20. April 2022 | Magazine:

“My vision for the city: living, working, producing, relaxing” Kolja Meyer on the Junior Research Group "Urban Flows and Production"

The craft beer brewery in the city centre, the chocolate factory around the corner, the optician that makes its own frames more and more entrepreneurs are producing their goods locally. And they do so in the city. But how can urban factories be integrated into urban environments? And which material and immaterial material flows, such as energy and information flows, should be used to produce as sustainably and with as few emissions as possible? This is the focus of the Junior Research Group “Urban Flows and Production”. Bianca Loschinsky spoke with Dr Kolja Meyer, head of the Junior Research Group, about the possibilities of urban production.

Kolja Meyer heads the Junior Research Group "Urban Flows and Production". Picture credits: Martin David/TU Braunschweig

Kolja Meyer heads the Junior Research Group “Urban Flows and Production”. Picture credits: Martin David/TU Braunschweig

Mr Meyer, what does a city need in order to also be suitable as a place of production?

I would actually put the question the other way round: What does a factory need to be able to operate and coexist in the city? Cities and production have a chequered history. Before industrialisation, production took place within cities, but the underlying paradigm was a craft production. With industrialisation, processes became automated. This led to mass products being manufactured and production facilities becoming larger. These no longer blended into their surroundings.

Many machines are now much cheaper and therefore also possible for smaller applications. So now, if you automate a process, you can still manufacture very individually. So we’re not going back to the factory with the smoking chimneys and the big fence around it. It will be more of a site that fits in terms of size and interacts positively with its surroundings.

Are there already positive examples in Braunschweig?

I can mention a project by my predecessor Max Juraschek here at the Institute for Machine Tools and Production Technology (IWF). He is engaged in urban production and re-established the National-Jürgens-Brauerei (NJB) on the Rebenring. In doing so, he applies techniques he developed himself as a researcher to interact positively with the environment: The brewery was once a traditional company in Braunschweig, producing where it is now, in Rebenpark. The brewery does not produce for the mass market, but makes handmade beer in small quantities. So it is a small-scale product that in my eyes also offers very high quality in contrast to a beer from a large brewery.

What about urban production in other cities?

There are also some international examples, such as Dresden Optics in Sydney, Australia. The company manufactures spectacle frames and also provides them with lenses. The company fulfils some core aspects that we find interesting as researchers in urban production. For example, they use waste from their urban environment as raw materials for the plastic frames. The customers can also bring different plastic waste themselves, which is melted down. They work together with companies that produce such waste, for example plastic lids from beer barrels. Customers also have the opportunity to see for themselves how production takes place in a mixture of factory and shop. As far as I know, we don’t have anything like that in Braunschweig yet.

I think it would be very nice if we could bring a company like this further into the city centre. That would also be a way to counteract the vacancy rate in city centres. Buying a pair of glasses that are made locally in front of my eyes is a completely different experience than choosing one from mass-produced goods.

We should also mention the “Manner” wafer factory in Vienna, which is located in the middle of the city. The company wanted to renew itself and decided to stay at its location, but as positively as possible for the surrounding area. For example, the parking garage can be used by residents during times when the factory is not in production. They also offer factory sales and everything is attractively designed so that it does not look like a foreign body. In addition to these “soft” factors, the production was also adapted: The factory layout has been adapted so that production is carried out over several floors of the building. Thus, the usually horizontal arrangement of production structures becomes a vertical arrangement. So there is definitely a lot of engineering involved in the development of urban production systems.

What forms of urban production exist and which industries are suitable for them?

Four different forms of industry are always mentioned in the literature: Firstly, “personal fabricators”. These produce in the city for their own area. “Makerspaces and Fab Labs” are spaces where several producers share a small machine park and produce together. “Mini Factories” are small and medium-sized enterprises with up to 20 employees. “Traditional Urban Industries” are industries that may already exist in the city but are actually planned as urban factories.

Basically, all industries are suitable where the contact between producers and consumers brings an advantage to both parties, for example in the clothing industry. Or also in the jewellery sector. I know a jeweller in Hanover who uses a 3D printer to print wax moulds for the production of rings. So the wax mould no longer has to be made by hand, which would not even be possible in European high-wage countries. This allows the jeweller to produce individualised products, but still be competitive in price.

Another relevant approach can come from satisfying local needs for products through urban production. In this way, effects such as the reduction of transport distances can have an even greater impact than with the sole production of luxury and niche products. In addition, only a few residents of the city would benefit from the exclusive production of such goods – which would certainly reduce the acceptance of production in the city.

Urban production could be a way to counteract the vacancy rate in city centres. Picture credits: Max Fuhrmann/TU Braunschweig

Urban production could be a way to counteract the vacancy rate in city centres. Picture credits: Max Fuhrmann/TU Braunschweig

What opportunities does urban production offer and what risks?

First of all, the opportunities: it is urgently necessary to reduce emissions. However, cities, our living spaces, are emission drivers. A large part is emitted because production takes place for the economically strong areas of western cities. And: Especially in Germany, we are heavily dependent on the import of raw materials. Here, urban factories offer many advantages, for example by reprocessing waste from production facilities and households on site.

One risk is certainly a lack of acceptance of the surrounding area. However, if we apply the measures and strategies that we are currently developing, we can allay the fears of the residents.

How can inner-city production be made sustainable and low-emission?

I have already mentioned one approach: the use of urban material flows for the production of new products. Another approach results from the proximity of producers and consumers. Products that are mass-produced cannot respond to real needs. Here I like to cite the pile of fast fashion and designer clothes that is growing in the Atacama Desert in Chile. If the clothes were produced closer to the consumer again and the customers were measured in a shop, for example, and received their customised jumper, they would identify more with the product. This offers the possibility to produce less, but in a more customised way. Adidas, for example, had a pop-up store in Berlin in 2014 where people could get measured. Then machines knitted a matching jumper. Consumers were also involved in the design. They could choose a yarn and decide where which colour should be used.

How much did the jumper cost later?

Unfortunately, it was still too expensive.

What is the goal of the Junior Research Group?

Our goal is to create guidelines for the design of urban production.

This is where “urban flows” come into play.

One principle we have agreed on from the different disciplines in our JRG is the use of urban “flows” for the production of new products, the material flows or material and immaterial exchange relationships of a city. We are developing an urban resource cadastre that will shed light on the urban material flows of industry and private households and, to some extent, buildings. According to technical criteria, we evaluate how this can be used for production.

Can you give examples of this?

PET bottles could be used directly as a resource instead of being exported as waste. Or wood from construction sites, which could be collected centrally and used further.

Immaterial flows include energy and information flows. The waste heat from industrial production can be used in district heating networks, for example. This is already happening in Braunschweig on a relatively large scale. The waste heat could be used even more locally, depending on the temperatures of the industrial processes, for example to heat greenhouses. If there is a lot of energy available from renewable sources, production could adapt to this, so that at certain times of the day and night either the citizens or the production is supplied with energy.

There are a lot of possibilities here that the JRG cannot investigate on its own. That’s why I’m glad that our junior research group is embedded in the research focus “Future City”, in which different scientists deal with different perspectives on the city, and where there are very good starting points for further research.

In your work as a research assistant at Leibniz Universität Hannover (LUH), you were primarily concerned with the production process of deep rolling. What brought you to the TU Braunschweig and to the JRG?

In my research so far, I have dealt on the one hand with the influence of manufacturing processes on surface integrity. This involves the state of the volume area up to about 1,000 µm below the component surface which is influenced by thermal and mechanical loads during manufacturing. The service life of the component can be increased by specifically adjusting this state. With the same external load, for example, the components can be designed smaller, which saves material. Compared to looking at entire cities, this scaling is quite small. However, I also looked at the design of process chains based on the possible savings. I also created the data basis for energy assessments. Here, too, the focus was already in a broader sense on the forward-looking question: How do I reduce greenhouse gas emissions from production?

However, this consideration has so far been rather technical. Personally, however, in addition to my training as a mechanical engineer, I was also interested in how technological development affects society and wondered whether research in this area was compatible with my expertise as a production engineer.

In 2017, Professor Christoph Herrmann gave a lecture on his vision of the future of production technology at my then place of work at the Produktionstechnisches Zentrum (PZH) in Hanover. There I saw that it is possible to combine both: on the one hand the development of technology and on the other hand also the effects on the production environment and the consideration of the big picture. So I was very happy when the JRG position was advertised at the end of my doctoral period.

How do you contribute your expertise from mechanical engineering?

In my career so far, I have learned to look at problems very thoroughly and also to derive research questions from them. This is not a characteristic that is genuine to mechanical engineering, but Professor Berend Denkena at the PZH in Hanover does and teaches it very well. I was also prepared to proceed in a very structured way, which is also a characteristic of mechanical engineering, and to develop scientific questions and cast them into project form.

From which different disciplines do your colleagues in the JRG come?

My colleague Grace Abou Jaoude has a Master’s degree in Architecture, Urbanism and Building Sciences from Delft University of Technology and has focused primarily on the field of urbanism. Grace is an associate at Professor Vanessa Miriam Carlow’s Institute for Sustainable Urbanism ISU. She looks at production from an urban perspective, what regulations and guidelines are in place and what form the flows are in and how to represent them.

Severin Görgens is an industrial engineer who completed his Master’s degree at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Severin looks at the production side at the IWF’s Chair of Production Technologies & Process Automation under Professor Klaus Dröder. He mainly examines the design of process chains and the selection of suitable products.

Considering the diversity of the issues, it is absolutely necessary that the existing structures are broken up. This challenge cannot be met from a mechanical engineering or production technology perspective alone. In the same way, this could not be solved from an urban planning perspective alone.

What does the future city look like to you?

My personal concern: The inner-city area should be almost car-free. In my eyes, private car traffic is a huge disruptive factor in inner-city life. Especially in a city like Braunschweig, everything can be reached on foot, by bike or by public transport.

The future city should have a greater mix – living, working, production, relaxing should be less separated from each other. That’s what I’m also trying to make possible through my research.