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Goodbye megafactory, hello microfactory?

Microfactories point to a small, modular, flexible future of manufacturing, where factories can be adapted to customer needs and have a reduced environmental footprint.

The future of Manufacturing

Back in 2012 the Government Office for Science produced its latest Foresight report, The Future of Manufacturing: A new era of opportunity and challenge for the UK. This heavily researched, 250-page report^ identified several future trends, including the rise of more mobile and modular manufacturing.

Giant, monolithic factories producing cars and pharmaceuticals in huge volumes may still have a role for some businesses going forward, but the Foresight report expected that “factory locations are likely to become increasingly diverse and nearer to the customer’s home. Facilities will include smaller, centralised hubs and more urban locations as the factory increasingly becomes a good neighbour in terms of its environmental impact.”

In a nod to the coming ‘Industry 4.0’ revolution, it added that factories would be more agile – able to adapt quickly to changing customer demands. This would be enabled by advances in technology such as additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence, and shorter supply chains would be driven by external shocks – seen recently with some reshoring due to the Covid-19 pandemic and long lead times.

Small and flexible was seen as a better fit for company’s future needs than big, fixed and inflexible; and since the report’s publication there have been several examples of the growth of these “microfactories”.

Lee Collinson
Head of Manufacturing, Transport and Logistics

Factory in a box

The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) launched the ‘Factory in a Box’ project^ several years ago. Enabled by digital technologies, modular equipment could be fitted to match the customer’s needs into a standard shipping container or similar-sized space.

The Factory in a Box could be used for instance when there is a sudden spike in demand that requires several unitised mini-factories to make or print an essential component quickly, without committing to the costs of breaking ground for a new factory that might be discontinued within a year.

Advances in 3D printing have enabled remote communities in Africa to own or lease machinery to print medicines specific to their needs. If a community lacks the money or infrastructure to afford a range of mass produced, market-priced drugs they can deploy additive manufacturing machines, sited in clinics in small towns, and print their medicines on demand.

In 2020, a coalition of Kenyan-owned 3D printer operators^ used open source prototypes designed by 3DVerkstan, a Swedish company, to print plastic face shields quickly before plastic manufacturers could create a mould and produce the shields at affordable prices.

Microfactories for cost-effective, personalised medicine

At the University of Strathclyde, work is underway to develop new, efficient, small volume and personalised pharmaceuticals, to break away from the high volume, one-size-fits all drug industry.

The CMAC Future Manufacturing Hub at Strathclyde works with several UK universities and global pharmaceutical companies. Its vision is to transform the development and production of medicines^ using modular and lab-scale microfactories.

These microfactories are designed to be flexible and reconfigurable, to manufacture different drugs in variable volumes, where each may need a different process modified along the production chain.

One driver is to produce medicines customised for the patient or patient cohort. A benefit of the microfactory approach is to enable simplified process chains targeting the processes and transformations that improve the manufacturability of the drug into a dosage form that performs better for that patient or patients. “By developing integrated continuous direct-to-dose approaches we avoid multiple unit operations and scale-up steps”, CMAC’s annual report comments.

Bring production to the consumer

The Foresight report also talked about bringing factories closer to the consumer.

One familiar British leisure product manufacturer is currently looking to build a factory in a town centre, glass-fronted to allow the public to see the brazing, fitting and assembly within. It’s the CEO’s idea to help bring manufacturing closer to people, so they can better understand what it is.

Perhaps the car industry is the best example of mass-scale industry. Many car factories produce hundreds of thousands of units in a year. Could car manufacturing – under pressure from electrification, Covid-19 and falling demand – be remodelled into smaller, modular factories?

New electric van and bus company Arrival’s business model^ is to construct microfactories in different markets. These are designed to make 10,000 vans and about 1,000 buses a year; not a craft sports car manufacturer nor a vast car plant with all the gigantic and expensive fixed capex either 6.

Finally, we are yet to see real ‘Industry 4.0’ in practice, where machines run their own factories and decide what to make based on real customer demand data. Perhaps ARENA2036^ – which stands for Active Research Environment for the Next generation of Automobiles – in partnership with the University of Stuttgart in Germany, is the closest to this to date?

Their engineers are building production cells that will reconfigure by themselves and ultimately make their own decisions about what, when and how to manufacture components, with almost no human input, only supervision.

The future it seems, is not so distant.

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