Using the latest IoT solutions, companies are able to easily understand the energy consumption of their processes and consequently know the actual energy cost attributable to each product, many of them still do not know that with the same technology they could easily track the CO2 emissions of each phase of the production process. We are talking about Life Cycle Assessment.

Economic and environmental sustainability in production processes

Before talking about Life Cycle Assessment, let’s take a step back and start from the definition of the production process in context.

It is identified with the production process, otherwise called industrial production process, that series of more or less energy-intensive transformations aimed at converting a raw material or possibly a semi-finished product into a finished product

From this definition we easily identify 3 keywords:

  • Transformations (performed by men and / or machines)
  • Energy (used by men and / or machines)
  • Raw material and / or semi-finished product (used in the process being transformed)

Looking at it from the perspective of economic sustainability, all these keywords are involved with the emission of pollutants, both directly and indirectly.

The product’s 5 life stages 

How does this process occur in the context of Industry 4.0?

LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) is the discipline that studies the environmental impact of a process or product in all its life stages

We can easily identify 5 main phases in the life cycle (Fig 1):

  • Extraction of resources and raw materials: emissions related to the processes of extraction and transformation into semi-finished products;
  • Transformation of resources into finished products: emissions related to processes in which raw materials and semi-finished products are transformed into finished products;
  • Packaging and transport: emissions related to packaging and the transport of raw materials and finished products;
  • Use: emissions during the use phase of the finished product (example of car use)
  • End of life: emissions related to the disposal phase of the product.

Life Cycle Assessment

Figure 1. Life Cycle Assessment Infographic

The lifecycle stages, described above, can themselves contain multiple processes and, at the same time, multiple companies from different industries can take part in the transformation process.

But, how is it possible to compare the environmental impact of companies that use different processes and technologies yet contribute their resources to the production of a single product?

CO2 and the environmental impact of industrial processes

During the process of Life Cycle Assessment, kg of CO2 (more properly called GWP Global Warming Potential) was introduced. It is currently one of the main emission indicators, used to make comparable contributions of different greenhouse gases, and to estimate the carbon footprint associated with single activities.

To have an idea of its diffusion, just do a brief search on the main browsers. Of almost every raw material or semi-finished product, cataloged on the basis of the extraction and / or processing process they undergo before becoming such, the environmental impact value expressed in kgCO2 equivalent is estimated.

Let’s take the example of some of the most common raw materials

Metal Process GWP (kgCO2_eq/kg)
Steel Electric oven 6.8
Steel Integrated path BF and BOF 2.3
Aluminum Bayer refining 35.7
Copper Melting / conversion and electrolytic refining 3.3

Tab 1. KgCO2 consumption of some of the most common raw materials

Have you noticed something different in the table? The production of the same raw material, in this case steel, using an integrated path rather than the classic blast furnace allows a reduction in the environmental impact by a factor of 3.

But, where do these values come from? Are they from individual measurements? Or do they come from the experience of the professional on duty involved in environmental sustainability issues?

As it turns out, it’s both. Currently, this large amount of information can be accessed through one of the most common Life Cycle Assessment databases: GaBi, now Sphera. This database is the result of continuous data-entry work by companies and professionals in the sector, who have created a history of all the analyses relating to the environmental impact of each component, diversifying by process and by type of material.

Despite the important guiding role of this type database, it is based on mostly manual data entries that do not allow a timely or real-time analysis of the specific process. This critical phase causes numerous errors due to the repetitiveness of the action.

IoT technologies and Life Cycle Assessment

Extracting production data and fully monitoring the production process of machines is the task of IoT technologies which play an important role in the Life Cycle Assessment process.

In the next blog post we will go deeper into their role in the data collection process. Through concrete examples we’ll  show you how you can perform environmental analyses and see the final results of the entire production cycle.