Thought LeadershipMarch 3, 2021

Manufacturing a better world

Manufacturers harness virtual technology to power their progress on sustainability
Avatar Jacqui Griffiths

Sustainability is now center stage for businesses, as consumers and regulators demand products and services that support environmental, social and economic well-being. Manufacturers who can design and simulate their products virtually are reimagining their business models to protect the Earth’s resources and create new opportunities.

A transformation is underway at multinational aerospace firm Airbus. The company is reimagining its business to support environmental, social and economic sustainability – and green manufacturing is a key focus. For instance, Airbus is working to replace materials that emit volatile organic compounds, reduce water usage with advanced water discharge treatments and identify recycling opportunities throughout its manufacturing operations.

But at Airbus, the focus on sustainability reaches far beyond the factory floor. By leveraging virtual simulations, augmented reality and artificial intelligence to boost efficiency and collaborative innovation, the company aims to empower its people, partners and customers to contribute to a more sustainable future.

“The real challenge will be our future product and associated industrial system,” said Robert Nardini, senior vice president of manufacturing engineering at Airbus. “In that context, we have engaged in a significant company transformation program called Digital Design, Manufacturing and Services [DDMS]. It is built around the principle of co-designing products in the industrial system, looking for a global optimum by avoiding the classical sequential approach of engineering, manufacturing and then services. Our aim is to integrate the environmental dimension right from the start, covering the entire product lifecycle from manufacturing the aircraft to the end of its life.”


The International Energy Agency predicts an 8% fall in CO2 emissions occurred in 2020, due in part to reductions in local and global transport of people and goods.

Airbus illustrates a key trend among leading manufacturers who recognize that sustainability cannot be achieved by chasing fragmented, bolt-on targets.

“Experts around the world are talking about integrating sustainability at the level of values,” said Wayne Visser, professor of integrated value and chair in sustainable transformation at Antwerp Management School in Belgium. “That means changing the business model, putting sustainability in the strategic goals, redesigning products and services, and making sure it is part of a strong leadership drive and supply chain.”

Triggering Sustainable Transformation

Behind this trend lies a fundamental shift in the way manufacturing firms view sustainability, driven by intensifying consumer and regulatory scrutiny on environmental performance. Momentum was boosted in 2015, when the United Nations launched 17 sustainable development goals to engage the private sector in addressing global challenges.

Five years before those goals were approved, global consumer goods producer Unilever had already demonstrated the role that businesses could play in sustainability – and how sustainability could contribute to a more successful company – with the launch of its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Unilever credits its initiative with many business benefits, including growth driven by “brands with purpose,” greater trust in the brand among its consumers, and a supply chain that is increasingly future-proofed against climate change and other risks.

Most recently, any remaining doubts about the business benefits of sustainable processes were challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced manufacturers to find new ways of operating. As companies grappled with travel and operational restrictions, they also saw how doing things differently could generate real sustainability impacts. For instance, the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that provides policy advice, has predicted an 8% fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, to their lowest levels in 10 years, due in part to reductions in local and global transport of people and goods.

Those reductions are an example of Visser’s point that, wherever the “complex and evolving system” of sustainability breaks down, it also reveals “triggers for transformation.” For example, a globally dispersed supply chain in which manufacturing occurs where it’s cheapest – even if it’s done with coal-fired power and then transported great distances with even more CO2 emissions – is not only bad for the environment, executives realized during the pandemic. It’s also bad for manufacturing resilience when transport shutdowns stop the flow of just-in-time parts and materials. Addressing such issues, therefore, makes a business a better global citizen – and a more resilient business, by reducing the business risks of disruption.

The business case for sustainability is there. Customers will pay a premium for sustainable products and services, but it’s no longer enough just to claim that you’re sustainable

Wayne Visser, Professor of Integrated Value in Sustainable Transformation, Antwerp Management School

Proving Performance

As a result, sustainable manufacturing has moved from being a compliance exercise to a key competitive factor.

“The business case for sustainability is there,” Visser said. “Customers will pay a premium for sustainable products and services, but it’s no longer enough just to claim that you’re sustainable.”

Instead, manufacturers must be able to prove their sustainability claims, which means measuring and managing factors that include how much energy is used to make and move a product, whether that energy is carbon-based or renewable, whether the materials used to make it are sustainable, and whether the product is designed for easy recycling at end of life.

Digital technology – especially in the form of virtual experience twins that allow manufacturers to see and manage all of these factors in the computer, before committing any physical resources – is enabling manufacturers to integrate sustainability throughout the business, and to document what they have achieved.

In Barcelona, for example, electric vehicle developer QEV Technologies is using a cloud-based virtual experience platform to improve collaboration across the enterprise and with external automotive manufacturers, whom it helps transition to manufacturing electric vehicles. Having quickly outgrown the separate systems it used as a startup, the company needed to bring all its data together and make it simple to manage it.

Electric vehicle developer QEV Technologies uses a cloud-based virtual experience platform to lower costs and improve efficiency via concurrent design and engineering. (Image © QEV Technologies)

“One of the biggest things our engineers appreciate about the new platform is the guarantee that when they access information about a product or go to work on a design, they know they’re looking at the most recent version,” said Joan Orús, Chief Operating Officer of QEV Technologies. “As our team grew, we used to make mistakes using the wrong version of a part, losing us a lot of time and money.”

In making its business more efficient and profitable, QEV Technologies also is doing its bit for global sustainability. “We want to apply this technology to change the world,” Orús said. “We want to have clean cities. For us, it’s not just about developing the fastest, most expensive cars; we need to focus on lowering costs and bringing greater efficiencies to the wider mobility industry, and we can use our expertise to do that.”

Ultimately, being able to visualize the company’s role in environmental, social and industrial systems is the key to achieving sustainability goals and business growth.

Sustainability is about recognizing and mapping out the system you’re a part of and rethinking patterns,” Visser said. “It’s a collaborative undertaking that involves listening to stakeholders, understanding their concerns and needs, and changing the business model to include shared innovation across the value chain. When companies do that successfully, customers will go with them.”

Discover sustainable manufacturing innovations here.

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