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Advancing plant design: Focus on people, flow and the future

Workplaces should attract and sustain top talent while being adaptable to change.


Smart design accommodates proper equipment placement. PHOTO: FOTOLIA

From standing desks to fully loaded games rooms, anyone who has stepped into a sleek new office space will see innovative design.

A growing millennial workforce craves more creativity, flexibility and inspiration from their work environments. But you won’t find a lot of innovative, people-first design in a plant. Yet good design enhances productivity, especially as more millennials enter the manufacturing sector.

Simple design easily creates a more future-equipped environment, one that puts people first and encourages the free flow of ideas and adaptability to new processes and equipment.

Collaboration among colleagues is key. One important design element being implemented into more facilities is collision spaces. From specific placement of work zones to washrooms and coffee stations, they intentionally create meeting places where personnel bump into each other, share ideas, advance efficiencies in their tasks and inspire out-of-the box ideas.

There’s also value in bringing natural light into a plant. Introducing more transparent walls and even removing existing walls (if possible) creates spaces more open to life outside the plant, while making shop floors more inviting.

The world offers a few lessons in good manufacturing design. Take Japanese manufacturers: they have long integrated production around human workflows to support the kaizen philosophy. Their plants tend to be well organized and clean, and they’re also among the most productive.

European manufacturers tend to place greater emphasis on promoting human interactions than their North American counterparts. It’s partly cultural. A beautiful example of European sensibility toward industrial workspace design is the BMW Group’s automotive R&D and manufacturing operations in Leipzig, Germany.

Its award-winning design creates an interactive relationship between employees, the cars, and the public thanks in part to its approach to process-focused flow and a transparent glass façade that brings the outside world in.

Better configurations

Of course, smart design must accommodate proper equipment placement, streamline and support existing processes and account for future production needs.

Yet many plants have not planned well for future needs. As a result, interiors consist of a complex puzzle of spaces added to the existing structure whenever a new piece of equipment or new process is introduced. These separate, ‘island-like’ spaces eat into valuable warehouse or materials handling space.

Many practical considerations come into play around the use, flow and handling of raw and finished materials, chemicals or waste, and they all have to be managed safely and effectively.

There is a practical need to create flow diagrams and virtual reality mock ups that trace the routing of all input and output processes through the facility with a view of all the people involved in the workflow at each stage.

This aids the design of an efficient and compact footprint to keep materials, machinery and manpower flowing as it should.

Properly designed and implemented long-term growth strategies are based on easily adaptable utility distribution schemes that make room for future unknowns.

There’s a need for manufacturing facility design to be flexible, but also adaptable to change. It’s about valuing manufacturing process. Flexible means providing for every utility and structural capacity everywhere it might be needed in the future. That comes with a very high capital cost.

Adaptable design creates a well-planned infrastructure backbone co-located with a circulation spine that’s easily extended or tapped into as equipment and processes evolve. Think of a road system in a city, with sewer, power and water services below it. Every site is configured with headers that have sufficient capacity and geometry to facilitate new connections. This lowers initial and future capital costs.

Plant design that accommodates people and looks ahead saves space, decreases renovation costs and ensures operations are in good shape for whatever the future brings.

Jay Levine is a principal at NXL Architects, a Toronto-based architecture firm that designs complex buildings for the science, technology and manufacturing sector.

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