Ideas for Leaders #652

Sustainable Manufacturing Part 1: People, Technology and Collaboration

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Key Concept

The first phase of a major project on sustainable manufacturing, a food-and-drink industry giant and a UK university sponsored a roundtable discussion on sustainable manufacturing by 24 manufacturing experts from industry, government and academia. The roundtable yielded six major themes — People, Big Data, Technology, Collaboration, Value and Resilience — that describe the key areas on which manufacturers must focus to build a sustainable future.

Idea Summary

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) represented a first step in recognizing that business had a societal role to play that extended beyond simply making a profit. Today, the thinking has evolved from the ‘doing good’ mindset of CSR to a ‘doing what is necessary’ mindset embodied in the concept of ‘sustainability.’ Sustainability — the ambition to ensure that the planet earth survives in the long-term — is not driven by altruism but by the recognition that a company’s long-term survival is linked to the conservation of resources and the health and wellness of the people it impacts. Sustainability also requires a commitment from companies to fundamentally change the way they do things — and that includes how they manufacture their products.

Coca-Cola Enterprises Great Britain partnered with the Cranfield School of Management on a research project to explore the future of sustainable manufacturing. The first phase of the project was a roundtable discussion that brought together 24 experts from the food and drink industry (including the industry association), government and academia.

Analysing the wide-ranging roundtable discussion, Cranfield professors Peter Ball (now at the York School of Management) and Mark Jolly identified six themes that capture the areas on which manufacturers must focus to advance sustainable manufacturing, beginning with the driver of all change: People.

The major challenge in this area is the general public perception, especially among the young, that manufacturing jobs 1) are disappearing due to automation, and 2) require only low-skilled assembly line workers. For a generation looking for work that is not only fulfilling but also environmentally friendly and socially conscious, the manufacturing field may not be the obvious choice. Manufacturers must thus articulate their need for new employees who are not only highly skilled and flexible, in order to meet the changing demands of manufacturing, but who are also committed to supporting the company’s sustainability efforts.

Another key theme for sustainable manufacturing raised by the participants is Big Data. Consumers are all too aware of how big data helps marketers target their campaigns. But data can be just as important to manufacturers whose leaders want to make environmentally conscious decisions. For example, the real-time monitoring and information-gathering capabilities of big data enables companies to break free of scale (e.g. one major supplier vs. numerous smaller ones) without sacrificing consistency and quality. Companies can feasibly switch to the more sustainable options of localized manufacturing and the engagement of SME’s in the supply chain. Other big-data supported opportunities in sustainability include monitoring the life cycle impact of products and guiding product design and product packaging that minimize any adverse environmental impact.

The other themes highlighted that emerged from the roundtable were:

Technology. Technology is a key enabler of sustainable manufacturing. Through advances in product delivery, to take one example, technology will contribute to making localised manufacturing possible.

Collaboration. The transactional relationship between company and supplier is replaced by a symbiotic relationship, in which all parties share knowledge and work together to ensure an eco-efficient supply chain.

Value. Customers are redefining value, and companies must pay attention. Trade-offs accepted in the past — e.g., quality that comes with an environmental cost — are no longer acceptable. Customers also link value to the values that a company demonstrates through its actions. Finally, companies with a sustainable mindset can find value in new places; how to turn waste recycling into economic value is one example.

Resilience. Manufacturers turn raw materials into finished goods. This simple statement reveals a core challenge to a company’s survival: what if those raw materials disappear? Resilience is the ability to adapt to change — which in this case means find ways to ensure continued access to scarce water and energy. Transparency (as both government and consumers want to know what companies are doing) and flexibility (e.g., through innovations such as harvesting rainwater) will increase a manufacturer’s resilience.

Business Application

The take, make and dispose process at the core of a linear economy — pulling resources from nature then using nature as a waste receptacle — is being replaced by the reuse-and-recycle framework of the circular economy. Sustainable manufacturing is one of pillars of a circular economy, and it begins with people. Their skills and values will enable your company to use data, develop technology, collaborate with suppliers, provide value to customers and develop resilience as it moves inexorably toward its sustainability goals.

Editor’s note: This first phase of the sustainable manufacturing project was followed by a six-month in-depth research phase that culminated in a blueprint for the future. This blueprint is described in Idea 653.

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Idea conceived

  • July 2015

Idea posted

  • April 2017

DOI number



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