Synergies Between XR and Sustainability in Industry

Written BY

Emily Friedman

August 28, 2023

How can immersive technologies help manufacturers and other industrial companies meet ESG (environment, social, and governance) goals? 

Alarming orange skies over NYC, devastating wildfires in Maui, intensive heat waves around the world…the evidence of climate change is glaring. Despite this, the world’s biggest companies - the largest contributors to the climate change crisis - have done almost nothing to limit global warming. 

Demand

Sustainability SHOULD be on every corporate agenda, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because employees and customers are increasingly demanding it. 77% of Americans are concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy. These consumers consider a company’s “sustainability credentials” and have shown that they’re willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. At the same time, a majority don’t believe companies’ environmental claims.  

Though demand for businesses to be eco-conscious isn’t demographic-specific, a whopping 90% of Gen Zers say companies have a responsibility to the environment (McKinsey). Sustainability matters to them as both consumers and employees: Younger workers have higher “eco-anxiety” and are willing to reject and leave jobs based on their climate change values. 

Role of XR

AR/VR/MR (XR) or extended reality can aid in the transition to a low-carbon economy. For one, XR doesn’t require a physical presence, helping multiple sectors cut emissions by reducing business travel and waste. Some companies are turning to XR as a PR tool to show their commitment to sustainability, while advances in digital twins are providing a more holistic view of the environmental impact of individual products and organizations

Moreover, any immersive application aimed at improving efficiency has an indirect influence on sustainability. But let’s begin with reduced travel. 

Reduced Travel

One of the more obvious ways XR improves sustainability is by preventing unnecessary travel. The transportation sector alone is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions, so limiting employees’ air and land travel can significantly reduce pollution. 

XR supports remote working through virtual meetings and training, as well as virtual collaboration (in MR or VR) and AR-enhanced remote technical support. It goes beyond telecommuting. Now, an SME doesn’t need to be at a particular location to solve a problem. She can troubleshoot the issue and assist with a fix via an onsite worker’s AR glasses. The industrial metaverse, specifically the use of complex digital twins, will take remote maintenance and repair to the next level. 

With XR, training can occur anywhere and geographically dispersed teams can collaborate in the same virtual environment, thereby widening the talent pool and helping to optimize human resources–all while reducing emissions-intensive travel. Moreover, remote and hybrid working options appeal to eco-conscious employees in a time of widespread worker unrest

Sustainable Design

It’s estimated that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design phase. Using XR from this stage cuts down on the number of physical models required, allowing for faster prototyping and reduced material consumption. Companies can also trade physical studios for collaborative virtual design spaces. 

Having a virtual representation of a product from the earliest stage has other green benefits, too: Used to simulate the product in manufacturing, as it would be used in the real world, even modeling disaster scenarios and end of life, XR provides a more complete understanding of that product’s environmental impact throughout its lifecycle

You can use VR to design more eco-conscious products: An electric vehicle with less cabling, for instance, would conserve resources in production. You can also test products in the virtual world to see the outcome of certain design decisions. Digital twins allow for seemingly endless realistic simulations of a product in use to consider things like durability, recyclability, ability to withstand increasing temperatures, and other factors that will impact the overall carbon footprint of the product–all from the design phase. 

Thus, digital twins are key to sustainable design, empowering designers to make better decisions that determine the final sustainability of a product. A comprehensive digital twin of a machine would mature throughout the machine’s lifecycle, creating a flow of data between the real and digital worlds that can be used for continuous analysis, prediction, and optimization over its lifetime. 

Responsible production

Virtual prototypes save physical resources. Identifying errors early in the design process avoids unnecessary transportation and material waste (including product recalls and rework). XR modeling can also be used to plan processes and supply chains for greater efficiency, for instance to plan a production line that uses less energy and materials.  

Efficiency and sustainability are closely linked. Where there’s less (machine) downtime, there’s increased productivity and fewer errors and thus reduced energy and material usage. Add AI into the mix and you enable predictive maintenance, avoiding the need to build backup machines. “Simply” increasing output with the same input contributes to a reduced carbon footprint. 

Like downtime, inventory control is a significant source of waste. Beyond a digital twin of an individual piece of equipment, a comprehensive digital twin of an entire operation, including supplier and partner ecosystems, would prevent things like over-ordering materials and potentially over-production. 

Another easy way to reduce waste in the production process is to go paperless, providing AR glasses to employees in lieu of paper work instructions in assembly and even turning user manuals into mobile AR apps. 

Responsible consumption

On the flipside of responsible production is responsible consumption. Through virtual simulations, designers and engineers can evaluate how a product and/or its materials might be reused or retired once no longer in use. Data from these simulations can be used to bake sustainability right into the design of the product. 

Brands are also reimagining their product packaging, using AR to cut down on the amount of packaging (reduce waste) and encourage or instruct consumers to recycle or repurpose. It can be as simple as scanning a QR code to activate an immersive experience that educates consumers about the product. Ingredients, directions for use, warnings, etc. that take up room on packaging can be turned into engaging, memorable, even gamified experiences. Moreover, AR labels are easily scalable and can be updated to deliver new experiences without redesigning or wasting existing packaging

Another aspect of responsible consumption is resiliency–generating scenarios with digital twins in order to make design decisions ensuring a product will hold up against extreme weather brought on by climate change. 

Awareness & Marketing

Lastly, XR can be used as a PR tool to inform consumers of an organization’s sustainability efforts. Remember that a majority of people don’t believe companies’ environmental claims, but what if the QR code on the product’s label could demonstrate the brand’s green initiatives?

Brands are using XR to show how they ethically source materials, how they help communities and treat their workers, how a product gets from the factory or farm to our shelves, and even spread awareness about a cause. It’s a powerful publicity tool that creates both transparency and buzz, converting consumers who would switch preferred brands to one that shares their environmental concerns and earning brand loyalty. 

Conclusion

Of course, digital technologies are not 100% eco-friendly. Enterprise technologies have their own footprints and are responsible for around 1% of global emissions according to McKinsey. Artificial Intelligence, a key technology of the industrial metaverse, is especially energy-intensive, with one study equating the climate toll of training a single AI model to the lifetime emissions of five American cars. While this takes away from the eco gains of adopting immersive technologies in design, manufacturing, and consumption described above, it by no means cancels out the benefits. It is up to organizations to ensure technology investments lower energy consumption enough to outweigh the cost of computing power.

Image source: Vecteezy

Further Reading
New Questions Arise from XR End Users on the Factory Floor
April 3, 2024
Factory workers' questions indicate growing interest and acceptance of XR in manufacturing and beyond.
Apple Vision Pro: Already a Hit in Healthcare and Retail
April 3, 2024