Since the time Alexander Hamilton first saw the Great Falls and recognized the potential in their power, manufacturing has been critical to New Jersey’s economic development.  The power of that water and steam fueled the first Industrial Revolution. The second Industrial Revolution was characterized by the build out of the railroads and the use of electricity, machinery, and the assembly line in mass production.  The third Industrial Revolution brought the evolution of technology from analog to digital in computers and automation. 

Those advances brought us to the fourth Industrial Revolution - also known as Advanced Manufacturing or Manufacturing 4.0.

This is where we see cloud-based computing systems, robotics and artificial intelligence melding together with human intellectual and emotional intelligence to exponentially increase efficiency and precision in production.

So what does the fourth Industrial Revolution have to do with sustainability? 

In a word, EVERYTHING.  Manufacturing is directly at the intersection of economic impact and resource usage.  Scarcity of natural resources and the amplification of environmental impact makes it clear that in the near future manufacturers will no longer be able to operate with the same “resource intensity” as we do now, so now more than ever we need to be highly efficient to be sustainable and competitive.

Sustainability focuses on the three “Ps” - people, planet, profit. To that, some companies, like Zago, add a fourth “P” for product. 

Let’s talk about the “P” for planet first.

As an example of how this works, Zago we manufacture self-sealing fasteners and sealing switch boots which makes equipment more resilient and protects the environment by sealing in potential environmental contaminants. We re-purposed a 100 year old factory and warehouse in Newark into a state-of-the-art production facility where we produce a sustainable product for a sustainable future. In 2013 we topped our building with a solar array, lowering electric bills and having a positive impact on the environment by generating clean renewable energy on site.  We also minimize our waste, recycling everything we can, and avoiding putting hazardous materials into the waste stream.  This a competitive imperative because, in order to be part of the global supply chain today, you must comply with global initiatives intended to restrict the use of hazardous and questionably sourced materials. 

How about the "P" for people?

Operating as a sustainable company transcends being green; it includes the ethical, social, cultural, and economic dimensions of doing business.  This brings us to people.  The manufacturing sector knows that job openings are expected to far exceed the number of skilled workers available to fill these jobs.  This is a dilemma faced by all companies. 

To attract and retain dynamic workers with a sophisticated skill set you need to engage in a multilevel strategy:

  • Look at your company’s purpose – do you behave as a force for positive social impact, embodying sustainability in its most global sense? It’s not just the solar panels or the environmental friendliness of products, but it’s also how fairly customers, vendors and employees are treated and how you impact your community.
  • Look at your company’s wage scale – is it competitive?  The rise of the minimum wage to $15 over the next five years is challenging, but even $15 an hour doesn’t add up to much for a family trying to live the American dream.  Are you providing your employees with health insurance, paid vacation, sick/personal days, annual performance bonuses, and a profit sharing retirement plan?  These policies help to build loyal, satisfied employees and raise retention.
  • Look at the way you invest in employees – do you offer upskill training, skill building for LEAN practices, and other educational opportunities? Have you considered offering employees the chance to obtain an associate’s degree in manufacturing technology, learning to work with robotics and advanced quality control technology?

All of this impacts the “P” for developing a better product.

Today, large and small companies should take advantage of sophisticated technologies that make operations more efficient and sustainable.   Collaborative robots work with your people, not in place of your people to increase productivity.  In fact, the collaborative robot allows employees to program a job and focus on more technical, less labor intensive work. 

Sustainability must be embedded in your vision and mission to achieve the “P” for profitability.

Sustainability is integrated into your short and long term strategy and decision-making process. It is incorporated into the products you develop, the culture you nurture and the way you communicate and conduct yourselves with all stakeholders.  From this purpose-driven perspective, companies that share this philosophy can be both highly sustainable AND highly competitive to face the Fourth Industrial Revolution.