Digitalisation in Manufacturing complex

Four companies taking a new approach to sustainable manufacturing

See the real-world examples that prove there is more than one way to achieve sustainable success

Key Takeaways

  • How GE and Veolia North America turned turbine blades into constructions materials

  • How Kellogg’s and Seven Bro7thers Brewing Co created craft beers from unused cereals

  • How Enerkem and Shell converted unrecyclable waste into low-carbon fuels

  • How manufacturing innovation helped SpaceX and Siemens build the world’s first reusable rocket

  • A sustainable manufacturing approach is possible – and your pathway to success does not have to look like anyone else’s

What connects a retired wind turbine blade with rejected breakfast cereal, a heavy-lift launch vehicle, and a low-carbon fuels production plant in Québec?

Woman watching 3D printout.

If you guessed sustainable manufacturing, then you’d be correct. All four are leading examples of a growing trend to ensure industrial manufacturing processes are designed with sustainability in mind.

But, while all four share this common aim of a smaller environmental footprint, their journeys in getting there are hugely different. Which acts as a reminder to businesses around the world that there is more than one way to achieve their sustainability goals, whether that is through: a focus on life cycle thinking; the introduction of circular economies; or simply by gaining a new perspective on longstanding processes.

1. Turbine blades turned construction materials with GE and Veolia North America

As companies and countries alike search for more renewable energy sources, wind power is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. And this growing popularity is borne out in the figures, as 2020 marked the highest ever year-over-year growth (53%) for the global wind industry.1

However, the addition of record numbers of new turbines has a knock-on effect for older models that may need to be decommissioned, ultimately leading to an important question: what happens to no-longer-needed turbine components, such as turbine blades?

A vital piece when in operation but a frustrating component once retired, turbine blades make up much of the 10-15% of the structure that often can’t be recycled.2 The main issue lies in what these blades are comprised of – composite materials ranging from fibreglass polyester to Kevlar – and how difficult it can be to prevent them from ending up in a land fill.

Fortunately, companies like GE and Veolia North America are tackling the issue head-on. Working together, they help recycle blades by shredding and blending the materials until what’s left is material that can be used in the coproduction of Portland cement, a key ingredient of concrete.

As well as solving the initial issue at hand, this material could then potentially help cement manufacturers lower their own CO2 emissions by as much as 27% compared to traditional manufacturing processes.3 A perfect example of the circular economy in practice.

2. When unused cereals become recycled beverages with Kellogg’s and Seven Bro7thers Brewing Co.

Multinational food manufacturer Kellogg’s has spent the last few years teaming up with a UK-based brewery to generate a more sustainable use for their unusable food waste.

While many recent examples of manufacturing processes having closed the loop often rely on the emerging capabilities of Industry 4.0… this particular example shows the huge impact that strategic collaboration alone can continue to have.

During any manufacturing process, some level of waste is to be expected. The question that is becoming more important in modern society however, is what happens to these waste products?

Fortunately, for Kellogg’s and their breakfast cereal products, the Seven Bro7hers brewery provided a timely answer. The discarded grains from their cereal cooking process – which had often been funnelled towards animal feed – now contributes toward an entire range of recycled craft beers, replacing a portion of the wheat grain that the brewery would normally require for the recipe.

While many manufacturers often rely on the emerging capabilities of Industry 4.0 technologies – from smart factory features and automation to machine learning efficiencies – this particular example shows the huge impact that strategic collaboration can have. It carries a simple lesson that translates to many industries: sustainable manufacturing doesn’t always require huge financial investment. This change in mindset might actually save you money in the long run.

Take industrial lubricants, for example; oil recycling is a practice that is beginning to catch the attention of an increasing number of company leaders since it makes both environmental and economic sense. Four out of 10 CEOs surveyed by Accenture say that sustainability is helping to drive revenue growth.4 Circular economies are proving to be financially lucrative as well as environmentally responsible.

3. Moving waste from landfills to low-carbon fuels with Enerkem and Shell

What happens when waste materials can’t be recycled in the traditional sense? That is the dilemma that the Varennes Carbon Recycling (VCR) plant – a waste to low-carbon fuels plant commissioned in Québec – is aiming to solve.

Projects like Varennes Carbon Recycling (VCR) are proving that businesses can move one step beyond waste management, towards waste repurposing –with the right type of innovation.

Once completed, the plant will treat more than 200,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste and wood waste per year, with an annual production of nearly 125 million litres of low carbon fuels.5 To put that in perspective, it is enough fuel to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Because waste is both an operational and economic reality for any industry, managing it is a necessity. However, projects like VCR are proving that businesses can move one step beyond waste management, towards waste repurposing.

In this case, the key to this innovation lies in the plant’s technology. Enerkem – a leading Canadian clean tech company – has pioneered a particular technology, which enables the recycling of the carbon and hydrogen contained in non-recyclable waste and wood waste that is otherwise landfilled and burned.6

And thanks to additional collaboration from Shell, Suncor, Proman and Hydro-Québec, the result is an abundance of low-carbon fuels that can contribute to carbon emissions and greenhouse gas reductions throughout the transportation sector. Which, in turn, creates a more sustainable cycle of energy generation and usage.

4. How blue-sky thinking can help streamline manufacturing with SpaceX and Siemens

Female working checking automotive part

Continuing the theme of collaboration as a catalyst for sustainable manufacturing, is leading aerospace manufacturer SpaceX – a company that is continually looking for any sort of marginal gain that will boost their project effectiveness.

A good example is the conception of their Falcon Heavy rocket, a partially reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle that underwent its first successful launch in February 2018, during which it launched a Tesla Roadster into an orbit of Mars, to much fanfare.

However, a less talked-about element of Falcon Heavy’s success is how the team at SpaceX landed on a decision regarding its manufacturing process. Similar to the wind turbine blades example, the company chose to adopt advanced composite materials when designing the vehicle, encouraged by the strength-to-weight ratio that this would allow.7

The decision to be innovative with its rocket design allowed SpaceX to retain their fast-paced approach to complex manufacture, while keeping costs and waste low but collaboration and reliability high.

This decision led to the selection of Siemens’ Fibersim software. As an end-to-end design and manufacturing solution, Fibersim helped SpaceX merge both design and manufacturing departments, with collaboration at the core.

Collaboration that subsequently allowed SpaceX to retain their fast-paced approach to complex manufacture, while keeping costs and waste low. Ultimately, this model meant SpaceX delivered both a sustainable operation and a successful launch.

It is time to explore unique pathways to sustainable success

View of plant at twilight

Four distinct industries, four very different projects, and four examples of how sustainable manufacturing is currently being used to pursue environmental targets while supporting operational and financial success.

So, whether your manufacturing responsibilities fall into the realm of wind power, space exploration or any industry in between, you can be safe in the knowledge that a sustainable manufacturing approach is more than possible. You might just need to start thinking outside of the box.

1 Global Wind Energy Council. “Global Wind Report 2021.” 25 March, 2021 (accessed 16 September, 2021).
2 WindEurope. “Circular Economy: Blade recycling is a top priority for the wind industry.” 12 February, 2021. (accessed 16 September, 2021).
3 Chris Noon. “Concrete Benefits: Recycling Old Wind Turbine Blades Could Help Cement Industry Cut CO2 Emissions.” GE. 09 December, 2020. (accessed 16 September, 2021).
4 Accenture. “UNGC – Accenture Strategy CEO Study on Sustainability.” 24 September, 2019 https://d306pr­­ (accessed 16 September, 2020)..
5 Shell. “Shell Invests in Québec’s First Waste to Low-Carbon Fuels Plant.” 05 January, 2021. (accessed 16 September, 2021).
6 Enerkem. “CAD$875 million biofuel plant in Varennes, Québec Enerkem proposed partnership with Shell, Suncor and Proman with the leadership of the Québec government and support from the Canadian government.” 08 December, 2020. (accessed 17 September, 2021).
7 Gary Mintchell. “Composite Engineering and Manufacturing Solution Helps Build SpaceX.” AutomationWorld. 04 June, 2012. (accessed 19 October, 2021).


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