This article comes from the book “Inventing for the Sustainable Planet” a novel which asks the question “if you were to visit a city that was sustainable- what would it look like?” The novel about the city of Porena contains several far-reaching ideas including the idea of global design with local assembly. In this section we meet an article written by the book’s hero, Max Wahlter, after a visit to “the future” to investigate sustainable logistics and manufacturing.
By Max Wahlter
One major change brought about by the rise in energy prices was the shift to module-based product design and manufacturing. On the face of it, the change was minor, but it required a major shift in attitude. Our reporter talks to Jeff Handly, from the PORENA manufacturing and distribution unit.
Many people still don’t see the difference between module based manufacturing before and after the energy shortages – can you explain?
Jeff showed me the diagram reproduced above saying “it’s not this anyway”.
In module-based manufacturing final assembly is done by one local unit which is not owned by a brand, but local and independent. The product goes straight from manufacturing to the customer. The other main difference is that the product always goes back to the factory/assembly. It is never scrapped. So the life time of a product is far longer.
The other difference – and this is what gets some people – is that each product actually has more material in it. This is because there is more redundancy in each module used to make up the product. However, the material used per unit of service is much less.
I looked at Jeff quizzically, he pulled out another diagram.
The diagram explains the Porena method: Local assembly shops put a product together to order, using standard components on a custom chassis or case. The designs come from brands outside the city, as do the components and modules. The customer has the product for life, and can bring it back for a new case or chassis or to upgrade the function with new modules.
Thanks. Can we start by reviewing the shortcomings of design and manufacturing for retail before the energy price hikes?
As fossil fuel production reached a plateau whilst demand and prices rose, the average number of steps to get a product to the customer was seven. Each step was energy-consuming, and the transport between steps started to get impossibly expensive. And the average usage life time of a product was short, much shorter than its MTBF – mean time between failure. The amount of scrap was incredible, much too much to be taken care of effectively. To run the Swedish economy for example required 22 tonnes of material per person per year. The average amount of material converted to waste was 30 kg for every 1kg of product. That meant – with a product life time of 3 years – a total of 31 kg of waste for 3 year’s service. The question became: how do you provide people with good quality products, in wide variety, that can be updated as well, without many manufacturing and transport steps and waste creation?
The first thing to do is eliminate the last step … the retail trade. Getting your goods to order straight from manufacturing eliminates transport, warehousing, retail space, etc. It also makes sure you manufacture exactly what the customer wants … no unwanted products sitting on the shelf.
The next step to eliminate was scrapping. Components – and we are talking everything from furniture to TVs – all have different life times and uses. For example: when people scrapped their VCRs for DVDs 80% of the components were similar. So this was solved by designing products for update. You just took the product back to the manufacturer representative to get it updated, upgraded, mended, whatever.
Either the component was re-used directly or recycled. These components can be seen as nutrients – technical nutrients. Either they can be broken down and fed into another process or broken down to their constituent elements. Either way they are designed to be re-used.
This ties together with the third step, dematerializing of brands. The brand as we knew it evolved into being a pure design company – and I don’t mean just physical design, but technical as well. The dematerialized company provided manufacturing instructions to an assembly company, which was local. Consumers ordered their product, and the assembly shop put it together based on designs by the brand. The components were mostly standard with a small percentage of custom parts.
This paved the way for the fourth step: eliminating the shipping of finished goods. All that is shipped is modules to be put together locally. The assembly is carried out in the same organization that takes care of service and upgrading. So you would find at least one assembly and service shop at each town.
I understand this thinking led to new services and whole industries changing the way they do things.
Some amazing things happened. Digital design. Component manufacturers and module manufactures made sure there were CAD/CAM representations of their products. This meant that brand name designers could sit and electronically design their products, loading in the components to their design applications.
Another thing that it gave rise to was the technical nutrient bourse. An on-line exchange of components for recycling or reuse.
So how much more effective is module based manufacturing?
We estimate there is a 30% reduction in energy intensity in the whole system, without counting the average lifetime of the product is extended from 2 to 12 or even 20 years.
Perhaps you could go over the main features and benefits of the system again for readers?
Sure, let’s see…
- One local assembly shop; gives economies of scale for assembly and recycling, and closeness to the customer.The assembly shop combines retail, repair and assembly
- Brand as design. Allows companies to concentrate on their particular Brand values and look and feel – using global competence to reach a pinnacle of excellence whilst giving them global reach.
- Standard modules. These modules actually allow for more variation and product variants, which are often endless, but allows companies to develop effective modules through trial and error.
- Return to local assembly point. The benefit is no scrap, 100% recycling, a long lifetime which is energy effective, and no mass transport of goods.
- Long product lifetime. This reduces the overall ecological footprint of the use of the product over its full lifetime.
As I arrived I noticed that your assembly shops have a lot of goods moving into them, but I did not see any conventional loading bays. How do goods get to you?
Jeff pointed over to what appears to be a shed of some kind with doors on it. A narrow track emerged from it. He explained that in the city, to eliminate road transport, everything is transported via an underground tube railway. More on that in the next edition!
If you like this excerpt do check out the book!