24 Nov, 2022 / BY Neil Sharp

9 ways EMS providers can make more environmentally friendly products

Although the year is not yet through, the world has already produced 20 million tonnes of e-waste. Much of this ends in landfill where heavy metals contaminate soil and groundwater. While electronics manufacturing does have initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint, these have often fallen short of decreasing its overall environmental impact.

However, from design to shipping, everyone involved in the process can make decisions (and products) that are more environmentally friendly. Here are nine ways how.

#1 Start with design

It is easy to think that being environmentally friendly only involves turning lights off and recycling. But to truly be positive for the planet, focus and attention must start much earlier on and ideally during the design phase. OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that work with EMS providers that have design capabilities can develop products together that are designed to be reused rather than discarded. 

Rather than OEMs doing it themselves or outsourcing to an agency, joint design projects have several environmental benefits involving: procurement decisions, material choices, build methods, repair options, and operational efficiency. These can be addressed at the beginning of the project. The overall goal is to approach the product build and manufacturing specifications to minimise environmental damage and allow products to be repaired and reused. When they end their 'first life', they can then be returned to the EMS provider and repaired or upgraded —ready to be returned to the circular economy. 

#2 Buy local 

In days gone by, procurement would source and purchase the cheapest materials, regardless of how far away they came from. However, more profound respect for the environment has led to companies reanalysing their supply chains—meaning procurement professionals are now sourcing locally.

The environmental effects of shipping include air pollution, water pollution, sound pollution, oil pollution, and greenhouse gases. But reducing shipping can contribute to lessening these impacts, and localising the supply chain offers many opportunities to produce environmentally friendly products. Additionally, storing shipped parts uses energy and produces emissions. 

Locally sourcing products reduces these environmental overheads and gives customers an environmentally considerate product. An additional benefit is that local purchasing will be a boon for local suppliers—strengthing the local economy and contributing to local businesses. 

#3 Smarter use of packaging 

Packaging is one area of contract manufacturing with extensive and varied environmental impacts. These include the effects of manufacturing the packaging and the impact of disposing of it after use. While packaging is a necessary evil, there are several ways to use it in smarter and more environmentally friendly ways. 

Reduce use

Sometimes the best solution is the simplest one. Is it possible to reduce the amount of packaging used whilst still ensuring the product is protected prior to use?  

Reduce space inside the packaging

There are several ways this can be achieved. First, the packaging could be designed around the product, resulting in no wasted space. This would lead to the most efficient outcome. The closer OEMs and their EMS partners work together, the easier it is to design bespoke packaging, as there will be more certainty around what products will be shipped thanks to longer-term forecasting (see next point).  

Second, cardboard wrapping could be used instead of bubble wrap for products with a non-conventional shape as it is a less environmentally harmful material than plastics. 

Reduce loss

Ordering larger-sized packaging will reduce the amount needed per unit—a quick win to reduce the losses during packaging production.

Reduce size 

There are several ways to reduce the overall size of the packaging and materials used in the process of manufacturing packaging: 

  • Eliminate several layers used in the packaging
  • Replace large blister packs with smaller cardboard packs
  • Eliminate any plastic film windows in packaging
  • Eliminate the use of hollow or double-walled containers

Reduce pallet use 

Choosing packaging shapes and sizes that maximise how pallets are used is one way of reducing transport inefficiencies. Transporting products in returnable boxes and reusing pallets is another.

Reduce overall environmental impact

Every item used to ship products can be assessed for its environmental impact. EMS providers can choose to use reusable packaging, recycled materials, and non-synthetic adhesives. Also, any wood, paper, and cardboard used can be certified by a recognised international organisation such as the Forest Stewardship Council.

#4 Consolidate shipping

Incoming materials can be consolidated when the supplier ships to the EMS provider and also when the EMS provider ships finished goods to its OEM customer or the end user. The key to successful consolidation in both cases is communication and longer-term forecasting.

When OEMs and their EMS partner discuss material ordering and planning, one of the key clauses in the manufacturing agreement, they often focus on short-term needs. However, suppose they take a less reactive and longer-term approach by planning for each month (rather than each week). In that case, many environmental savings can be made. Shipping products once rather than four times will be cheaper, require less packaging, and reduce the number of emissions associated with transportation.

This will allow EMS providers to place bigger but less frequent orders with their suppliers—resulting in the same environmental benefits. Also, if supply chain professionals can plan shipping in advance, they are often able to choose the route with the lowest environmental impact.

#5 Embrace distributed manufacturing

For most of the past 50 years, the standard manufacturing model has been to produce goods at scale for global distribution in mega-factories located in cheap geographies. Distributed manufacturing, however, is a form of localised production—local factories closer to the target market manufacture goods on demand using high-tech robotics and local materials.

Distributed manufacturing is part of the shift towards regionalisation and building local, which was born out of supply chain worries and environmental concerns. This model results in smarter regional factories replacing global economies of scale with economies of scope. Of course, this is better for local communities and economies, but there are also substantial environmental benefits: fewer emissions and higher energy efficiency, for example.

#6 Piggyback transportation 

Even EMS providers that fully embrace distributed manufacturing still have to transport supplies and products. But transport should be as environmentally friendly as possible. 

The greenest way to transport products depends on the start and end point. However, rail is almost always the best option. Although road transport is going to comprise part of any journey, combining road and rail is likely to be the greenest option. 

Piggyback transportation is a form of multimodal transportation, which combines at least two of the following logistics means: road, rail, sea and air, within one freight contract for the shipper. So for example, trucks full of goods could leave a factory, drive onto a train, be transported a large distance by rail, and then drive off to complete the final stages of the journey. 

#7 Use smart sensors

The current energy crisis is forcing households to reconsider their energy consumption. Many are turning to IoT technology to reduce costs, consequently lowering emissions.

EMS providers could and should use the same devices and energy consumption techniques.

  • Heat the room, not the building; heating does not need to be turned on by default. Many rooms in factories and offices are empty, so they don't need to be heated. Motion detectors can be used to sense the presence of people in a room and, therefore, the need to heat the room.
  • Lights only need to be on when people need light. The same motion sensors can turn lights on in whole areas as well as in specific parts of rooms. Also, all lights could be changed to LED, significantly reducing energy consumption.
  • Factory machines are not always in use, and leaving them on standby consumes unnecessary electricity. Simple, smart plugs that can be controlled with mobile devices allow machines only to be turned on when required. 

#8 Zoom rather than fly

We were forced to learn during the pandemic—and it worked. Videoconferencing might not be perfect, but it is good enough to make a lot of business travel pointless. In the words of The New York Times, for “sectors that once relied on in-person sessions, big deals are still getting done, sales are still being closed, and networkers can't quit networking."

A round trip from London to Malaysia produces 3.456 tonnes of CO2: equivalent to boiling only the water you need for 164524 cups of black coffee or 67% of a person's annual carbon footprint in the UK. A vast environmental cost when you could just jump on Zoom. Of course, we also learnt during the pandemic that human contact is still vitally important. And sometimes physical travel is the only way to really achieve our goals. But we now have several options and savvy manufacturers can therefore make informed choices in a bid to help reduce the impact they have on the environment.     

#9 Return the product for repair at the end of its (first) lifecycle

After a product has been designed, manufactured, shipped, used, and reached the end of its first lifecycle, the journey needs to start again. 

If it is designed to be returned, repaired, and reused rather than replaced, it will be. OEMs and their EMS partner should design and manufacture for the circular economy. This mindset will help protect our delicate planet for longer and reduce the unnecessary amount of waste making its way to landfill each day.  

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