In this article, The Manufacturer speaks with Andrew Dawson, Site Manager at AkzoNobel’s Stowmarket factory, where there are 100 employees on site covering production and all support departments of quality, CI, HSE, engineering and maintenance. The company recently celebrated its 50th year of operation. Since opening in 1972, nearly two billion litres of paint have been created and distributed across the UK from the Stowmarket factory.
How has technology changed the way that paint is mass produced?
Technology has had a huge impact on every part of the paint manufacturing process and, as a company which places innovation at its core, we are constantly looking at how we can use it to improve the way we operate. Taking the supply chain as an example, technology is hard wired into all our management processes – starting with our raw material and packaging suppliers right through to the end user. Our supply chain systems give full visibility to the supplier while also providing us with warehouse inventory and stock management.
We are also increasingly using technology day-to-day in our factories – in Stowmarket, for example, we have embraced the digital age and use state of the art scheduling, manufacturing execution systems and platforms in continued efficiency drives to produce the highest quality paint at the lowest possible cost. There are five laser-guided vehicles to help us move paint around the factory, six robot palletisers and two fully automated pallet wrapping machines. These robots have the ability to stack 48 of the filled 10 litre buckets of paint on our pallets at a time, improving productivity within the warehouse. On top of this, the laser guided vehicles provide stable wrapping of our pallets, ready for lorries to transport products around the country.
All of the above means that while the basic elements of making paint are broadly unchanged, how we are harnessing technology to improve quality, efficiency and make cost-savings, has been significant.
What aspects that have remained the same, and those that have evolved?
At AkzoNobel, we have been producing paint for over 200 years and in that time the fundamentals have stayed very much the same – binders, pigments and solvents. However, there are also many ways in which we have had to evolve to accommodate changing customer, manufacturing and environmental needs – from Vinyl Silks in the 1980s with wipe-clean attributes, to pioneering stain blocking aspects, emulsions that don’t drip or run, the move away from solvent-based to water-borne paint, paints that better reflect light to brighten rooms, and “one-coat” paint to make it easier and quicker for customers to apply.
Most recently, we have started to use paint to bring functionality to the surface, making coatings which provide anti-graffiti, anti-fouling, anti-scratch, anti-fog and anti-fingerprint qualities. We even pioneered anti-formaldehyde coatings which absorb unwanted volatile ingredients from the air – cleaning the air inside the home to confront outdoor air pollution.
What are the changing roles within the industry and the skills needed in today’s manufacturing?
As the manufacturing process has become more technical and systems based, we have needed a much more specialised skillset in our manufacturing, engineering and maintenance teams. For example, our operators need to have a good eye for detail, checking that all the components for filling buckets are correct – this ensures the best quality for our products. They are all computer savvy, using industrial apps on lineside from the start to end of batch creation, and problem solve using Continuous Improvement methodology.
We are also seeing a shift in the needs and expectations of our employees – they want more involvement in the company and rightly so; no one expects to just stand on a production line anymore and be told what to do! This means that in addition to the more specialised manufacturing skills, we also look for people with broader business skills such as good problem solving, communication, and the ability to present and work collaboratively on improvement projects.
What does the future hold for the manufacturing of paint?
Quite like the colours found in our signature paint brand, Dulux, the future of paint manufacturing is bright!
As a global company, we get to see how colour enhances people’s lives from all corners of the world. Decorating and refurbishing is an important lifestyle choice – a way for people to express themselves and put a more personal touch on their homes. That means our focus will always be on providing products that suit different tastes, lifestyles and requirements. Increasingly, however, we are also having to balance this with the growing demand for sustainable products which protect the environment and take people’s health and wellbeing into account. As a result, those of us working in paint manufacturing will need to work even more closely with our suppliers over the coming years to ensure eco-friendly and transparent end-to-end supply chains.
Ultimately, our industry is part of a global ecosystem and we all have a role to play in safeguarding our planet. For us, with sustainability being one of our core values, this means working with others, being open to cross-industry solutions, and transitioning towards a truly circular economical value chain.
How is the company managing manufacturing’s drive towards net zero?
We’ve made it our business to deliver the sustainable and innovative solutions that our customers, communities – and the planet – are increasingly relying on. Our People. Planet. Paint. approach lies at the heart of our business and flows through to every aspect, and our manufacturing sites play a big part in this.
We’re proud to be the first company in our industry to receive official validation for our science-based sustainability targets from the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). We committed to a carbon reduction target of 50% by 2030 (2018 baseline) for our own operation and our full value chain. We can only make these achievements thanks to the buy-in from everyone across AkzoNobel.
As a company, we are committed to achieving net zero by 2050 and it is therefore a major consideration in everything we do – from the proportion of recycled plastic in our containers, to reducing the elements of those raw materials that cannot be disposed of safely and efficiently. We were proud to be the first major manufacturer to launch recycled paint thanks to a partnership with resource management experts, Veolia. The revolutionary Dulux Trade Evolve Matt is made from people’s paint waste, with the final product containing 35% recycled paint and 11% lower embodied carbon than the equivalent standard product.
We know that it’s not enough to look solely within our own four walls, however; tackling climate change requires strong collaborative innovation across our value chain.
There are many ways in which we are supporting our value chain to meet carbon reduction targets – in 2021, for example, we focused on product carbon footprint assessment, helping our customers to analyse and reduce their own carbon footprints. We’re also encouraging all our value chain partners to transition to renewable energy sources and work with us to reduce the carbon emissions from VOCs and from the application and use of our products, and to increase the use of renewable raw materials.
What have been the main challenges around the company’s digital transformation?
They are of course many challenges. From a manufacturing perspective, however, it has primarily been about how we upgrade, integrate and seamlessly transition to new digital platforms whilst at the same time keeping factories like Stowmarket running. While we want to be at the forefront of the industry’s digital transformation, we equally know that we can’t just shutdown to implement changes! Our upmost priority is therefore ensuring we are prioritising new technology and innovation without causing interruptions to the supplies to our customers.