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How resource efficiency is changing the future of manufacturing

Graham Hillier

By Graham Hillier

26 Feb 2020

As consumer awareness around product origin, carbon footprint, resource efficiency and the circular economy grows, the demands on the manufacturing industry are changing. Society is becoming less keen on low cost, high emission, undifferentiated products. Instead manufacturers are being asked for products that have:

  • Better quality with smarter technology and good design.
  • Faster conversion of raw materials into product.
  • Cheaper manufacturing costs with lower capital requirements.
  • Greener processes, designing products with reuse and recycling in mind.
  • Lower carbon footprint.
  • Safer products and processes.

Manufacturing smarter products quickly and cheaply while also lowering carbon footprint is no easy feat. These demands mean many industries are having to rethink their products and processes. It mature economies like the UK and Europe it is no longer acceptable to go for high-capacity mass-produced products where low cost of production is the main driver. 

This approach works well when a market is growing quickly and people buy products for the first time, but in the markets of mature economies consumers want products that are differentiated through customisation and personalisation – think about the number of options available on modern cars. In this world manufacturing plants built on the basis of low-cost economy of scale often struggle to respond to this changing market need, as they lack the flexibility required to adapt their processes to the personalised demand. 

This can be seen in a multitude of mature industries including chemicals, steel, cars, craft beers and mobile telecoms. 

This desire for customisation and personalisation in an environment of lower economic growth presents a manufacturing conundrum for many industries. This is driving the need for increased innovation to make competitive products flexibly. 

A good example is in the beer industry. For most of history, beer has generally been a low volume craft industry, produced using local raw materials for a local market. However, in the 1960s and 1970s beer manufacture was consolidated among a few key brewers with a small number of breweries each with enormous capacity.

These leading producers began increasingly relied on glitzy marketing to try to ensure their economy of scale plants remained full do they could maintain profitability. However, consumers were looking for a more personalised and customised brew. 

The change in market behaviour coincided with a major step forward in process control and the cost of brewing equipment. The result is the rise of the microbrewery which in essence is a digitally enables craft manufacturing system. 

As a consequence there has been a sharp increase in the number of innovative brewers with manufacturing processes that fulfil the consumer demand for unique and different drinks. Their products are of high quality and yet require significantly less capital to produce. Furthermore, the use of local raw materials maintains low logistics costs and improves these breweries’ environmental impact. Not forgetting the similar trend in the creation of new and varied gins!

Craft Beer Factory

Approaches to next-generation manufacturing

The craft beer and gin market boom is a great example of how an industry can thrive in a post-mature market, producing small quantities of customised product in a flexible process. 

For other industries to mimic this success, there must be a drive towards increasing efficiency and reducing waste in manufacturing. This will involve enhancing current manufacturing processes. Howeverm there are only really 4 ways to address the challenge:

  1. Make existing steps of supply or value chain processes perform better
  2. Replace steps of existing process with more efficient equipment or processes
  3. Radically redesign processes to eliminate steps
  4. Change the business model to deliver a market changing solution

This is a form of incremental improvement that can be achieved by increasing first-pass efficiency or recycling more raw materials. In high capacity industries, even very small improvements in plant efficiency can make a big difference to profit margins. 

For instance, a plant producing plastic film that increased the pass efficiency from 40% to 60% saw a 75% improvement in value.

This approach involves changing process steps to improve value chain performance. It could be as simple as switching a metal pump impeller to a plastic one in a heating pump. 

Margins can increase significantly as plastic is less expensive to process and makes more hydrodynamically efficient impellors that require smaller motors. Mind you this is only possible once a polymer has been developed that can survive for many years in boiling hot water.

Examples of this approach include switching from batch processes to continuous ones, or using bio feedstocks instead of fossil fuels. Designing better processes can reduce complexity in a system and lower the cost of manufacturing. 

This is the most radical of the approaches, with examples including the servitisation of power for the air industry or the introduction of the smartphone. 

These last two points require lots of innovation this is provided by organisations like the Centre for Process Innovation and its partners in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

Following these four steps can enable companies to create the resource-efficient manufacturing systems of the future: As we discussed in a previous blog here. By designing processes that minimise waste at every step and increasing the rate of reuse, remanufacture and recycling, manufacturing industry can ensure it is well prepared for the future.

The Future of Manufacturing

Focus on pharma

Like in other mature industries, pharma manufacturing is also moving towards smaller batches of more personalised products. 

However, due to ageing populations and soaring R&D costs, the industry is under a unique pressure to urgently meet increasing demands for innovation in its manufacturing processes. More cost-effective and efficient processes can alleviate the industry’s strain by increasing the velocity of projects through the innovation pipeline and lowering the cost of drug development. 

CPI is working within this space through activities at the CPI’s Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre. Here, collaborative projects are underway with companies across the industry to develop advanced processes including a continuous platform for next-generation small molecule manufacture and an automated platform that enables just-in-time clinical trials.

Focus on Pharma for Manufacturing

Conclusions

The future of manufacturing will be challenging, but there are immense opportunities for innovative companies. While the need for economies of scale will continue in rapidly growing markets, mature and post-mature markets will increasingly move to move towards resource-efficient low carbon sustainable process that meet the consumer’s desire for personalisation and customisation. 

In order to harness these opportunities and create resource-efficient manufacturing systems, the first step is to make sure that policymakers, business leaders, engineers and manufacturers understand that change is both necessary and possible. 

Then we must use the power of big data to better understand and optimise our manufacturing processes, whether through large flexible plants or smaller plants at point of use. By working collaboratively across technical and social disciplinary boundaries, we can enable industry to make attractive, reliable and sustainable products; but we must ensure that our policies are based in technological reality and not political desires.

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