Reimagining manufacturing – critical for a net zero future

Close-up view of computer electronic waste

How the Innovate UK Net Zero Make and Use programme will support businesses towards a resource efficient, resilient and technologically advanced future.

The challenges

Materials and manufacturing industries enable our current lifestyles. They provide the materials and products to make the food we eat, the houses we live in and even the medical treatments we may need. But by their nature they also bring a significant environmental burden.

The comparatively easy bit to understand, and (arguably) to tackle head-on, is the direct emissions owned or controlled by the company. We also control the energy we buy which is generated offsite.

Then there is the elephant in the room. The emissions across the value chain both upstream from purchased goods or services such as material extraction or processing and component manufacture. And downstream due to the lifetime emissions of goods or services after they have been sold. These emissions can be generated anywhere in the world and are directly linked to the UK’s consumption.

Beyond environmental concerns we have the challenge of ensuring a stable, affordable and secure supply to keep UK manufacturing running.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, we need to rapidly adopt advanced technology and grow markets to maintain and increase global competitiveness.

Robot arm in a factory

Credit: Sved Oliver via Adobe Stock

A perfect storm or an enticing opportunity?

Despite the significant challenges we are facing in the current climate I believe that the UK has what it takes to become a world-class destination of choice for advanced low-carbon manufacturing.

The UK has great underpinning capability, such as:

  • a low carbon energy grid
  • stable regulatory environment
  • excellent research base
  • creative and talented workforce
  • dynamic innovation ecosystem
  • materials expertise
  • design excellence
  • digital capability
  • world-class manufacturing capability

…the list goes on.

As a team we have been developing a comprehensive vision for UK materials and manufacturing in 2050, proposing an aspirational and realistic future. We think that the transformation business will see is along 3 strategic imperatives, becoming​:

  • net zero and resource efficient, understanding the environmental impact of every stage in the supply chain and manufacturing process and widely adopting sustainable practices
  • resilient and responsive with the agility to mitigate risks arising from the changing global economy, interruptions to supply of critical minerals and materials, national and global disruptions, and climate change
  • technologically advanced and digital to improve efficiency across supply chains, enable novel business models, support whole-system design and deliver highly customised products
Disassembling a smartphone with tweezers

Credit: AndreyPopov, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

So what?

To support this transformation we are running a programme focused on resource efficiency for materials and manufacturing, REforMM for short.

The aim of the programme is for the UK to lead in resource efficiency with organisations understanding the environmental, social and economic impact of the full product lifecycle. We want organisations to thrive from the adoption of resource efficient solutions which are fundamental to UK and global net zero ambitions.

Being efficient with resources is what manufacturers do and have always done but it has never been more important than today. The traditional incentive to improve resource efficiency has been cost, but we now have the urgent need to protect our environment and the critical requirement to ensure resilience of supply.

But broad adoption of resource efficiency is complex and an enormous task. This programme is designed to put in place the key building blocks to help businesses transform to a resource efficient future. We are adopting a systems view across the full value chain from materials through to end-of-life, focusing on 5 core areas:

  • materials for the future economy: new material applications for cutting-edge products that reduce emissions, energy consumption and costs
  • smart design: effective design methods, design for resource efficiency, and design for maximum through-life value
  • resilient supply chains: sustainable feedstocks, supply chain visibility, and co-location of waste and emission streams
  • world-class production: flexible production capacity, minimal material waste, high-quality products, high productivity, and full adaptivity
  • longer in use and reuse: minimising material use and waste, practising complete traceability, and using new remanufacturing services

We will be running grant funding competitions, investor partnerships, international activity and engagement events. The first feasibility study competition is open now.

We look forward to working with you all on reimagining and realising the future of materials and manufacturing. Update: the Materials and Manufacturing Vision 2050 has now been published.

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