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What might sustainable manufacturing look like?

13 June 2016

Mark Jolly, professor of sustainable manufacturing at Cranfield University, presents the findings of a research project, undertaken with Coca-Cola Enterprises which explored how the food and drink industry should embrace sustainable manufacturing. 

The future of factories is small, smart and social. We have come to assume that efficiency in manufacturing is the result of economies of scale from large, centralised operations, speed and standardisation. However, a combination of new and existing pressures – the variability in the supply of resources, scrutiny from government on public health issues and changing consumer demands – make the mass, homogenised approach look fragile.

Working in partnership with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) we have explored what sustainability looks like, what can replace the traditional model and how it can be done. The first stage of the research (published in June 2015), brought together experts from CCE and Cranfield as well as wider industry and academia and this has has been followed up with 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, and the creation of a roadmap for the future development of a sustainable ‘factory of the future’ by 2050.

Food producers will need to focus on resilience and delivering the greatest value to customers, not just financially but in the broadest, social sense. Manufacturers need 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 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.

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 already being developed to exploit this data which will help manufacturers maintain a resilient business while meeting the needs of markets in general and, eventually, the needs of specific individuals.

Some parts of the supply chain will use data to operate autonomously. Sensing technology for example, will 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. 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 possible bottlenecks in the process. For consumers, data will provide more detailed information about the provenance of food and the chains involved, as well as offering visibility about the use of fertilisers and their impact to the land and 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.

The food and drink industry need to 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 be more debate about the trade-off between 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.

How value and leadership is understood will also change dramatically, as companies join forces with each other, with customers and society. This will become accepted as the only way to grow positively while 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.

Manufacturing has needed to undergo transformations throughout its history. The next one looks set to be the most testing, in terms of the need to open up, to fundamentally re-structure operations, form new partnerships, take on a new social role - but at the same time it will bring all the opportunities and benefits related to sustainability, longer-term security and social integration.

A copy of the report can be downloaded from the whitepaper section of the Food Processing website at

Sustainable manufacturing defined…

Sustainable manufacturing has been defined by the US Department of Commerce’s Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative as ‘the creation of manufactured products through economically-sound processes that minimise negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources. It should also enhance employee, community and product safety.’

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