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Article

Wasted energy costs the world, so how can we make sustainability more accessible?

We speak to Dr Phil Harper, Founder and CTO at Tribosonics, on industry culture, global legislation and how technology can help tackle the pressing challenges facing the energy industry.

12 February 2021

Contributors

contact-Jay Gujral

Jay Gujral

Account Director

As internal industry culture and global legislation begin to catch up with public pressure around sustainability, reducing this figure not only represents a glaring opportunity to reach net-zero emissions, but presents a lifeline for the industry’s bottom line, too.

When you look at the raw figures, it’s staggering: 23% of the world’s energy, lost to wear, friction and lubrication. It means there’s a massive sustainability challenge and a significant efficiency challenge. Alongside these challenges, though, it means there’s also a huge market opportunity.

That’s the prognosis according to Dr Phil Harper, Founder and CTO at Tribosonics, the Sheffield-based tech company developing sensing technology designed to tackle the challenges of wear friction and lubrication in the energy industry and beyond.

“When you look at the raw figures, it’s staggering: 23% of the world’s energy, lost to wear, friction and lubrication. It means there’s a massive sustainability challenge and a significant efficiency challenge. Alongside these challenges, though, it means there’s also a huge market opportunity.”

Driving innovation against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, of course, hasn’t been easy – but Tribosonics has surpassed expectations by securing grant funding and substantial investment. The rapid increase in digitalisation, and the subsequent impact of enforced and simultaneous change to the energy sector, has caused people to sit up and take notice of what lies ahead.

Accelerating drivers around sustainability now feels more a matter of when – and how quickly – rather than if, and operational costs are being restructured to accommodate them. The question, Dr Harper believes, is whether the promise of the past can live up to the potential of the future.

“There’s been so much talk around technology and its influence on how the world generates and consumes energy. The Industrial Internet of Things, AI, machine learning – all of these have the potential to change the world, but so far, none have quite delivered on this promise. Now we’re really going to see if there’s a step change in this.”

The plastics industry, whose waste is the most visible and tangible representation of the problem, is an obvious place to start. Tribosonics’ approach blends both elements of the sustainability dilemma: how to reduce emissions, and how to remain profitable. Put simply, the way to engage these businesses is not just with legislative threats, it’s with transformational technology to provide opportunities to strengthen their bottom line.

“Using the polymer plastics industry as an example, companies we’ve been speaking to have said as much as 4% of their revenue is lost in waste. Where sensing technology can play a role, is when you use it to control the production line and waste reduces from there. Eliminating that wasted 4% of revenue represents a significant improvement to the bottom line.“

Traditionally, OEM businesses are successful when their customers require the most help. That’s a bit of a perverse incentive; it’s not a sustainable way to live in the world. 

“That’s where it gets interesting – from an operational cost perspective and a sustainability perspective. It gets businesses thinking about the circular economy: How do we develop plastics better? How do we use them better? And how do we recycle them better?”

Part of this innovation drive is through companies like Tribosonics offering ‘technology as a service’. Multinationals are looking to increase the pace of change, but competition within the market is increasing along with it. As a result, legacy systems and slow-moving internal response have created the perfect environment for smaller, more agile companies to step in and provide a cutting edge – and collaboration is becoming a much more mutually-beneficial process.

“Traditionally, OEM businesses are successful when their customers require the most help. That’s a bit of a perverse incentive; it’s not a sustainable way to live in the world.“

“It’s up to us to connect the dots on this and help flip the script. We want to enable organisations to switch to a service model earlier, and then be able to compete at a level they weren’t able to previously. This means there is a need not only for strategic technology but a vision on how to deploy it and new business models to commercialise it.”

All this leads towards a place where technology is being developed that can be used cross-industry. The ability to tweak innovations for individual areas or sectors will be crucial in assisting large corporations as they look to accelerate their digitalisation – and this is something, Dr Harper believes, businesses like Tribosonics should bed into their day-to-day work to remain as responsive as possible when new challenges do arise.

“Commercial models no longer need to be as rigid as they have been in years gone by. Innovation is a fluid process; we spend the first few hours of the week in the lab experimenting with new concepts based on market shifts, trends, and the needs of businesses we work with.“

“That way, we can develop a basket of new technologies that our customers can create value from, putting the onus on ourselves to generate innovative, impactful solutions for them. It’s a real partnership dynamic.”

For Dr Harper, innovation is not simply about thinking differently, it’s about thinking collectively and simultaneously. The challenges of today mean that being led purely by ROI can only get you so far. It is a mindset that causes waste to snowball and, ultimately, ends up costing consumers, companies, and the planet as a result.

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in efficiency series. To view the report and further interviews and insights into efficiency solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here.

12 February 2021

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