On 2 December, Cranfield’s 11th annual National Manufacturing Debate took place virtually, connecting alumni, academics and industry professionals from all over the world.

This year’s debate topic was: ‘Decarbonisation: opportunities for the manufacturing sector’. Featuring a panel of expert speakers from a range of sectors within the industry, the debate provided thought-provoking insights into the challenges and opportunities manufacturing faces in its bid to decarbonise.

From new digital manufacturing techniques to facilitate more efficient production and repairs, to collaborating across industries and supply chains to implement improved processes, the opportunity to innovate and the role manufacturing can play to create tangible change is clear. Read on for a few of our key takeaways from the debate.

1. Make do and mend – then make things do more. We need to start with the end in mind.

By implementing new digital manufacturing techniques, we can go beyond repairing products and repurpose or improve them. If we start with the end in mind and think about the entire supply chain when it comes to decarbonisation, we can design products with recycling in mind, and manage our supply chains to efficiently retrieve materials for re-use.

When it comes to repairing products, Jason Jones, CEO and Co-founder, Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, highlights that it's important to not only design products that have a long life, but also to design products that can be repaired or with parts that can be reused. Restoring functionality means we can:

  • Continue to use the product, and remanufacturing uses a fraction of the energy that would be required to manufacture an entirely new product.
  • Go beyond just repairing things to ‘make them do’ – we can improve them in this process to ‘make them do more’. Jones gives the example of repairing gas turbine blades and reshaping the bottom of the blades as part of this repair process with additive metals, to make them more efficient.

The new freedom of geometry that digital manufacturing techniques - be it additive, subtractive or hybrid – offer, means that we can leverage these new technical capabilities to create smaller and more efficient designs and be more efficient when it comes to how we repair or repurpose products.

Drawing on her experience in the resilient flooring sector, Jane Gardner, Managing Director, European Resilient Flooring Manufacturers Institute, outlined that when it comes to the value chain for construction products, it’s not just the manufacturing phase that needs to be considered – it is also the logistics, distribution, build and use phases, along with the refurbishment or demolition phases. The opportunities for decarbonising these products lies not just in the raw material choices or manufacturing processes, but also thinking about designing the products for disassembly or recycling, making use of backhaul logistics to retrieve recyclable content, and considering how waste can be efficiently collected and sorted for recycling.

Starting with the end in mind means designing products that can be recycled and planning for how the product can be collected at the end of its life, so that a secondary raw material is provided to be used as recycled content. By implementing backhaul logistics, manufacturers can take back waste from their own products, ensuring a good quality input of recyclable materials with known composition.

Additionally, using backhaul logistics for ‘take back’ schemes can also help to reduce carbon emissions. A Waste Resources and Action Plan (WRAP) case study showed that backhauling is an effective waste management method:

  • It targets a specific waste stream and diverts the material from landfill, while ensuring it can be swiftly recycled.
  • It is cost neutral, as it saves on other waste management costs
  • It reduces carbon emissions as vehicles that would previously have been arriving at sites empty now contain the old materials.

Thinking about the end of a product’s life cycle, from the beginning, is key – asking ‘how can I capture those materials to use back in my products?’ and promoting communication and collaboration in the supply chain. Going forward, Jane states that digitalisation and tracking systems will become an essential part of this process.

2. What can we do without? We need to consider what we manufacture and why, to avoid simply repeating the mistakes of the past.

Part of achieving the change that is required to decarbonise the manufacturing industry is addressing the question of ‘what can we do without?’. In his keynote speech, Dr Colin Herron CBE, Managing Director, Zero Carbon Futures, warned of the risk of simply trying to replicate what we currently have or do – because we could end up simply repeating the mistakes of the past, with little learning. We need to weigh up what products – and processes – are essential and non-essential. And it’s not just how we manufacture products that should be considered, but what we are manufacturing and why.

One example Dr Herron discusses is electric vehicles (EVs): we cannot simply replace one vehicle with another, or more widely one product with another product, without considering the wider impact. In the case of EVs, while tailpipe emissions are reduced, the other issues - of congestion, the dangers of so many vehicles being on the roads and the materials/processes required to make components such as brakes – still exist. He argues that we can’t waste the earth’s resources, but we are still going down that route by creating products we don’t actually need. We don’t need three- or four-litre vehicles to drive to the supermarket, just as we don’t need electric vehicles to be equipped with the biggest possible batteries. We don’t need petrol-fuelled leaf blowers, when we could just use a broom to clear our driveways.

Colin states: “We shouldn’t use the earth’s resources based on ego or wealth.” An interesting question for the industry is: “Will behaviours change and demand that we stop creating products that don’t actually have a ‘real’ use for the person, or the planet?”
Will we continue to make such products? And, should we be allowed to continue to make these products?

Ben Peace, Head of Manufacturing, KTN, also picked up on this point of addressing not just the processes we use, or what we do with materials at the end of their use phase, but the products we are creating in the first place. He described the here and now as a “golden opportunity” to make the changes we want to see in the manufacturing industry. We need to take action now, go beyond energy provisions and ask ourselves the hard questions such as:

  • What kind of fourth industrial revolution do we want to see?
  • Are we making the right things?
  • Is circular economy a means of sustaining our existing economy or making a new one?

When it comes to the circular economy, we need to elevate discussions above focusing solely on materials and what to do with them at the end of their life and look at the design of products. We need to make products that people want to repair, because they’re well-made products and consumers want to retain the value (and therefore the carbon) that has been invested in them. We need both better processes, and better products that add genuine value for the user - that people want to repair and want to get maximum use from, rather than just buying something new. It’s another instance of ‘starting with the end’ in mind as Jane Gardner suggested we need to do – but this time from a consumer perspective, considering what we need to do at the start of a product’s life to bring about ‘greener’ behaviours from consumers when products require repair.

This consideration of what is essential, and what we can do without also extends to the processes we use when we are manufacturing products. There are current processes where we could ‘do without’ and make use of new techniques to become more efficient. Jason Jones gives the example of manufacturing processes which involve heating entire parts until they glow red, using a vast amount of energy. By using laser deposition, we could heat “locally” only the areas of the part which require heating, rather than the entire thing – saving energy. Implementing new techniques such as hybrid materials manufacturing can also help us to reduce waste from a materials stand point, making greater use of the materials and converting less into chippings.

As Colin Herron put it: to bring about change we need to look at not just how we manufacture products, but what we manufacture and why.

3. Location and proximity: going beyond the ‘how’, to the ‘where’, could improve efficiency

Building on the theme of what we can ‘do without’, Jason Jones suggested that making a change to the current method of having a centralised manufacturing location that then distributes parts worldwide, and involves warehousing, could allow us to ‘do without’ quite so much shipping – which carries a large energy cost. Hybrid and digital manufacturing can operate efficiently at a much smaller scale, allowing us to place the manufacturing location close to where the goods are required, reduce long-range shipping and even short-range trucking. Reducing the amount of shipping is a benefit multiplier as not only does it mean we use energy wisely and dispose of waste well within the UK, but we also avoid exporting environmental issues to other countries.

Dr Nazmiye Ozkan, Senior Lecturer in Energy Economics and Head of Centre for Energy Systems at Cranfield, brought a perspective on energy generation for manufacturing to the discussion. Moving towards creating industrial clusters, with different industries in close proximity, could facilitate better resource efficiency and provide the opportunity for cost-effective infrastructure development – such as hydrogen, carbon capture, utilisation, storage. In the future, industries could share resources such as supply chain logistics – giving the opportunity to address uncertainties in supply and demand.

In the case of local facilities, we could make use of the waste, excess heat generated by processes – such as at a steelworks – and utilise it either for onsite energy generation or in the local community. This would provide better economic value by making use of peer-to-peer systems and enable the cost-effective operation of local energy systems.

In the future, Dr Ozkan envisages a move away from the supplier-hub model to a scenario where industrial facilities are not consumers but ‘prosumers’ – making use of solar energy, storing energy on site and utilising multi-vector energy solutions. These facilities could work with different actors to purchase energy needs, and large industrial users could form agreements with the National Grid to shift their operating periods to lower energy demand times. Industrial facilities could take part in the capacity market, and rather than one single entity providing energy, we could see various entities providing various services.

Digitalisation will play a key role in achieving this, says Dr Ozkan. Data is an asset that can help to predict variable generation, and optimise process, site and grid level interactions to identify where energy can be recovered, where it can be used either on site or in the local community.

4. Change is vital, but we must address the downstream impact within supply chains and focus on re- or upskilling workers.

It’s clear that changing how we do things, what we manufacture and the products/services we use is vital. But we also need to acknowledge and account for the downstream impact on key income generating businesses/industries, and make sure that we re- or upskill workers at key points to ensure we have the right technology, and the right people to operate that technology.

Colin Herron stated that the changes required are not just technical problems – but ethical problems too. If we just suddenly stop using or creating certain products, downstream there is going to be what he describes as a ‘train crash’ in people’s lives, and increased poverty. He gives the example of a wide-scale shift to autonomous vehicles – what would happen to all our taxi drivers? We need to view this as a long-term transition and offer support.

The need for more government support on the skills agenda was emphasised by Ben Peace.

We’re going to see some businesses changing what they do whole-scale, so where regions have lost industry we need to look at redeploying the existing skills of the workers and investing in developing new skills – so that these workers could, for example, be redirected into the manufacture of wind turbines or the electric vehicles of the future. But support for this needs to be stimulated by the government.

Dr Nazmiye Ozkan agreed that, as we acknowledge that we can’t continue as we are and need to implement new ways of doing things and consuming things, there is a need to upskill engineers at key points. She also points out that when we are training the generation of industrial specialists and policy drivers, we need to ensure they don’t look at climate change from a single perspective – but see it as a complex issue that requires engineering solutions, behaviour change, data, industrial policy and the engagement of the wider society.

While there was a focus on mitigating potential job losses, Jane Gardner highlighted that there is the opportunity to provide more jobs through decarbonisation – creating more green jobs in emerging green sectors. She points out that just as there are jobs that exist now that we didn’t know would exist in the past - we don’t know today what types of jobs will exist in the future – because roles are constantly evolving.

5. Manufacturing is a ‘solution bringer’ not a ‘problem creator’

Concluding the session, Rosa Wilkinson – Communications Director, High Value Manufacturing Catapult - summarised that we face a challenge of helping businesses to begin their journey to decarbonise. There are issues around where businesses invest, and making sure they can access not just the right technologies but also the people with the right skills to use these technologies.

We need to consider what all of this means downstream for people in the supply chains. It’s something that happens over generations, but unless we begin to bring CO2 emissions down quickly there is an existential threat in the not too distant future. Therefore, we have got to begin to seize opportunities.

Earlier in 2020, the manufacturing industry stepped up to help with the Covid-19 crisis and Rosa pointed out that this shows manufacturing is a sector which – when it wants to – can pull together and make change happen fast. If we can collaborate with a clear aim and the right support, the whole ecosystem of the industry can come together to drive down emissions across manufacturing.

Rosa emphasised that, when it comes to climate change and safeguarding the future of our planet, we can do something about it. Manufacturers have the potential – and the duty – to rise to the challenge. But the industry also has the power to give people the tools that we need to reset our environment and protect the planet, without damaging our own quality of life. In fact – manufacturing could well enhance it. The world can be better, and it can be different.

As Rosa put it: Manufacturers can be the ‘solution bringers’, instead of the ‘problem creators’.