The Only Way is Up
Swiss kitchen appliance manufacturer has ambitious plans to reduce its physical and ecological footprint while doubling production.
Manufacturing and town centres don’t go very well together. The former is often deemed to attract too much traffic and make too much noise or pollution to allow for relaxed urban living. A notable exception is Swiss kitchen appliance maker V-ZUG, which has its main production site in the heart of the town of Zug, some 22kms south of Zurich. When it first settled there back in 1913 it was a greenfield site so the town grew around the facility. Over a century later it has become so much a part of the city’s life and economy, it has no intention of leaving.
A few years ago however, the company decided that in order to stay competitive and sustainable, it had to reduce its ecological and physical footprint and free up some of its 61,683 sq m site for residential and manufacturing activities and the service industries. Called Project 2033, it’s a forward-thinking programme. “We are building upwards instead of outwards in a process of verticalisation” explains Stephan Keller, Director of Development for the company.
What’s so ambitions about this project however is that though the manufacturing floor space will be almost halved, the company’s output or production capacity will actually be doubled thanks to state-of-the-art machinery and new technology and facilities. The centrepiece of the new vertical factory is a building called Zephyr Hangar, that was completed last year, is constructed largely out of wood and is covered in PV panels. It works on the principle of vertical consolidation, splitting production across floors and linking it by process so that components are organised for assembly as efficiently as possible. If that sounds like it is coming at the cost of losing employees, it isn’t. “Yes we are automating but we are not reducing staff,” says Keller. “Because we are growing and reallocating staff to different areas.” By 2026 there will also be a landmark 40-60m-tall admin building at the heart of the site that will house the company’s archive and storage space and provide stunning views across Lake Zug and surrounding Alps.
The rationale for the move was threefold explains Keller. Some of the buildings needed renovating and upgrading anyway. “Second, we realised that the site we occupied could be financially operated in a better manner,” he adds. After all this is premium land and the business case for a more mixed campus was a positive one. Thirdly, the local authorities very much wanted to keep the factory in town. “They believe having an economic mix of jobs in the city makes it more attractive,” says Keller. “And we will ensure we also have a mix of housing as we don’t want only to offer overpriced apartments that our blue collar workers could not afford.”
The town’s residents need not worry about more noise or vibrations either as a result of the transformation. “The foundations of the buildings are being built in a special way so that vibrations are absorbed,” says Keller. “And the type of equipment we use is low in noise and vibration emissions.” The activity of unloading and loading lorries has been moved indoors and vehicles arrive on site via the northern edge of the campus so as not to have to drive through the city. This is also where employees who live further than 25 minutes by public transport can park their cars. Those who live closer have to come by bike or public transport as part of a new company-wide mobility strategy. “All the existing parking lots around the campus will gradually be eliminated,” adds Keller.
V-ZUG is on a genuine mission for sustainability across the board and has also made significant investments in green energy provision for its two production facilities (they have another one in the east of the country that makes the company's fridges). Last year the company managed to become carbon neutral says Keller, through a mix of sources and measures such as photovoltaics on all their new buildings, the use of biofuels and waste heat in some manufacturing processes and the planting of 800,000 trees (so far) in the Scottish Highlands.
By October 2022 the company will also have a multi-energy hub on site in Zug that will provide for the heating, cooling and energy needs of the whole campus through a number of different local energy sources - such as deep groundwater, lake water, photovoltaics and so on. “We are also thinking about accessing a lake that is more than 100 metres below us,” says Keller. “It has no entry or exit point, it’s just there and we are thinking of using it as a heat storage depot to balance things out during the seasons.” He continues: “It will likely be very tough for us to become entirely energy self-sufficient because we have some industrial processes that still consume gas, such as the ovens for the enamel processing. But we can definitely use totally clean and carbon neutral energy. And we are aiming to be self sufficient to as high a degree as is possible.”
And what of the company’s products? How do they play their part in this sustainability drive? Well, for one thing they can be easily repaired. “We have always been extremely dedicated to repairability, well before the European Union started talking about it,” says Keller, “and we have a spare parts guarantee that lasts 15 years.” But the company has also worked hard to create a large number of parts that can work across different product typologies and platforms. “Almost 50% of the parts we now make or use fit in all our thermal appliances, whereas this number used to be below 15%,” says Keller.
It’s perhaps one of the company’s most popular products, the Combi-Steamer, that best exemplifies the company’s holistic eco approach. When using a conventional microwave you have the problem that food often gets dry and is not uniformly heated. “If you're using a steam device, you don't have this issue,” explains Keller. “Take a bread that is one or two days old for instance. If you put it into this oven and press the regeneration function the bread will be heated up in a humid environment first and then almost grilled at the end for a crispy crust.” The bread is renewed and once again fresh. You can’t do this more than once warns Keller, but even once is pretty darn exciting.