By Paul Thomas, Senior EditorSustainability, it seems, has become a catchall concept applied to any practice that might save energy or help the planet a little. Witness what Wikipedia has to say: “Sustainability has become a wide-ranging term that can be applied to almost every facet of life on Earth.” As such, the term has lost a bit of its punch. That’s unfortunate, because now more than ever sustainability should become an integral part of drug manufacturers’ business and operational practices—doing the things that will help us sustain the planet such as consuming less energy and producing less waste, and in turn help the manufacturer sustain itself. “Sustainability is about sustaining a company so that it can continue to do business in the future,” says Marcia Walker, program manager for Rockwell Automation’s Sustainable Production Solutions. What better time to consider sustainability than during tough economic times? Now is the time to reduce energy and water usage, make processes more efficient, recover solvents and recycle materials, and improve product safety and integrity, she says.Rockwell has been promoting itself lately as a promoter of sustainability in manufacturing. The company’s senior leadership has always trumpeted ideas of sustainability and corporate responsibility, Walker says. Plus, “These are the types of things we help our customers with every day.”The problem is, Walker says, that manufacturers have tended to view sustainability in limited terms—turning off lights, installing solar panels, recycling waste—saving energy and implementing green practices here and there. The classic case is one in which corporate leadership institutes sustainability goals, but by the time those goals get translated to the plant floor, there is little clarity and substance to them.Only recently have pharmaceutical and other companies begun to see plant-floor production through a sustainability lens, and see automation as a means of accomplishing corporate sustainability goals and regulatory requirements, Walker says. Manufacturers are moving from projects that focus on the low-hanging fruit to those that take a more comprehensive approach.“The next step for any real savings is going to have to be on the industrial side,” says Walker. This will mean that manufacturers will have to understand their processes and how they use energy much more. In the past, she says, industrial energy consumption was typically viewed in terms of a given allocation per square feet of plant space. That won’t fly any more, as pharmaceutical companies are under much greater regulatory pressures. In the U.S., that means not only FDA pressure regarding product and process risk, but also pressure from the Department of Energy and other federal agencies to thoroughly understand and control operations.Manufacturers will have to understand their energy usage at the line and equipment level, Walker says. For most, “it’s a big guess. If line 1 were using three times as much energy as line 2, most manufacturers wouldn’t know it.”Automation will pave the way for this greater understanding of energy usage and sustainable practices, for its ability to sense and monitor processes, but also for its ability to help companies model and analyze processes and understand the complex factors that affect them.Manufacturers will need to expand their view of what automation can do. A manufacturing execution system (MES) is a prime example, Walker says. MES has traditionally been viewed as an excellent way to track what happens during production. “But it’s tracking not only the what that you put into the product, but the how, the when, and who did it.” In other words, MES can not only help manufacturers track product flow, but “energy flow and human flow,” she says.Automation lends itself to sustainability in other, less obvious ways as well. A manufacturer might be able to use simulation to reduce the load on a refrigeration compressor without sacrificing quality, or use electronic batch records to help identify a potentially bad batch before it leaves the plant, thus protecting the corporate reputation.Should manufacturers begin to incorporate such practices and ideas into everything they do, Walker says, the concept of sustainability will become much more concrete and go a long ways toward keeping manufacturers strong and successful.