Impact of Digitalisation on Environmental Sustainability in Manufacturing Systems

Abstract: Manufacturing companies are striving to improve productivity and reduce the environmental impacts of their activities. Meanwhile, digitalisation plays an important role in increasing productivity and has a profound impact on the environment of manufacturing systems. It is unclear whether digitalisation affects this impact positively or negatively; this information is crucial if manufacturing companies are to better harness digital technologies in an environmentally friendly manner. This thesis aims to explore the potential for digitalisation to reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing systems by revealing its extent. With the vision of an environmentally “harm-free” manufacturing system, this thesis intends to provide practitioners with insights into the use of digital technologies to benefit our living environment. This study adopts a qualitative methodology to investigate theoretical and empirical data through literature reviews and case studies. The results show that the impact of digitalisation on environmental sustainability may be viewed through a multiple-lifecycle perspective, including product and technology lifecycles. Digitalisation applications throughout the product lifecycle contribute positively to environmental sustainability by increasing resource and information efficiency, dematerialisation, virtualisation/monitoring impacts and reduced transport. The negative environmental impact is primarily due to increased resource and energy use, plus emissions and waste from manufacturing and the use and disposal of digital hardware in the technology lifecycle. The multiple-lifecycle perspective helps practitioners in manufacturing companies to consider the environmental impact of both product and technology lifecycles when adopting digital technologies. The summary of positive impacts provides companies with implementation practices as to where and how to implement digital technologies. They may thus reduce environmental impact, especially in the production stage of a product’s lifecycle and at the 5C architecture connection level. This study provides a holistic view of the environmental impact of digitalising manufacturing systems and supports practitioners in applying digital technologies in an environmentally “harm-free” manner, thus achieving sustainable manufacturing systems.

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