How will we manufacture anything when the raw materials are gone? Industrial sustainability guru Professor Steve Evans talks to Will Stirling about ecoefficiency, ecotechnology and more radical interventions to keep the factory lights on.
“A sustainable organisation must be profitable, but you cannot be profitable without being sustainable,” says Professor Evans in his office at the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge. “When we talk about a business, we don’t have to say sustainable and profitable, we just say sustainable,” as though separating the two is a daft concept.
As job descriptions go, Steve Evans’ is hard to beat. He is director of research at the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability and director of the Centre for Industrial Sustainability at the IfM, University of Cambridge. In a nutshell, his job is to find out how industry can make itself sustainable and how to define sustainability across generations, a concept which is often simplified into economic, environmental and social sustainability.
Engineer, deep thinker, straight talker and erring a little to the Left, Welshman Steve Evans spent 12-years in industry, becoming Engineering Systems Manager at aircraft ejector seat manufacturer Martin-Baker, a company he describes as being “a classic British Mittelstand company” – privately owned and expert in a niche global market.
He returned to academia to study how manufacturing can be sustained in the future, and has devoted his subsequent career to the subject, being a principal investigator and lead author on several national sustainability projects.
“China’s future R&D budget is prioritising $243bn into this subject area in the next 20-years”
Manufacturing, says Evans, has been the prime focus of a green backlash because it is where people concentrate materials and chemicals, and emit by-products. “We’ve gone through a phase of factories in the West doing pollution prevention. We are way past that now and are faced with a whole series of new challenges if we want to go forward.”
He suggests industry is dealing with this by adopting ecoefficiency and ecotechnology in ecofactories. Beyond this, the next level amounts to “the complete reconfiguration of the industrial system so that things stay in a closed loop”. He squints at the lay understanding of sustainability. “Firstly, if someone puts up a wind turbine in their car park they are not doing any of this; they are just very confused.”
At its core, manufacturing is always about man, money, machines and materials, Prof Evans says and “manufacturers, especially Brits, are fantastic at finessing these four variables”. This group set needs to be organised into a broader set of goals than just productivity, to tackle manufacturing’s future tests.
“[Manufacturers] have done cost reduction, we’ve done quality in the 1980s, we’ve done lead time reduction in the 1990s. Now there is a natural evolution for industries to feel ever more precious. The first objectives are still there, but you’ll be getting more objectives. Not polluting is something we understand – now we need to work on how to take less from the earth to deliver our current value.”
“Toyota in Burnaston reduced the energy it takes to make one car by over 77% with a tiny investment in capex.”
Ecoefficiency and ecotechnology
“This is defined as what can be done with today’s products without changing them fundamentally,” Evans says. For today’s products, materials and production technology, a little investment can go a long way. The addition of simple kit such as sensors can make a huge difference. “For example, an industrial oven can be optimised to burn less fuel – a new oven is not necessary. Tackle these in a continuous improvement manner and you have ecoefficiency. Toyota in Burnaston reduced the energy it takes to make one car by over 77% with a tiny investment in capex.”
“But at some point if you squeeze everything out of your factory you may, as companies like Toyota and Unilever are discovering, have to make process changes. Using different materials in products, capturing heat from one process and using it in another, that requires equipment and scheduling – this is the wave of ecotechnology that comes behind ecoefficiency. Do the efficiency then do the technology. The next step is reshaping the entire industrial ecosystem.”
A new industrial ecosystem
“The logic of manufacturing for the last 300-years reaches its high point when there is one person in a low wage country making every product on one bloody great machine,” says Evans. “They press a button and all of the world’s washing machines and trainers etc are made. This implies that all the materials in the world that we dig up go to one location and all of the products in the world go from here to all the customers. When you draw the image this way, the benefits of highly concentrated production look less obvious.
“In the 1970s we saw a movement to mini-mills in the steel industry, from huge, monolithic plants. A steel mill is significantly smaller now – we’ll see the same thing in several other sectors. Add to this the fact that factories in 2050 and beyond are not going to have a license to dig their materials up in the way they do today, and a picture starts to develop of supply chains working in new geographic patterns, focused on recovering raw materials from primes. We’ll see a lot of people working on ‘valuarisation’ projects, or getting more value out of the materials within products, very soon.”
“If someone puts up a wind turbine in their car park, they are not advancing any of the three core parts of industrial sustainability; they are just very confused”
Some of the next headlines you are likely to see with Prof Evans’s name in them, or just below, will be in relation to the Foresight Report, a huge piece of research commissioned by government, for which Evans sits on the Lead Expert Group. The two-year study comprising 35 sub-reports will be made public in the autumn.
“Some of the data explains employment patterns. We talk about the hollowing out of manufacturing jobs. The total has fallen because the number of assembly technicians has gone down a lot. There are more management and higher paid jobs now than there were in 1999, but we are losing the lower paid jobs. That is not a problem, is it? It explains the increase in productivity.”
The report will also express Evans’s feeling of immense frustration about the opportunity cost in his field of study. “About forty percent of carbon emissions come from industrial activity, thirty per cent from transport and about thirty per cent from buildings,” he says.
“We have lots of activities running on low carbon vehicles and low carbon buildings; where the heck is the organised activity on low carbon industry? We cannot organise the millions of buildings or cars in the UK, but we can organise a finite number of factories.
A self confessed nationalist, Evans says there is an opportunity for leadership here for the UK. “There are very clear signals that China and Germany are pushing this enormously hard. China’s future R&D budget is prioritising $243bn into this subject area in the next 20-years. They want to sell all this green stuff to us? Please – we have a head start, we are better at this and we are going to let others take over. It’s really frustrating.”
I ask Evans to pinpoint which companies operating in the UK are the shining lights for his vision for industrial sustainability. “Toyota is a leading light here,” he says. “Unilever is very good and Bosch is good.”
“We have lots of activities running on low carbon vehicles and low carbon buildings; where the heck is the organised activity on low carbon industry?”
More from Prof Steve Evans, including his views on “net positive carbon” factories, are available at www.themanufacturer.com