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Design goes back to the factory floor

Josephine Smit

UK manufacturing is growing, and some game-changing factory design will help its renaissance

The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Recovery Centre, by Bond Bryan.
The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Recovery Centre, by Bond Bryan. Credit: Phil Grayston

Last year was a good year for UK manufacturing – so good, in fact, that order books ended 2017 on a 30 year high, according to a CBI monthly industrial trends survey. That’s big news as we’ve become habituated to reports of decline, closure and low productivity in our manufacturing base. 

Business has been boosted by a relatively weak pound and a strengthening global economy, notably in renewable energy and transport, but whether the good times will roll depends on industry’s ability to face up to uncertainties ahead. It also depends on the success of the government’s Industrial Strategy, published a year ago, to spread economic growth across the UK regions and promote research and development. 

These and many other factors are changing the processes of manufacturing, increasing automation and innovation in production, driving greater collaboration with scientific research, and accelerating competitive responses in global markets. But what of the factory building itself? Most of the UK’s industrial buildings are a world away from Elon Musk’s Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, and his view of it as ‘the machine that makes the machine’.

Businesses are certainly looking to extend, move and regroup. ‘We’re seeing a lot of consolidating activities onto a single site,’ says Luke Buchholtz, director of property consultant CBRE Capital Projects. Once they make a move, firms want to stay put for a while, he points out. ‘When an occupier is spending more than £5m on installing a lot of equipment in a building, it doesn’t want to be leaving it quickly. Out of three projects we’re working on, one client is building its own facility and the other two want to be in their premises for up to 25 years.’

What’s the future?

Businesses need facilities that are future-fit, but exactly what that means is evolving. ‘It’s difficult to fully future-proof factories due to the pace of technological change,’ says Jon Rigby, associate with Bond Bryan Architects. ‘What we’re seeing with our advanced manufacturing clients is a gradual shift towards accepting that buildings will need to change, and designing them so that this is more achievable. In this sense, short term flexibility is being replaced by mid to long term adaptability, placing a greater emphasis on structure and services.’

Rigby was architect for Factory 2050, a project that glimpsed the future. A flagship scheme on the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manu­facturing Research Centre campus, at Sheffield Business Park, it promotes high tech manufacturing and pushes the boundaries of factory ­design. ‘We set out to challenge preconceptions, look at what the factory might be, and be a catalyst for change,’ he says. Its trailblazing role is apparent in its circular form and glazed perimeter, the former chosen to create what is effectively an infinite loop to enable fully reconfigurable, limitless manufacturing, and the latter creating a visual shop window for the precision engineering sector to help inspire and engage.

Developed for collaborative research with industry, the building houses a constantly changing line-up of technologies from robotics to 3D printing, producing everything from titanium hip replacements to carbon ­fibre wing mirrors for Formula 1 cars. It therefore had to be designed around infinite reconfigurability for many sectors and technologies. That ­resulted in a 75m diameter steel framed building with a universal 450mm thick reinforced concrete ground bearing floor slab. At the ­centre of the workshop, Bond Bryan’s design ­includes an open plan office to allow engineering teams to shift from desk-based to machine
based ­activities without the segregation of conventional factory environments. Around the workshop perimeter seven 4m by 3m folding access doors allow segments to be sectioned off while retaining direct external access. This means the workshop can be subdivided into different functions and environments, and that externalised modular pods can be plugged in to each access point to double available floorspace.

Flexibility of services was provided using two wide, concentric distribution trenches cast into the structural floor slab. ‘The conventional method of services distribution in factories is to run an exposed network at high level from brackets off the structural frame. But such a visually obtrusive solution was never going to be acceptable here,’ says Rigby. ‘Instead, we relocated all pipes, cables and vents out of eyesight and under the floor. It maintained the aesthetic without compromising the operational flexibility of having universal access to key services for the robotics and process equipment.’ The highly controlled heating and cooling system is complemented by passive measures, so the projecting roof canopy and aluminium fins are also integral to the building’s aesthetic performance. 

Opened just over a year ago, it is catching attention as a future model, says Rigby: ‘We have projects on the drawing board where we’re looking to build on the ideas explored and the successes.’ The project reshaped the factory on the surface, but there was no need for radical reinvention, he adds. ‘Building technology has changed relatively little compared to manufacturing technology in recent decades. Factory 2050 has a fresh image, but it is actually a remarkably simple building.’

You have to build in the ability to maintain the fabric and fit-out while work goes on

Smart robots, smart workers

Manufacturing is, as Mark Richardson, science and industry leader at Arup Architecture says, ‘a CapEx driven market’, with buildings subject to cost/benefit analysis and manufacturing processes, operations and machinery taking priority. Efficiency drives and the rise of the robots have not, however, eliminated humanity – in any sense. ‘As we move to more automated factories we need smarter people to run them, so the factories need to be where people want to live, be closer to the market, and provide a pleasant environment. So while on one level fewer people are being employed in factories, on another people become more important,’ says Richardson, translating that into more people-focused environments, with features like high quality welfare and dining facilities and more glazing. 

Projects in Arup’s pipeline range from demountable modular premises for short-lease sites mostly for clients in the pharmaceutical sector, to a rice wine production plant in south China and a global initiative for a European food and beverage manufacturer. For the latter Arup designed a standardised, globally applicable framework structure – consistent in quality and efficiency – to accommodate the company’s manufacturing and distribution operations. Advanced digital workflow practices, including parametric variable optimisation, intelligent solution-finding systems and data rich BIM modelling enable this to be combined with tailored exteriors and welfare facilities to suit local operational needs, construction practices and materials, and other characteristics. The concept is being rolled out in the Middle East and could be further tested in follow-on applications in the USA and UK. 

These are by no means everyday industrial facilities, Richardson admits: ‘The projects we get involved in are the more complex ones where there’s high ambition from the client’. One of the best known of those UK clients is Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) whose engine manufacturing centre, flanking a stretch of the M54 outside Wolverhampton, is giving a brighter, lighter, cleaner, greener face to the Black Country. With 185,000m2 of space and with around 1,400 employees, the centre combines production, offices and an educational centre. It promotes collaboration and health and wellbeing and yet its design still ultimately came from the production process. ‘JLR was very specific about the process that happens inside,’ explains Sean Macintosh, project architect with Arup Associates. ‘We started with an adjacencies diagram, working from the process of engine manufacture outwards – and also partly critiquing its existing facility.’ 

Arup Associates’ Jaguar Land Rover factory outside Wolverhampton.
Arup Associates’ Jaguar Land Rover factory outside Wolverhampton. Credit: Simon Kennedy

All in it together

From this, the architect created the BREEAM Excellent rated factory, where blue and white collar workers are not segregated, both offices and production facilities enjoy daylight, and building services are as finely tuned as JLR’s engines. Characteristics like this are explored in Arup’s own future-gazing Rethinking the Factory report, as is resilient adaptability, which at JLR’s facility comes from clear spans, flexible space, a high services zone some 7m above floor level and lightweight prefabrication. ‘At JLR work never stops,’ says Macintosh, ‘so you have to build in the ability to maintain the fabric and fit-out while work goes on’. That influenced material specification, with wet trades being kept to a minimum. While this building has conventional aluminium cladding systems, albeit with glazed elevations for daylighting and views, Macintosh says aluminium systems do not have to be the default option. ‘Current thinking tends to lead to lightweight prefabrication, but that can include timber cassette systems. We used timber for the Sky Believe in Better office (PIP, May/June 2017) – it was fast to construct and good value for money’.

The JLR project was modelled in BIM, and the model continues to be a rational tool. Industrial clients are open to the use of advanced materials, approaches and even design, where they demonstrate value, says Macintosh. ‘Clients in this sphere tend to be more open to working with buildings that look contemporary, although there can, of course, be sensitivities of height and massing.’ 

Facilities like JLR’s may be relative rarities in the UK, but they could hold the key to equipping the UK manufacturing base and ­shaping working lives. ‘Ove Arup explored modular, prefabrication and new ways of looking at industrial buildings; we’re taking that same path. Projects like JLR are a homecoming for us,’ says Macintosh. ‘In terms of how you make a difference to people’s lives, these places matter. Architects can have an impact on manufacture.’


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