The Last Word: Let’s go round again

A revolution waiting to happen?

On March 26 the All Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group presented its new report Remanufacturing: Towards a resource efficient economy, to parliament.

Jane Gray, Editor, The Manufacturer magazine
Jane Gray, Editor, The Manufacturer magazine

The result of months of research with manufacturers, industrial academics, engineering institutions and more, the report put this most fundamental of sustainability concepts at the heart of parliamentary debate, for a moment at least.

It’s a moment that has been a long time coming and which needs firm action in its aftermath to make it matter.

Remanufacturing involves taking an existing product – or part – at end of life and putting it through a series of processing in order to return it to a like new or improved state.

It requires design for disassembly, the development of advanced service business models and poses the challenge of a complete overhaul to our existing manufacturing value chains – but what it offers is a reduced reliance on virgin raw materials, reduced consumption of energy by industry, large scale economic and environmental benefits and enhanced end user experience.

APSRG says that the USA’s remanufacturing industry is worth $43bn and employs 180,000 people. It also says the UK’s remanufacturing industry should be worth £5.6bn annually and create jobs for thousands if only we upped our game in reforming regulation and directing funding to the development of new product lifecycle systems.

It all sounds very utopian and futuristic, but, like many supposedly new and disruptive concepts, remanufacturing has been around for a while.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, Renault’s Choisy-le-Roi factory has been dabbling in remanufacturing since 1949.

Rising interest among industrial sustainability pioneers has since led to the establishment of the UK’s Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse and contributed to the arrival of APSRG itself as well as the Ellen MacArthur foundation, the EPSRC Centre for Industrial Sustainability and more.

Over the past decade a broad effort has been underway to prove the concept and benefits of remanufacturing in a wide range of industries from automotive to consumer goods and renewable energy generation. Evidence of remanufacturing’s ability to reduce costs and increase margins has built up – not with little eco-warrior types, but with large industrial powers like Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce.

The past year has brought another crescendo for the topic. The Technology Strategy Board partnered with the Royal Society for the Advancement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce last year to support its Great Recovery initiative and remanufacturing was mentioned 16 times in the highly acclaimed Foresight report, The Future of Manufacturing. It was recognised as a force which will shape the way manufacturers operate and compete in the all too imminent future.

But are the requirements of remanufacturing recognised by the everyday manufacturer? SMEs tend to be deeply dubious.

They are sceptical about the lip service paid to high minded concepts like this while they still experience the thumb screw of cost-down contracting from their customers – the very same companies that preach on the need for supply chain collaboration to facilitate a remanufacturing revolution.

And what of the next generation of industrial leaders? Since the topic of sustainability was deemed “non-core” to the new design and technology curriculum for key stages 1-3 it seems unlikely that a spontaneous challenge to the status quo of make-sell-use-destroy
will emerge from an optimistic and informed younger generation.

To APSRGs list of recommendations to government for the advancement of remanufacturing, including a cross party commission and the establishment of a centre of excellence for the discipline, I would urge a review of our ambition to educate young people about the challenges facing the society they will inherit and arm them with the knowledge and spirit to subvert the norms we perpetuate today.