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Factory of the Future or Factory for the Planet?

by John Quirke

The “Factory for the Planet” concept represents a visionary approach to industrial operations that prioritizes environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and long-term business viability. As a business model it aligns with global efforts to address climate change, resource depletion, and evolving consumer expectations for ethical and eco-friendly products and services.

I have seen, heard, and read a lot about the factory of the future. It describes the interconnection of things. The availability of real-time data to allow for accurate and rapid decision-making and process control. It speaks to the seamless way humans will interact with robots or cobots to eliminate repetitive mundane tasks and how data will flow between customers, manufacturers, and suppliers.

Whilst in many businesses elements of this future state have become a reality, in many others it has become yet another source of complexity and waste.  Information technology infrastructure has not been adequately integrated. Processes that were inefficient and overly complex have become more complex and more inefficient. Technical knowledge and skills have not kept pace with the introduction of new equipment and technology. Previous poor practices in maintenance and process optimisation continue and are now exaggerated by the critical reliance on innovative technologies.  Poor validation practices and complex quality management creates a complex web into which the process regularly stumbles.

So, it may be time to pause and rethink the notion of the Factory of the Future and consider what we need from our factories in the future. It is also time to consider what products the factories of the future will make and where these factories will be. Maybe we should be considering not just Factories of the Future but Factories for the Planet.

As the impacts and limits of our current levels of ‘stuff’ making become clear organisations are beginning to respond to market and legislative pressures.  However, while companies are tinkering with the concepts of net zero, biodiversity and social responsibility, the challenges to business will reach a whole new level over the next ten years.

Humans by our nature will always need stuff. Food, cloths, tools, medicines, homes, furnishing, gadgets, and playthings. But what this stuff is, how it is made, and what it is made from will be determined by pending legislative reform to ensure better use of scarce resources and the necessary drive to reduce global warming.

There are many discussions around what the future will look like for business. Imagine your business is given a carbon budget with limits set for the yearly maximum amount of carbon emissions arising from your business activities, all of them. Many products will be banned from the marketplace if they cannot support the right to repair, be recycled effectively or ensure no long-term impacts on the environment. Some business will simply no longer exist.

It all sounds gloomy, and it actually is! The speed at which the necessary changes are being made is far too slow. Vested interests and ignorance are slowing and, in some cases, actively preventing the requisite changes.

If you want to change the future, you must change what you’re doing in the present.

– Mark Twain

It all seems so crazy. 

Imagine you are living in a Martian space station.  The walls and seals of the space station are deteriorating causing precious oxygen to leak out into the lifeless Martian atmosphere.  You have a solution to control the issue, a paste than can be spread over the cracks and seals that will reduce the loss of oxygen, a loss that is accelerating as the system continues to deteriorate.  But the people who fly the ships to resupply oxygen have concerns. What if the paste is toxic to the inhabitants of the space station? What if its colour affects the ambiance of the interior and residents get depressed and start killing each other just like in the movies? The oxygen shipment lobbies their networks and insist on detailed studies on the effectiveness of the paste as a solution.

The paste inquiry and review process take years. But meanwhile, business is good.  The more oxygen that leaks the more deliveries are needed and the more jobs are created flying and building oxygen cargo ships.  Each time the paste control measure is raised the science around its efficacy as a solution is thrown into doubt. Anyway, we need to keep the supply chains going! If we solved the oxygen leak issue, there would be fewer cargo ships and the cost of transport to the colony would increase making the whole project unsustainable. What a tragedy that would be!

The real problem is that there just will not be enough oxygen to continually resupply the Martian colony in which you live.  The oxygen freight companies know this, the government who fund them know this, but business is good, tax is up, and people have jobs and sure are not we funding some genetic research stuff that will help people survive with less oxygen maybe even convert to nitrogen to sustain life, and sure we’ve tonnes of that! All will be good.

But unfortunately, it will not.

It is easy to despair.

But we all have a circle of influence. Now is the time to put it to good use!

Whilst the challenge is immense so are the opportunities.  Humans will always need stuff. The opportunity today is to really consider the ideal factory for the planet and start building foundations now. As a continuous improvement professional or business leader you know all this.

Inefficient and wasteful industries will be rooted out either by their competitors, legislators, or the market. Products that are shipped for thousands of miles by air and sea will need to be sourced locally, creating opportunities to re-introduce or renovate old industries. The circular economy will grow. The demand for repair, refurbishment and upcycling of products will increase creating more opportunity for new businesses and new factories. Supply chains will become more fragile through resource shortage and political instability. Onshoring of both manufacturing of subcomponents and raw material will be a reality. Upcoming legislation will ban some product for public health, resource scarcity or inadequate design. Whilst these issues create significant challenges, they also provide opportunities – but only if companies plan now and begin considering what their factories might look like.

So, what would the ideal Factory for the Planet look like?

It will need to be agile. The future will change, and products will change. A factory for the planet is a system that enables successful manufacturing within prescribed boundaries. We can see situations arising in the market which through legislative controls, will impact an organisation’s ability to bring a product to market. Permission to do so will be dependent on both the need the product is serving, and the extent to which the products manufacture, use and the disposal impacts on a defined set planetary boundaries and associated human and ecological health.

Some key elements of the design and operation of a Factory for the Planet are outlined below:

Energy:

All energy needs are provided through renewable energy sources.  Energy-efficient technologies are used to minimize the efficient and effective use of this energy.  Any surplus energy is distributed to local community power grids with local employees seeing major savings in energy costs.

Supply chains:

Wherever possible raw material and consumable items are sourced locally.  Circular economic practices are present throughout the business, reducing waste and maximizing the use of recycled materials. Factories are co located to take advantages of product repair and recycling requirements. Waste in any form is a resource for another process. Low-grade energy and heat are recovered for alternative use such as onsite horticulture. Factories actively collaborate with suppliers to source recycled and sustainable materials for manufacturing processes and facility construction.

Social Impacts:

The factory is to the forefront of social improvement in its locality. Fair labour practices, employee well-being, and opportunities for professional development are well established.  Outreach programmes within local schools and universities support skill development and learning needed in the area. The voice of the employee is actively sought. Employee involvement in decision-making processes is a defined process which leads to increased job satisfaction and a sense of ownership among employees.

Job creation will include a range of part-time and job-sharing options and will cover sponsored activity with community development initiatives. A strong outreach programme is in place to bring in local students as part of their education programme. Diversity and inclusion will be a cornerstone of the workforce and supply chain. Physical and neural diversity are catered for through sheltered work and occupational development schemes run within the workplace.  These are supported by employees who have volunteered to received specialised training to support these programmes.

As the number and severity of extreme weather events increases, the factory for the planet will have contingency support plans in place for their local community.

During the tragedy that was hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, many factories were the only source of emergency power and clean water and outside communication for their local communities.

Process Improvement and Innovation:

Innovation and efficiency are embraced with a passion. Efficiency will always be balanced with effectiveness. There is no tolerance for efficiently doing the wrong thing! Processes are optimised and simplified not only to create space for alternative products but to allow for greater team development time or paid time for employees in social and community activity.

Detailed and effective process monitoring has resulted in the elimination of waste and rejected products. Any waste that generated which cannot be reused in house enters the circular economy. Process innovation and improvement ideas are driven by work teams who are energetically supported and inspired by skilled and committed leadership teams.

Customer Value:

The level of connection with customer is at a whole new level. Customers in general will be educated on a form of product selection criteria that is based on an environmental impact scale.  This scale not only covers the use of the product during its lifetime but also the impact of its manufacture and its disposal.  To reduce risks of redundancy and failed new product introductions, customer feedback is constantly sought in relation to product design and functionality.

Customers are encouraged to visit the factory and local community.  They are made aware of the environmental and community initiatives and are engaged with these initiatives.  Customers within a specified radius of the factory receive generous discounts on products though the factory outlet which also functions as a product repair and recycling depot.  Customers returning a used product receive significant discount on replacement.

Building Design:

The look and design of a Factory for the Planet will be different.  The orientation and design of buildings will maximise energy efficiency.  The fabric of the building will include sustainable construction materials, green roofs, and other features that contribute to energy and water conservation. Access to the factory will prioritise public transport cycling and walking.  Electric car charging will be available with energy provided free of charge to employee and visitors.

The factory design and construction will include features that make it resilient to extreme weather events and adaptable to changing environmental conditions.

Internally the building fit out will consist of eco-friendly infrastructure to enhance and improve air quality and reduce reliance on air-conditioning and artificial lighting.

Natural Environment:

External spaces will incorporate significant green spaces, preserving natural habitats and promoting biodiversity. This will include green belts, wildlife corridors, and specific areas for native plant species.  Where appropriate there will be clearly defined buffer zones to preserve natural habitats on the property.

Aggressive sustainable water management and conservation measures are in place including rainwater capture, secondary reuse, and onsite irrigation.  Permeable surfaces will be used for parking lots and walkways to allow rainwater to penetrate the ground, reducing runoff and supporting groundwater recharge.

Sustainable agriculture practices take place on the factory’s land. Including community and employee gardens, intense vertical farming activity and other initiatives that promote local food security and local sustainability. Where possible low-grade heat from water and air are captured to heat green houses to extend growing seasons in winter periods or reduce running cost for high intensity horticulture activity.

What can be considered right now to move towards a Factory for the Planet?

  1. Take a detailed look at your supply chain to assess risks over the next five and ten years.
  2. Take steps to reduce reliance on extended air freight and shipping.
  3. Find local suppliers where possible. Higher local cost may be offset by lower inventory holding.
  4. Review each product value stream in detail. Map your material and energy flows in detail. Begin a rootless process to eliminate waste and inefficiency within both the individual process steps, the links between process steps and the surrounding support functions. This process should extend beyond the walls of the factory and deep into the supply chain.
  5. Simplify your product portfolio – With a clear view of product value streams and their associated demand identify and eliminate the ‘dogs and cats’ in your product portfolio. Focus on 80:20. The twenty percent of your products that give eight percent of revenue and profit. A focus on the efficient delivery of the twenty percent will more than cover any revenue losses from the eighty. The focus on the twenty percent will align the business to true customer value which will generate more revenue opportunities for your business.
  6. Technology – Where possible adopt technology but carefully. Consider whether the proposed technology provides the flexibility needed in a volatile landscape. Will existing business systems integrate with information flows and the quality management requirements arising from this new technology? If digital and technology is a route for your business, build the necessary skills for operation maintenance and support internally within your team and get these teams involved as early as possible in the design and selection of the solution. Engage with local schools and colleges to develop necessary skills for the future.
  7. Adopt the latest thinking and innovation during the construction of any new build project and incorporate as many aspects of the design of a Factory for the Planet as discussed in this article.
  8. Focus on Process Efficiency and Effectiveness – Stop making product for which there is no current demand. Instead use the time to develop your teams’ skills and improve your processes. Eliminate complexity and focus on process robustness, simplicity and elegance in work design and work and work instruction.
  9. Identify all opportunities to reduce energy consumption inhouse resulting from manufacturing and data storage. Extend this activity offsite within supplier interactions and communications. Move all remaining energy needs to sustainable sources. Use every opportunity onsite to generate green energy through wind, solar, and heat recovery.
  10. Locally source raw materials and consumable supplies wherever possible. All physical waste from process activity should be eliminated but what remains may provide raw material for other businesses. Seek out these opportunities.
  11. Look at your green areas and consider opportunities for rewilding and forestry. Encourage employees to develop horticulture projects and nature conservation. Bee keeping seems to be a growing trend on facilities across Europe!
  12. Look for opportunities to support your local community in meaningful ways. Education and real opportunities for work experience for youth and individuals with disabilities is a good place to start. Support investment in local recreational and cultural facilities and activities.  All these provide immensely powerful messages to your workforce and your community.

But first. Engage your workforce in this struggle.

There is a considerable amount of misinformation and a degree of fear around the subject of climate change. Individuals feel helpless, unable to do anything to impact this immense problem. Bring your team on the journey.  It is and will be a struggle.  Seek out opportunities, educate and support them and their communities.  Lay out a future with purpose not despair. It is in their interests to help build a factory for the planet in their community. Their future, the future of their community and that of their children will depend on it.

Our future is as certain or uncertain as we make it.

Be bold.

 

John Quirke

S A Partners Dec 2023.

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