Jackie Thompson

The world’s top automakers are generating an estimated 74 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to a report by Greenpeace, a statistic due to the industry’s failure to decarbonize its steel supply chain. While efforts such as electric vehicle adoption are quickly gaining traction, focusing environmentally conscious practices on vehicle production and manufacturing processes will further work to address and minimize the industry’s carbon footprint from the start. With automakers addressing the materials that are used in manufacturing to the role that recycling plays (and how sustainable practices can be balanced with technology), the industry is making strides towards eco-conscious solutions in more ways than one.

A Key Manufacturing Material — Making Progress

The Greenpeace report highlights the fact that the top 16 automakers used an estimated 39 to 65 million tons of steel in 2022 alone. While the industry is “heavily dependent” on steel as a manufacturing material, the 2023 Al Jazeera post further points out that the amount of carbon emissions involved in the process have pushed the world’s temperatures “ever closer to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold that climate scientists say will spell disaster,” according to Greenpeace. Greenpeace East Asia senior analyst Wenjie Liu noted of the matter: “Automotive steel has a massive carbon footprint, but major automakers like Hyundai, Volkswagen, and Toyota have not disclosed their steel emissions. We need automakers to both consume less steel and to drive the transition to zero-carbon steelmaking.”

According to Automotive Dive, Mercedes-Benz already sources CO2-reduced steel from Salzgitter, in Germany. “The steel is produced entirely from scrap using an electric arc furnace, which can reduce carbon emissions by more than 60% compared with blast furnaces.” While it’s noted that the automaker has a similar deal with the Italy-based Arvedi, the 2023 article further notes that Mercedes-Benz has announced an agreement with H2 Green Steel (based in Sweden) to supply 50,000 tons of nearly CO2-free steel per year to its European stamping facilities. According to Automotive Dive, the agreement “aims to establish a more sustainable steel supply chain for Mercedes-Benz in North America.”

Innovation in Auto Recycling

 While steel is a key material used by automakers around the world, there are additional material solutions that can be used to create a sustainable industry. Ford, for example, has “eight plant or bio-based materials in its vehicles,” including soy, wheat straw, kenaf, cellulose tree fiber, coconuts, and rice hulls. Additionally, it’s noted that the Ford sustainable materials team is currently working on approximately 20 other sustainable material candidates, including unique materials such as tomato peels and even recycled U.S. currency. The automaker already uses several recycled materials in its vehicles, such as seat fabrics to plastics and beyond. In the manufacturing process, Ford recycles materials as well with their closed-loop aluminum recycling methods serving as one example. “We work closely with our suppliers to recycle aluminum scraps, or “chips,” from the production of the 2017 Ford F-150 to make more vehicles,” explains the site.

The auto industry supplier Faurecia is another example of a company using recycled materials. According to Design News, the company’s “Seat for the Planet” is a project that involves the creation of a lightweight seat that is about 15% lighter than the average seat. With the company aiming to use recycled materials throughout the entire seat and to make the materials “easier to separate” at the end of the seat’s life for further reuse and recycling purposes. Traditional seats, which include the use of polyurethane in the cushions, is noted to be “especially challenging” to find a sustainable replacement for. Regarding the “Seat for the Planet” initiative, Design News notes that the seat is made from ten modules each made entirely of a single material — these are made from recycled, bio-sourced, or materials that are compatible for recycling, according to the project manager, Marthin Frétigné. And, to solve the polyurethane problem, Frétigné describes using Auraloop — a technical solution that uses high-performance PET combined with “a new transformation process.”

Balancing Sustainability and Safety Via Technology

When aiming to contribute to a sustainable industry, considerations go beyond the physical materials used in manufacturing. For example, balancing goals that align with the environment and imperative aspects of the auto industry like safety is essential — yet a challenge. According to a Center for Automotive Research report, the greater standardization of targets and measures would help the auto industry reach net-zero emissions on a global scale by the year 2050. However, suppliers said that they often struggle to balance climate targets with other goals — including safety. According to the report, they need automakers to “clearly and consistently value climate goals.”

Smart manufacturing presents a variety of benefits, and involves the implementation of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cobots, and more. Beyond the technologies themselves, however, Forbes notes that what manufacturers can do with the tech is a key factor. “One important capability of smart manufacturing is it can help drive sustainability and create sustainable manufacturing processes.” For manufacturing facilities aiming to minimize waste, gathering data on when, where, and why the waste is occurring can allow for effective management with the help of new processes and equipment. According to the post, operational safety is another area in which sustainability can be integrated.

Leveraging technology is just one option that can cater to both sustainability and safety throughout the automotive industry. According to Business & Industry, machine learning (ML) systems can be of significant benefit, particularly when it comes to reducing interruptions in the production line. Automotive industry specialist Richard Felton notes that ML systems can help avoid unplanned maintenance by analyzing data, which works to improve predictive maintenance schedules. “If you avoid unnecessary maintenance, you reduce costs, increase productivity, and do not have unplanned downtime,” he explained. “ML not only handles the sheer scale, breadth and accuracy of the data, but also the timeliness.” Technology also has great potential in heavy industries when it comes to enhancing safety in heavy industries that involve manufacturing. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics can work to enhance efficiency while reducing injuries. “Technology has assisted certain machines in their ability to run independently of human interaction, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) that is programmable by engineers or purpose-built robots that operate these dangerous practices themselves,” Johann Cilliers, group marketing director at Welding Alloys said to Manufacturing Digital.

Improvements throughout the automotive industry are imperative when it comes to meeting climate goals and creating a more environmentally friendly industry across the board. From CO2-reduced steel to balancing safety with sustainability, there are a number of ways in which the manufacturing sector is breaking ground.