In designing gigafactories for the UK’s next-generation industries, the key imperatives are flexibility and future-proofing

As Elon Musk has put it, gigafactories are “the machine that builds the machine”. A factory must be functional and efficient, refined over many design iterations to ensure quality, constructability and value for money. It must allow product to flow 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but also inspire talented people and promote productivity and wellbeing.

Alex Miller Ridge

The design decisions we make now will affect the functionality, energy use and ultimately business success for decades to come.

We need gigafactories. With EU tariffs being imposed as part of Brexit, imported batteries, for instance, will be taxed at 50%. The economics stack up, time pressure is growing, and there is a real need for UK-made batteries. Over 800,000 jobs in the UK automotive sector and supply chain rely on it.

When a factory is being designed, equipment geometry and exact requirements are often not known until the bespoke design for that product is provided. This issue is even more acute with a gigafactory. The technology and product mix is still going through such radical development due to the emerging technology that even the size, shape and service requirements of each step of the process is constantly evolving.

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Even the process itself may completely change within a matter of years, for instance as new battery technologies like solid state are being invented in the labs.

That leave us as designers the challenging task of constructing a flexible and future-proofed building that can accommodate whichever technological route or chemistry the customer wishes to pursue.

For every space within the factory, services and structure must be rigorously planned in 3D to minimise waste and maximise utilisation of the volume

In a heavily serviced facility over half a kilometre in length, it becomes prohibitive to add open space between each process for flexibility. The further you distribute a chemical compound that is fed into the battery, the less effective it becomes, increasing the cost and risks associated with distributing these often hazardous and flammable substances from the place in which they are stored.

For every space within the factory, services and structure must be rigorously planned in 3D to minimise waste and maximise utilisation of the volume.

Every metre of height across the footprint of a 250,000m2 facility adds millions of pounds in steel and cladding. The larger the volume, the more it costs to heat or condition the space, which is particularly pertinent to clean and dry rooms with a dew point of -50°C, which can take up the majority of the factory floor area.

Minimising travel distances across the facility is vital to the efficiency of the plant. E-mobility and smart transit around the factory will help reduce the costs of moving people, while automated guided vehicles move product and materials to supply the process autonomously.

Providing a safe and productive working environment must be the primary design consideration, ensuring the building can be constructed and the equipment used or maintained in a safe, accessible way. With the challenge of building in an operational facility, this is even more critical.

People are the biggest asset of any organisation, so improving factory environments for health and wellbeing with access to daylight, views of the surrounding landscape and creating social areas for interaction and collaboration will allow ideas to flourish and increase employee satisfaction, ultimately improving productivity, product development and innovation while attracting and retaining highly skilled staff.

At Ridge, our digital engineering team works closely with the process to develop digital twins that allow simulation and analysis of output and efficiency. Having a 3D model is an essential host for this information as we transition into the next generation of industrial facilities.

Alex Miller is an associate architect at Ridge and Partners