The emergence of moveable factories offers the potential to enable sustainable widespread modern manufacturing, particularly by local people in regions without manufacturing skills and infrastructures. By Dr Stephen Fox and Dr Mark Richardson.

Moveable factories can bring efficient, flexible production to many sectors and any location. For example, mobile crop-processing factories are used in Africa to maximise yields; mobile abattoirs are used in northern Europe to reduce transportation of live animals; mobile factories are widely used for packaging. Mobile factories are used to bring production processes such as roll-forming to construction sites, and mobile factories are used to bring the most advanced CNC manufacturing to remote locations in challenging environments such as Afghanistan.

This article explains how movable factories add value, and how they can be used to meet some big Australian challenges, such as the tyranny of distance and creating manufacturing jobs outside metropolitan areas. The article is based on 10 years of international research and a preliminary study recently carried out in Australia.

Making value

Moveable factories add value when it is counterproductive to centralise production. For example, when mangos and other bulky crops are collected and transported to a distant factory, valueless air often takes up load volumes. So, value can be added by processing big fruit locally. This use of mobile factories also increases yields because harvesting and processing can be done incrementally as crops become ready to harvest. Also, local crop-processing with moveable factories can reduce the costs of multiple handling, crop damage, and other post-harvest losses.

Similarly, valueless air gets transported when livestock are transported to distant abattoirs, alongside the increased chance of animal injuries and shipping fever, which all have cost implications. By contrast, moveable abattoirs can reduce these costs by bringing livestock processing, including packaging, to where the livestock are.

When beer needs to be canned and wine needs to be bottled, mobile factories can reduce bulk transportation to distant packaging plants. Instead, breweries and vineyards have much more control over the timing and scope of canning and bottling. Similarly, farms can have a lot more control over the packaging of dairy products.

Using moveable factories can bring advantages throughout product lifecycles, such as when using mobile roll-forming machines to manufacture fascia and guttering on construction sites. This saves labour costs by reducing the number of joints that have to be cut and fixed by hand. Then, this has the added advantage of fewer leaky joints to be repaired in the future.

Moveable factories can also reduce the transportation of valueless air at the end of product lives when goods are to be recycled. Autogenous milling machines can be used to grind bulky unwieldy goods, such as banners and tarpaulins, into separate groups of particles for subsequent use in production of new goods.

Moveable factories are not restricted to just one or two production processes. The US military, for instance, uses movable factories to produce very sophisticated components at remote locations. This involves combining advanced computer-controlled additive and subtractive manufacturing to radically improve upon the cost and time involved in getting new components sent out from far distant fixed factories.

The tyranny of distance

Since the Industrial Revolution, production has been centralised and distance has been a big problem. Moveable factories enable efficient flexible production to be highly distributed, so distance doesn’t have to be a big problem anymore. For example, moveable factories are ideal for the highly distributed production of better infrastructure for energy and water, such as solar-powered desalination of underground water.

At the other end of the size scale, moveable factories can enable efficient flexible local production of medical goods ranging from shaped door handles for arthritic hands to prosthetics for accident victims. Medical goods can be matched exactly to anybody’s unique physical features through portable scanning machines. At the same time, they can be styled to anybody’s preferences for colour, texture and shape.

The centralisation of production since the Industrial Revolution, has contributed to mass urbanisation. Sometimes, production is located away from urban areas, for mining for example, but as a result, rural employment is vulnerable to changes in world commodity prices and other factors far beyond the control of rural communities. By contrast, moveable factories need only a fraction of the enormous capital investment needed for setting up large fixed factories.

Most importantly, they can enable local artisanal value-adding production ranging from farm-branded agricultural production to township-branded production of mechanical goods. By combining moveable factory production with the global reach of the internet, people can set up businesses that minimise middlemen and maximise the delivery of unique value to end-users. For example, the US web-based car company shows how vehicle design, manufacture, and assembly can become a globally local enterprise.

Technological advances reduce the number, size and weight of machines needed to carry out production operations. This introduces new opportunities for more factories to be moveable.

Moveable factories are well suited to Australia: a big country needing to turn distance from a tyranny into an opportunity. This is because moveable factories add value by: reducing the transportation of valueless air; reducing losses arising from multiple handling; and reducing labour that doesn’t add value such as jointing standard lengths of fascia. At the same time, moveable factories add value by increasing flexibility and responsiveness through carrying out production when the time is right to maximise value, rather than carrying out production to suit the timetable of a distant big processing plant.

By driving down costs and driving up responsiveness, moveable factories drive increased value creation.

Dr Stephen Fox is a Senior Scientist at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Dr Mark Richardson lectures in Industrial Design at Monash University.