of the key technologies in the field of sustainability.
As an example of the added value of AI, he cites the Microsoft building at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The company uses an IT solution there which, according to Britz, helps reduce the site’s energy consumption by 20–25 percent every year. “After this system had been in operation for several years, we ran AI software on it, which helped us save another 15 percent,” Britz reports. Just like other suppliers, his company provides easy-to-use AI services via the cloud. They are also designed for companies that would otherwise lack the expertise or infrastructure required to use this technology.
However, it’s not always necessary to use artificial intelligence. Although Professor Berend Denkena believes that AI from the cloud opens up a wide range of possibilities, “I always argue in favor of starting with the low-hanging fruit – including in the field of sustainability,” he declares. Professor Denkena is the speaker of the presidential committee of the Scientific Society for Production Technology (WGP) and head of the Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Tool Machinery (IFW). He points out that there are ways to visualize machine energy consumption and tool wear without using highly complex models that call for computing power from the cloud. “Cost-benefit analysis is often neglected in the field of digitalization. However, you should always take a close look at how high the costs of a solution are and what benefits it will actually bring,” says Prof. Denkena.
Computing power is a crucial aspect when talking about the connection between digitalization and sustainability. After all, IT tools may provide important support for a sustainability strategy, but they also use a huge amount of energy themselves. Although companies can reduce their own consumption by drawing IT performance from the cloud, this suggests they are simply outsourcing the problem. The energy they save is then devoured by the huge computing centers of the service providers.
The providers dispute this, however, claiming that the concept makes sense even from the environmental perspective. “If we as cloud providers aggregate the IT needs of our customers together in our infrastructure, we can be far more efficient and achieve a much higher level of IT utilization,” explains Constantin Gonzalez, principal solution architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS). He compares this with the effect of sharing a car with several people, which is more sustainable than maintaining a vehicle of your own that spends most of its time in a parking lot or your garage.
Moreover, the business model of the cloud providers concentrates on offering IT services on a huge scale. Improving energy efficiency – and thereby reducing power costs – can have a direct impact on the final result. For this reason alone, the providers have an interest in using suitably optimized technology. This means, for example, that they utilize efficient, state-of-the-art server technologies. The software on these servers is also fine-tuned to operate in the cloud. In a study, AWS has calculated the advantages of the cloud for Europe as a business location. If you run business applications on AWS instead of in on-site corporate data centers, you can reduce the associated energy consumption by up to 80 percent and the carbon dioxide emissions by up to 96 percent. To achieve this, however, AWS must draw 100 percent of the power from renewable sources. That should be the case by 2030 at the latest. “At the moment, it looks like we should achieve that target by as early as 2025,” declares Gonzalez.
Other cloud providers are presenting similar figures. Microsoft has even developed software that shows the greenhouse gas emissions linked to using the company’s own cloud services. The program also allows customers to enter their computing activities that have not been relocated to the cloud. On this basis, they can obtain an estimate of how much they could reduce their emissions by migrating to the cloud. Anyone interested can thus calculate how the cloud contributes to sustainability.
Microsoft Emissions Impact Dashboard
is a freelance journalist and editor for VDE dialog.