Fero Labs' sustainable solutions to optimise manufacturing

By Blaise Hope
Berk Birand, CEO of Fero Labs, talks machine learning for implementation in manufacturing to optimise production, reduce waste, and improve product quality

The circular economy is gaining traction as businesses realise there are benefits gained from this innovative, more sustainable way of doing business. It entails sharing, repurposing, restoring, remanufacturing, and recycling products and materials to prolong their life cycles and reduce overall waste. 

Take Fero Labs, for example. The company offers machine learning software, which is boosting the next movement of industrial process optimisation. Fero Labs was founded in 2015 and has created implementable machine learning for the manufacturing industry to optimise production, eliminate waste, and improve quality.

Since nothing is a waste in the circular economy, one may wonder how the waste of one factory or plant serves as the input of another. Berk Birand, founder and CEO of Fero Labs, asserted that factories are "transformation machines" as they transform raw materials into various outputs — only some of which they sell.

"So, what happens to the other outputs? They're considered side products — AKA waste. But this waste can be useful. The waste generated by one plant can become raw material for another with different needs, creating a circular economy," Birand explained.

The difficulties that a circular economy presents

Despite the effectiveness of the circular economy, there are a few roadblocks to fully implementing it in businesses.

Many consumers support sustainable livelihood, but few are willing to do the work. According to surveys, few consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, let alone those adhering to entirely circular standards. The lack of common definitions and categorising of circular products does not improve matters, but in any case, businesses must compete on price.

Furthermore, in order to meet customer demands, Birand said that "factories must maintain the quality of the products they sell", which indicates that they do not control the quality of their waste. He continued, "So any other plant that uses the waste as input must contend with increased variability in their raw materials."

This, however, is not a new challenge. According to Birand, the steel industry has been recycling its products for decades, and each batch of scrap steel melted by a steelmaker contains a slightly different metal composition.

Ultimately, businesses must do their best to adapt. "Companies need to find new tools that help them adapt to this variability, such as digital twins," Birand said.

The importance of IoT and digital twins in the success of a circular economy

Digital twins, or virtual copies of a method that improves facility efficiency, can be intensely valuable tools for optimising supply chain operations without taking up resources or time, particularly in this sophisticated manufacturing landscape. 

As per a report by Ernst & Young, digital twins can help reduce carbon emissions and the carbon footprint of an existing building by up to 50% while also saving up to 35% in costs.

Moreover, as manufacturers find alternative ways to fulfil sustainability targets, companies specialising in or utilising cloud technologies such as digital twins have the potential to provide solutions that are prepared to meet that demand.

According to Birand, digital twins can also tell us how to best adapt to raw material variability. He went on to say that by understanding the connections between how a plant operates and the properties of its raw materials, "digital twins can help factory personnel proactively adapt their manufacturing process to accommodate the variability in their new feedstock sources."

Birand has been trying to broaden Fero's horizons by forming partnerships with other companies, one of which is Gerdau. Gerdau, the biggest recycling company in Latin America, turned to Fero Labs after its traditional tools couldn't make actual adjustments and had difficulty assessing several nonlinear relationships between its numerous manufacturing machines.

Meanwhile, Volvo Trucks and Fero Labs' collaboration uncovers prospects to optimally tackle the challenges within the automaker's paint operations. They organised a pilot project to investigate paint application quality at a Volvo plant in Sweden, and the results were promising from the start.

"Our premise is that companies like Volvo want to own with the knowledge transfer to build these kinds of models, all across the organisation from the engineers and operators to the executive level," Birand said in an interview.

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