Tomorrow’s factories will evolve in design, function

Today’s industrial manufacturing facility is a marvelous integration of process and facility. Before we analyze its current state and theorize about its future, let’s take a moment to recall its history and evolution. Near the start of the 20th century, architect Albert Kahn became one of the early inventors of the automobile factory, and in 1914 was commissioned to design Henry For...

By John E. Enkemann Jr. and Peter G. Lynde, Albert Kahn Associates December 15, 2007

Today’s industrial manufacturing facility is a marvelous integration of process and facility. Before we analyze its current state and theorize about its future, let’s take a moment to recall its history and evolution.

Near the start of the 20th century, architect Albert Kahn became one of the early inventors of the automobile factory, and in 1914 was commissioned to design Henry Ford’s automobile factory of the future. The result was a massive complex of buildings and infrastructure, allowing the entire manufacturing process to be contained on a single site, with control of each facet of the process localized to the final assembly.

Ford’s vision became reality with the design of the Rouge Complex in Dearborn, MI where coal-fired furnaces transformed shiploads of raw materials into steel and glass specifically for manufacturing Ford automobiles. Despite the autonomy created by this complex, Ford still used outside suppliers to craft parts and components for his automobiles, and stockpiled reserves in on-site warehouses to meet production requirements.

While this revolutionary approach was successful, the by-product of the manufacturing process created unbearable environments for plant employees. The addition of rooftop monitors, pioneered by Kahn, significantly improved workplace conditions, drawing natural ventilation and daylight into the plant and setting new standards for plant design.

The onset of World War II brought an end to demand for automobiles and sparked the evolution of plants geared toward manufacturing and assembly of components instead of raw material handling and processing. Steel and glass were manufactured in their respective factories and delivered to assembly plants, necessitating warehousing of parts and burdening manufacturers with inventories during times of economic downturn.

These labor-intensive facilities were designed to last more than 50 years, and built to accommodate future product changeover and build-out. Automakers competed in a domestic market with captive buyers and anticipated longevity which, through the 1970s, influenced their facility design and manufacturing practices. The entry of foreign manufacturers offering affordably dependable products increased competition and forced domestic automakers to reevaluate their manufacturing strategies.

Factory of today

The need to design manufacturing facilities that addressed employees’ health, safety and work environments led to the evolution of today’s plant, where during breaks, employees can escape the mechanized workspace and use on-site amenities — including full-service kitchens, fitness centers and on-site daycare.

Today’s industrial plant is designed with features to save time, reduce costs and gain efficiencies. They also incorporate striking design elements, which have been shown to positively affect employees, evoking a sense of pride in their workplace and potentially reducing absenteeism, vandalism and workplace injuries. Plant construction is also driven by lowest capital cost, with few allowances for long-term protection.

Current plant design and configuration is shaped by the following manufacturing innovations:

Site location — Today, a plant’s site must address a number of facets to be considered suitable for occupancy by automakers. The reliability of core utilities such as electricity, natural gas, water and sewage capacity is paramount. Also, proximity to suppliers, railways and interstates, adjacency to developing cities and skills of the local workforce are also considered.

Many manufacturers purchase tracts of land larger than required for an initial build-out, in anticipation of future needs. Generally, automotive manufacturing plants are accompanied by performance test tracks and stand-alone energy centers with a network of trestles to deliver utilities metered at point of use.

This network is critical to manage when planning for future expansion, as a project’s timing makes selecting capacity of chillers, air compressors, switchgear and other primary equipment critical — all the while looking for optimal return on investment by the corporation’s capital managers.

Sustainable design — Several manufacturers are investing in sustainable design initiatives. Owners use returnable dunnage, where custom pallets are returned for refilling of additional supplies. Others use renewable resources for these components. Interesting enough, Henry Ford established the Kingsford Charcoal Co. by converting wooden pallets stockpiled in his factories into charcoal, which was then sold for household use.

While a plant’s sustainable impact on land use and surrounding storm tributaries is apparent, the impact of sharing utilities with surrounding communities may not be. Most plants require their own water source for fire protection and the quantity of water can also aid in thermal storage for peak shaving power usage. Consideration may be given to ice storage, co-generation of power and land use.

Just-in-time delivery — Developed in Japanese manufacturing plants, just-in-time delivery assists manufacturers in avoiding deficits and interruption to production by requiring suppliers to schedule component delivery right at the point of exhaustion of the current inventory.

JIT delivery lead suppliers to nestle themselves close to their manufacturing clients and necessitates additional truck docks where deliveries are unloaded and marshaled onto automatic guided vehicles programmed to deliver components to the assembly line without a driver.

Train-wells, which once segmented plants, became obsolete and were filled in to gain floor space; acres of enclosed warehousing were rendered unnecessary.

In the past, the most economical building shape had the least amount of exterior surface and maintained a compact floor plan.

Today’s plant is E-shaped — long and narrow, encompassing several branches. The assembly line circles the plant, flowing into the branches, where exterior walls hold truck docks full of product installed on the chassis just a few feet away. When suppliers are overseas and parts are shipped by container, a sorting facility and warehouse are provided on-site.

On-site third party assembly operations — A third party assembly manufacturing company is often employed when market demand is low and it becomes costly and inefficient for manufacturers to continue producing models at low volumes. Third party assembly plants operate similarly, but are smaller and more suitable for low volume production. After the product is assembled by the third party, final inspection and testing is performed, and the product is certified and sold under their label. While the assembly is outsourced, the product is branded by the OEM.

Co-located suppliers — When reliability of component delivery is critical, manufacturers often require suppliers to have a facility on-site. A conveyor connecting suppliers to the main assembly plant saves both parties time and money. However, when delivery is more reliable, this is quite an investment for the supplier.

Co-located supplier facilities generally have a life span of five years, resulting in a virtual throw-away design/construct mentality. With no long-term security for product supply, little capital is invested in the building. Pre-engineered buildings are designed for quick fabrication and erection, but these facilities offer little in terms of flexibility, sustainability or longevity.

Building information model — Previously, the design of the facility and preparation of documentation were merely means to an end. The success of a designer was not how neatly the drawings were prepared, but whether the building served the purpose for which it was intended. Today, performance of the building has not lost its luster, but its documentation has grown in importance.

Building information modeling is a 3-D electronic model that carries intelligence within its graphics. For designers, the graphics are delivered from engineering analytical software and when combined with other components of the building, an accurate 3-D, intelligent model emerges.

Process engineers include production equipment; architects add walls, ceilings, roofs; while engineers add mechanical, electrical and structural components. This model can be used to detect interferences, and the process can be simulated for pinch points and hazards to workers. Further enhancements have the potential to include service data and maintenance scheduling for equipment, and facility managers can determine equipment’s end of life, and budget for its demise.

Plant exit strategy — The termination of a facility is one of the most significant and greatly unplanned events faced by manufacturers. Often, plants are closed, mothballed and deemed a burden, but forward thinking enables the development of an exit strategy that gives a second life to a potential liability and makes it appealing to outside investors.

Presently, capital investment managers anticipate the life span of a facility decreasing from more than 50 years to a mere 10-year period, increasing the likelihood of a plant becoming obsolete.

Still, alternatives exist, including subdividing buildings, provided that adequate planning allows for cross-docking for trucks, separate parking and independently metered utilities. This can result in a condominium-type industrial park, affording new life to a facility that exists as a white elephant.

Factory of the future

The remarkable evolution of the industrial plant over the past 100 years triggers the question, “What does the next 100 years hold?” With the move toward a global economy, selection of plant locations will draw more scrutiny; U.S. plant locations will continue toward right-to-work states, and we’ll continue to see North American manufacturing migrate to Mexico.

We can assume that industrial manufacturing will continue and, regardless of location, will still require safeguarding from the weather. Further, facilities will become more integrated with process and will follow forms dictated by these processes.

Manufacturers could outsource all or the majority of product assembly, but would still require suppliers to remain in close proximity to their manufacturing facilities, sharing sites whenever possible.

Future factory architecture must continue to easily adapt to new manufacturing technologies such as widespread computerization, automated robotics, customization, global supply chains and virtual work environments; and accommodate the need for low cost, lightweight and prefabricated buildings.

While it’s impossible to design for or predict the development of future factories, there exist loosely composed ideas and possible approaches that could guide decisions concerning these structures.

The need for greater environmental sensitivity, coupled with emerging product and building manufacturing technologies, are expected to alter factory operations and lead to new design solutions. Now, the challenge is to evolve the design process and allow it to accommodate new demands.

Author Information
John E. Enkemann Jr., AIA, NCARB, is COO and Peter G. Lynde, PE, LEED AP, is director of research and technology for the Albert Kahn Family of Companies, Detroit.