Green Shoots

3 mins read

For real gains to be made, manufacturing production brought back to the UK should be cleaner and greener than ever before explains PTC’s Paul Brooks.

In 2024, UK manufacturers are stepping up their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) commitments, according to a recent report by industry body Make UK and Lloyds Bank.

The survey of 150 UK manufacturers finds that 62% now set ESG targets or KPIs (key performance indicators) for ESG, compared to just 42% in 2001. More than half (56%) of respondents say their firm has a formal strategy in place.

For many, environmental themes - the ‘E’ in ESG - are under the spotlight. The challenge of meeting Net Zero targets, in particular, is focusing boardroom minds, as are issues around waste, pollution and the financial shackles of rising energy consumption,

Reshoring - the practice of bringing back manufacturing operations and jobs to the home country from overseas - could certainly provide a partial answer. After all, geographical proximity to suppliers of raw materials and to third-party manufacturing partners can vastly reduce transportation requirements, which is bound to have a positive environmental impact.

However, I would argue that reshoring needs to be just one part of a wider practice for UK manufacturers, one that some experts are referring to as ‘greenshoring’.

Greenshoring Goal

With greenshoring, we see the same emphasis on bringing manufacturing production closer to home, but with the important caveat that once reshored, processes should be leaner and greener than ever before.

In the UK, experts at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult are keen supporters of this approach, seeing it as key to domestic manufacturing’s global competitiveness.

In other words, it could be an important tactic for bringing overseas production to the UK and boosting the national economy. In time, the ability to offer low-carbon, sustainable manufacturing processes could be a key measure of attractiveness to overseas firms, alongside more conventional measures, such as quality, productivity, and innovation.

There is no time to waste however, according to Professor Sam Turner, the HVMC’s Net Zero champion: “The work must start now so that when markets do begin to look for that low-carbon manufacturing supply base, the UK is the place to go.”

A Digital Imperative

Whether UK manufacturers are simply looking to reshore their own manufacturing processes or attract new overseas business, digital transformation remains at the top of the ‘to do’ list.

First, they must address power consumption, adopting new methods to both optimise current energy usage and introduce renewable energy alternatives.

Here, industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies play a big role. By collecting and analysing data from meters and connected machines on their production lines, they are better positioned to monitor usage, identify areas of waste and to take remote action to power systems on or off, according to when it is most cost-effective to run them.

Second, they must look beyond the production processes themselves, and scrutinise how they are designing products in the first place.

The goal here is developing more lightweight, durable, or reusable products, using AI-driven tools such as generative design and topology optimisation. These can be a big help in reducing a product’s final weight, optimising the parts and components required to make them and prioritising recyclable materials - reducing reliance on supply chain partners by opting for in-house 3D printing of components, for example.

Finally, they should think about what happens when a product leaves their premises and arrives with a customer.

A connected product can continue to feed back information about its usage and condition over its entire lifecycle, and that data offers opportunities to proactively offer the maintenance and repair services that will keep it running well for longer. Remote fixes and upgrades that reduce the transportation costs associated with technician visits are also available.

A connected approach like this also means that, at the end of its usable life, the manufacturer can take a hands-on approach to ensuring a product is subject to an environmentally friendly recycling and disposal processes.

One of the most stubborn arguments in favour of manufacturing outsourcing has always been cost, even though those benefits have dwindled substantially in recent years. But in the end, this is not just about financial cost; it’s about the cost to the planet.

Using reshoring to simply bring home a wasteful, polluting manufacturing process benefits nobody. In 2024, UK manufacturing needs to think bigger and bolder, to get work done at home in ways that are both more cost-effective and kinder to the environment.