Factory of the future: What will 2050 look like?

6 min read

Faced by challenges around price and availability of resources, the food and drink manufacturing industry needs to undertake a further stage of transformation.

Speed, efficiency and customer focus are a given. For long-term sustainability there need to be major changes in the ways in which the industry collaborates and works with new partners in the supply chain, as well as more directly with consumers and society more widely.

Working in partnership with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), we have been mapping the challenges and opportunities in order to identify what needs to be done and how. The first stage of the research, published in June 2015, brought together experts from CCE and Cranfield University, as well as wider industry and academia, highlighted six major themes of People, Big Data, Technology, Collaboration, Value and Resilience. A second stage of research, a programme of quantitative and qualitative research involving face-to-face interviews and workshops with experts in the field of sustainability has led to a roadmap for future development and a vision for a sustainable ‘factory of the future’ by 2050.

Anticipating the future

The use of sensors, big data analysis and the Internet of Things is already enabling real-time transparency across the supply chain, from ‘farm to fork’. Methods are being developed to exploit this data, be more transparent and to collaborate more with customers, suppliers and even competitors. This will help manufacturers to maintain a resilient business while meeting the needs of markets in general and, eventually, the needs of specific individuals. Business decision-makers strive to ‘do the right thing’ for the environment and the visibility provided by big data will give manufacturers greater confidence that their process means a ‘win-win-win’ for their business, the supply chain and the environment.

Some parts of the supply chain will use data to operate autonomously. Sensing technology will, for example, monitor the quality of farmland in real-time, ensuring that problems can be fixed immediately, keeping the land operating at maximum productivity and more sustainably. An existing example of a ‘smart farm’ is one run by a British farmer in the Midlands, whose company grows crops on 4,000 acres using hi-tech tractors and using GPS satellite technology to map fields and identify what part of a field needs spraying with fertiliser to within a few inches. By working together, agriculture and manufacturing operations can ensure sustainable harvests for generations to come by using technology to better maintain land.

Similarly in factories, sensor technology will be used as a tool for monitoring quality and supporting real-time decision-making to keep manufacturing operating efficiently, identifying oncoming bottlenecks in the process. For consumers, data will be passed on, providing more detailed information about the provenance of food and the chains involved, as well as visibility about the use of fertilisers and their impact to the land and surrounding environment. ‘Smart tags’ on food products that indicate when it is no longer safe to eat and ‘smart kitchens’ will help manage the food available and reduce waste.

Providing nutrition

Food producers will need to focus on resilience and delivering the greatest value to customers, not just financially but in the broadest, social sense. In the future product ingredients will be examined ever more closely, and industry will be held responsible. Food and drink manufacturers have to find ways to remove or alter ingredients that are considered unhealthy, continue to produce popular products., and balance this with the need to counter incidences of food over-supply and food waste.

A constructive way forward will be to introduce models which are service based and personalised to deliver convenience and value - moving away from mass production towards making personalised products to order. This will be achieved by small, local facilities that use technology to synchronise resource availability, supply and demand. Specialist manufacturers that currently make personalised products will move from niche enterprises into the mainstream as advances in technology progress. Companies will be a combination of large and small operations that are better for the environment because they are more local to the consumer. Graze snacks is an example of this in action. It trades on the focus on personalisation and nutrition. The company provides products on-demand and delivered to any address. Nutrition information is provided through a well-established visual language with low calorie and healthy options promoted through simple graphics.

More ‘smart ingredients’ will emerge, with the potential to replace or alter other content such as sugar, fat and salt (as has happened with stevia in recent years, a natural, calorie- free sweetener made from the stevia leaf).

Sharing the benefits

P&G and Unilever are planning to collaborate on new product development, while Nike has been allowing customers to co-create shoes online. The food and drink industry should work towards engaging society and sharing benefits when creating products. Well-being must be put at the centre of delivery and shared IP considered as a way to protect the environment. As collaboration increases, there will of course be more debate about the trade-off between, on the one hand, keeping data and intellectual property private and, on the other hand, the opportunities to minimise environmental impact by sharing big data and providing superior levels of service. It will be imperative that big companies take responsibility for leading the debate and acting ahead of consumer opinion.

Collaboration amongst businesses, organisations and suppliers will be a key enabler for supply chain sustainability. 90% of executives involved in the research strongly support the need for collaboration across industry. Companies will need to show resilience to environmental change and show leadership to build trust, demonstrate responsibility and lead the debate and take action, rather than waiting for consumer pressure. In the interviews, experts predicted there will be greater competition to work with sustainable farmers as manufacturers seek to collaborate to secure quality resources. Customers will have a more direct role in collaboration and co-creation beyond just initial planning and product development.

Inspiring the next generation

With growing automation of both hard technology and soft information technology, fewer people will be developing, managing and improving complex businesses but these people will remain vital to tackling the challenges of sustainability. The growing skills gap - as a generation of experienced employees retire and there is a particular dearth of skilled engineers - will mean the need for more integration with universities and to reach learners as early as possible in schools.

A highly skilled, ethics-led workforce will be required in the future to maintain financial competitiveness, as well as address the pressing need to change the way we use the earth’s resources. This will include business leaders who are skilled innovators who instil an ethical stance of the business into those around them, as well as nurturing the careers of individuals in the wider community and meeting the expectations of all stakeholders. To make this happen, companies will need to support career development, not just for their staff but also in local society through community programmes in schools etc; nurture leaders at every level of the business; ensure leaders are visible not only to employees but also directly involved with local communities; develop staff to drive change towards sustainability and embed this knowledge into their technical competencies.

Volvo works with schools in Sweden to help students prepare for their future careers. Volvo Cars’ Swedish high schools, Volvogymnasiet in Skövde and Göteborgs Tekniska College in Gothenburg, are centres of excellence for technical education. Volvo is also closely involved with Sweden’s leading universities, with initiatives and collaborations with the Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law.

Joining forces

How value and leadership is understood will change dramatically as companies join forces with each other, and with customers and society. This will become accepted as the only way to grow positively whilst reducing impact and footprint. It will require manufacturers to be key agents of change, as they have the capabilities and insight required to help educate and strengthen different aspects of the value chain. The concept of ‘loyalty’ has to extend beyond a company, into the supply chain and to further connect with consumers and promote the value of resources.

Employees will openly consider themselves as members of a wider supply chain to find ways to prevent negative supply chain impact on the environment. Connecting global environmental problems such as resource scarcity directly to individuals’ personal activities and lifestyles will be a major challenge but is an opportunity to encourage collective accountability. Co-operation will be essential to ensure the ‘circularity’ of resources, to eliminate waste and allow valuable resources to be reused. Manufacturers will work beyond the industrial value chain system to educate society on how to achieve positive environmental impact. In general, the food and drink industry will have to find ‘levers’ to improve value to customers that also benefit the environment and society.

The response to a recent natural disaster in the US from Anheuser-Busch shows how this can work. The brewer produced more than 50,000 cans of emergency drinking water idling the beer production line at their Cartersville, Georgia brewery to produce the canned water and deliver it to the American Red Cross for dispersal to flood victims.

Mark Jolly, Professor of Sustainable Manufacturing and Head of the Sustainable Manufacturing Systems Centre, Cranfield University, www.cranfield.ac.uk

Sustainable manufacturing for the future: The journey to 2050: research on the vision and pathways for sustainability in the food and drink industry in Great Britain, can be downloaded from: http://www.cokecce.co.uk/news-and-events/news/coca-cola-enterprises-and-cranfield-university-launch-vision-for-sustainable-food-and-drink-manufacturing