New factories for a sustainable future

Summary

The food crisis and the growth of the world population call for new ways of producing food. In the field, of course, but also as regards processing. Here is an overview of some of the best ideas currently being tested in the quest to invent the factories of the future.

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There is one question that the food industry regularly, if not constantly, faces, and it is being heightened by current economic concerns. This dreadfully complex question sounds simple: “How do we feed the planet?” or, more precisely, how will we feed 9 billion human beings in 2050, on a planet that can hardly provide for everyone at this time? Some think that we are just too numerous for the Earth, and that we should start considering reducing the population by acting on birth rates. Others claim that the planet still can provide enough for everyone, as long as the richest stop over-consuming, that we put an end to food waste and that production is distributed more equitably. They are right. Solutions to re-think the way we produce food are already being put to the test around the world. Tomorrow, we might just be able to build factories, in the developing world as much as in the developed world, that can adapt to local characteristics, belong in a sustainable food chain and have less of an impact on the environment. Using which solutions? Are these sustainable? And can the experiments being carried out today give us an insight into the factories of the future?

 

Produce green

 

Guy Gavelle is a factory designer. He has designed many factories of all sizes for Danone, with all sorts of constraints and specificities, in many different countries and continents. He is also behind the first ever Danone micro-factory in Bogra (Bangladesh) where Shokti Doi yoghurt is produced.

It really is a tiny factory, by far the smallest that I ever designed. It is only 700m², which is around 10% of the space we usually use.

So we asked him if micro-factories were the future of the food industry: one day, will there be tiny little factories, even smaller than the one in Bogra, in every field, on every street corner, wherever we might possibly need them? Well, it turns out that in Guy Gavelle’s view, Bogra’s main innovation is not its size but the way it manages energy. In Bogra, rainwater is collected to power the factory; it is then heated using solar energy; and, finally, when it is sent to a water power plant that reprocesses it, the methane generated is recovered and compressed for further use.

The whole idea is to “produce our own energy and stop polluting and wasting”, a strategy that could quite easily be replicated on other production sites, including large and traditional factories.

“It is something that will have to be done.” This is the first trial for the future: in order to keep producing food for everyone and, at the same time, to limit the impact of this production on our planet as much as possible, we will have to come up with new energy models. This will create a production chain that works as an ecosystem, with little waste and little pollution, that makes the most of available, natural and renewable resources. Such an idea most certainly motivated the inventors of one of the first documented mobile factories in France: a mobile rape press, created in Calvados by the Cuma (an agricultural equipment users’ cooperative). Farmers attach the unit to their tractors, and it turns raw rape into rapeseed oil directly in the field. The oil then provides natural fuel for the machines, with no transportation or other production costs incurred. We can imagine that it would be easy to apply this system to other farms, even large ones, or that factories could be involved even higher up the chain.

 

Produce locally

 

Back to Bogra, which was also a real innovation in terms of social impact: the factory employs locals to make yoghurt, and women from the region to sell it, sometimes door-to-door. The materials used in the factory are also provided by local suppliers, some of whom Danone has funded to help them access the necessary technology. This limits imports as much as possible, and encourages national production and growth. “We develop ultra-local solutions for every aspect of the chain. The project is not only about producing Shokti Doi, but also involves creating an ecosystem that provides jobs. And we do train and educate the people.” Guy Gavelle insists: “What is important is to help them, socially. That is also what we are here for. We are not settlers. Our job is to innovate.” But when asked if this model could be widely replicated in the future, he is not so sure. First of all because each and every country is different, and implementing local micro-factories will necessarily imply acquiring detailed knowledge of the region – which is of course far from impossible, and will certainly develop in the future. But, beyond this, Guy Gavelle is aware that, while he tries to create as many jobs as possible – notably by setting up a factory that works exclusively by hand – what matters to developed countries is reducing production costs to the minimum, and they are definitely not likely to import a system where one of the aims is to generate wages for a growing number of people.

The problem with micro-factories, like every other factory, is that there are structural costs: each time you open one, you have to appoint a manager, for instance. In developed countries we tend to build big factories to limit these costs.

Small-size factories might not become the next craze for reverse innovation, but there is definitely food for thought in this “import-reducing” approach. Having local suppliers work to create the production chain is an idea which is already spreading in the developed world, especially in the current context of the wide employment and industry crisis. During the French presidential campaign, candidates placed strong emphasis on “made in France”, and the Ayrault government has created a “ministry of production recovery” – a sign that national industries are soon going to be rehabilitated? In any case, it means that the future of food production is local.

 

Invent new techniques

 

In a previous article, we evoked the role that 3D printers could play, in the not-so-distant future, in manufacturing in general and food manufacturing in particular. They could soon be used as micro-factories, available in every home and able to produce virtually anything. But the future does not necessarily lie in high-tech machines which will take pride of place in our kitchens or living-rooms. According to Georges Stalk, senior adviser at the Boston Consulting Group, it actually lies in disposable factories – inspired by temporary cocaine labs, easy to build, easy to dismantle and easy to put back together again in another location. In his 2008 book, Five Future Strategies That You Need Right Now, Stalk addresses the issue that most multinational companies are currently facing with shipping:

Companies that source manufactured goods from China do so primarily because of the attractive production costs […] Now, however, cost advantages are harder to come by. Companies have reached a point at which there is little cost remaining to be squeezed out of the on-ocean shipping process.

A reflection on supply chain gymnastics, as he calls it, that leads Stalk, an expert in sustainable competitive advantage, to consider disposable factories. This solution can limit the risks linked to heavy manufacturing investments and stock costs, and allow production to be more closely matched to demand. In other words, it provides “a low-risk means of jumping in and out of fast-moving markets”. An approach to economies of scale which obviously takes the optimization of profitability as its theme, but which is not at odds with the local production and self-sufficiency model promoted by Guy Gavelle. Could we not design extremely mobile, light and easy-to-use factories, that can be more closely matched with the populations’ emerging needs, that are powered by renewable energies and can contribute to improving the ecosystem wherever they are put to use? Guy Gavelle, who is constantly searching for new solutions, is currently reflecting, not on a completely disposable factory, but on the concept of extremely compact factories that would fit inside a couple of containers: one processing unit and one packaging unit. “In dairy, mobility is definitely something that we must exploit.” In Bangladesh, for instance, a country that is very often flooded; such units could be installed on ships, and milk producers would use their small boats to deliver their production. According to Guy Gavelle, this model could also be implemented in Thailand, at limited cost and with respect for the local population and environment.

The food chain is the result of a complex balance between industry, high technology, human resources and economic and environmental constraints. And the only way these elements will ever be integrated in a rational, sustainable and fair system that provides food for all is through innovation. As Guy Gavelle puts it, “If you do not innovate, you are dead.” Now is the time to test, to experiment and to choose the best models and practices. Today, there are plenty of good ideas within the micro-factory, disposable factory and mobile factory experiments. It would therefore be no surprise if the factory of 2050 turned out to be a combination of these three – along with some new ideas which we haven’t had yet!

Photo © Shutterstock / Zhao jian kang