Developments in the manufacturing sector made global headlines this year - from automaker’s Volkswagen’s emissions scandal to China’s industrial accidents - and demonstrated that when it comes to the industry’s environmental and governance standards, a lot of work remains to be done.
Still, emerging technologies such as 3D printing and robotics and the concept of the circular economy have been making progress this year. Here are our picks of the top 5 stories in 2015:
1. Volkswagen’s emissions scandal
German car maker Volkswagen (VW) was embroiled in one of the biggest corporate scandals in recent years when the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in September discovered ‘cheating’ software in VW diesel cars that could detect when a car was being tested by regulators, and reduce its emissions temporarily.
The EPA found that almost half a million cars in the US cars were affected by these so-called “defeat devices’, while VW itself admitted that 11 million cars worldwide, including 8 million in Europe, were fitted with the software.
VW’s reputation and stock price both took a major hit in the aftermath of the scandal, with the share value falling more than 20 per cent in September. State officials, investors, and environmental groups filed lawsuits against the German firm, which also faces fines of up to US$18 billion from the US regulator.
The scandal not only sparked suspicion that other diesel manufacturers may be up to the same tricks, it also brought attention to the need for better corporate transparency and reporting within the industry. Analysts also predicted that the scandal may spell the beginning of the end of diesel cars.
2. China’s ‘airpocalypse’
Air pollution in China - stemming from factory pollution, coal burning, car exhausts, and weather patterns - reached unbearable highs in December, reducing visibility to a few dozen metres, grounding flights, and causing revere respiratory problems among citizens.
As air quality indexes in cities across the countries climbed to 25 times above safe levels in December, Beijing officials told all construction sites to stop work. China also ordered more than two thousand polluting factories to halt operations, sending out inspection teams to enforce these closures.
The pollution, which occurred at the same time as the UN climate summit in Paris, cast a shadow on China’s commitment to reducing emissions and cleaning up its industrial sector, occurred despite efforts by the Chinese authorities to crack down on polluters all year long.
For example, in October, Beijing revealed it had collected almost US$16 million in fines from polluting companies in the first nine months of the year, while in April, the government agreed to provide a mobile app developer with real-time data on the air and water pollution generated by factories, to facilitate public monitoring of their activities.
This surprisingly transparent move was seen by observers as a sign of political will to combat the country’s debilitating pollution.
In August, deadly explosions in a chemical warehouse in the northen Chinese city of Tianjin killed almost 200 people, and also destroyed thousands of homes and cars in the vicinity.
Investigators found that the warehouses were located closer to homes than was allowed and stored much larger quantities of toxic chemicals, such as sodium cyanide, than was allowed.
The incident highlighted China’s continuing challenges in regulating its manufacturing sector and enforcing environmental and safety standards.
3. The rise of trash-to-treasure manufacturing
The circular economy, a system of manufacturing which keeps resources in use for as long as possible, has seen a steady rise in adoption in 2015 as it continued to gain converts among business and policymakers worldwide.
In December for example the European Commission adopted the Circular Economy Package, a set of policy and legislative proposals designed to stimulate the region’s transition towards a circular economy which they say will boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs.
The Australian government, too, released a set of strategies to promote the circular economy in June, claiming that its value to Australia could be $26 billion a year by 2025.
One circular economy trend onthe rise was ‘trash-to-treasure‘ manufacturing, where companies repurpose rubbish, manufacturing waste, and even sewage into valuable goods.
Initiatives that made headlines this year include a pair of adidas running shoes entirely made from ocean plastic trash and illegal fishing nets; diesel and gasoline made from discarded non-recyclable household plastics in Australia; and a move by Bhutan to use plastic waste to build eco-friendly and durable roads.
Researchers at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney also embarked on a study to explore ‘urban mining‘, or the recovery of metals and minerals from discarded household electronics, a practice they deemed “essential if Australia is to maintain a competitive advantage”.
4. UN puts spotlight on sustainable production and consumption
The United Nations Environment Programme dedicated this year’s World Environment Day, which is celebrated every June 5, to the need for sustainable ways of making goods and consuming them.
UNEP estimates by 2050, if current consumption and production patterns remain the same and with a rising population expected to reach 9.6 billion, the world will need three planets to sustain its current ways of living and consumption. Living within the planet’s ecological boundaries is the best way to ensure a healthy future, it said.
On WED 2015, themed “Seven billion dreams. One planet. Consumer with care”, UNEP urged the global community to “do more and better with less”, reiterating the need for product manufacturers to develop new business models and technologies that reduce waste, improve energy efficiency, and recover resources back from products at the end of their life cycle.
5. Smart technology for sustainable manufacturing
Robots, 3D printers, drones, and data: Manufacturers across the world increasingly turned to these tools to achieve gains in resource and energy efficiency, as well as cost savings.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is more commonly known, is a multi-billion dollar global industry, and as a paper published in the journal Energy Policy in November found, 3D printing can potentially reduce manufacturing costs by US$170 billion to US$593 billion, and shrink emissions by 130.5 to 525.5 metric tonnes by 2025.
No wonder then that General Electric in November announced a project that will use 3D printed turbines to make desalinated seawater at 20 per cent less cost than it would cost using traditional methods in the United States.
In Singapore, students from the Nanyang Technological University also unveiled the country’s - and possibly Asia’s - first 3D printed solar car, giving a glimpse into what cars of the future could look like.
The use of robotics in manufacturing also reached the next level this year, when Swiss power and automation giant ABB unveiled the world’s first collaborative dual-armed robot in April. Experts have widely noted how robots can help reduce errors and wastage in the supply chain, and also lower energy use, but due to safety concerns, they have not been integrated into factories alongside people.
But ABB’s robot, called YuMi, can safely and smoothly work with humans in assembly lines, making it easier for firms to meet the production needs of the consumer electronics industry and other intricate manufacturing sectors.
This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 11 categories.