A core priority for electronics manufacturers has long been focused on finding the most effective ways to optimise product cost, increase output and improve quality.
But alongside meeting these key operational targets, there is also increasing awareness of the massive environmental impacts that their daily decisions and processes can have.
Electronics manufacturers are constantly having to make decisions - whether it's determining how much materials cost or how quickly they'll need to produce a given product to meet market demand. But they can only work with the information that they have available to them at the time.
With environmental sustainability now a major concern, many manufacturers are turning their attention to how they can use smart technologies to become even more agile and responsive in terms of their environmental compliance, policies and practices.
The pace of new development made possible by the IoT and Industry 4.0 is bringing with it an exciting array of new smart technologies that can be used to add an even deeper level of insight into a factory's process control.
And one new technology that is promising a raft of benefits for rapid, real-time decision-making is the integration of smart sensors.
What are smart sensors?
Smart sensors generate data by connecting multiple disparate devices within a factory and creating a way for those devices to "talk to each other" and provide seamless connectivity across the entire plant.
The data-backed insights that can be collected via sensor technology have the potential to be used in a multitude of applications - from monitoring equipment and system performance, to predicting equipment failure, supporting maintenance protocols, speeding the flow of information or aiding environmental management.
While the technology itself is fairly new, the concept of using sensors within manufacturing has been a topic of industry discussion for at least thirty years.
In 1987, the US Department of Energy (DOE) conducted research into the potential benefits that sensors could provide in enhancing process control, improving productivity and increasing energy efficiency in the context of US factories.
But a major obstacle at that time was working out how on earth human brains could possibly organise, and make sense of, the sheer mountain of information that sensor technology would potentially generate.
Several decades later, however, advancements in digitalisation, AI and Industry 4.0, have now made what was once a theory very much a reality.
How sensor tech can support environmental decisions
In 2015, a research team based at the UK's Centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies (SMART) embarked on a project to explore the practical application of sensor technologies in improving environmental decision making within manufacturing.
What the project demonstrated was how smart sensor tech could be used to enhance a manufacturer's eco-efficiency - for example by enabling them to monitor the consumption of water, energy and materials - and then how this information could support environmental decisions.
It also identified three core decision-making areas where the information captured by sensor technology could especially benefit manufacturers in enhancing their environmental sustainability:
1. To aid short-term environmental decisions - by enabling manufacturers to capture and analyse information on energy consumption, temperature, humidity, production output etc that can be acted upon straight away to improve the manufacturing process.
2. To support mid-term environmental decisions - by assessing factors such as how much inventory a manufacturer holds, how long they've held it and what it's costing them to keep it.
3. To assist manufacturers with longer-term strategic decision-making - for example to help them fine-tune their business model or to explore the potential of new supply chain opportunities.
New smart factory technologies offer huge potential in helping manufacturers to reap productivity gains. And sensor technology is no exception - offering the opportunity for electronics manufacturers to capture and analyse real-time information that can improve their operations, that will help them manage their maintenance protocols and that can better support their environmental decisions.