Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative logistics, design, and consumer goods companies.
If there’s one characteristic shared by all the companies on this year’s Most Innovative Companies in Manufacturing list, it would be a commitment to working smarter. Whether that means using machine learning to identify ways manufacturing facilities can reduce carbon emissions, creating end products from unlikely sources, or rethinking how abundant but overlooked materials might be repurposed, this year’s contenders are all bringing new ideas to the fore, largely with an eye toward sustainable manufacturing practices.
Both TMC and Taylor Guitars are examples of how sustainable manufacturing processes can take inspiration from materials that are often cast aside. For TMC, that means creating a process to turn a New Zealand textile typically used in upholstery into a substitute for nylon in apparel, and Taylor Guitars is taking trees cut down by cities and turning them into guitars. In the “something from nothing” category, Solugen and Origin Materials are taking low-cost feedstocks and using sustainable processes to create commonly used products—industrial chemicals in Solugen’s case, and PET plastic containers at Origin Materials.
Still others on this list are using powerful algorithms and processing power to digest countless data points coming out of manufacturing facilities and either turning them into actionable insights, including the optimal settings for a given facility, as Sight Machine does or using them to help companies chart a path toward processes that emit fewer emissions like Seebo.
Just as no facility is able to function without workers, this list would not have been complete without including companies innovating around worker safety and training. With its connected hard hat, Guardhat is using the Internet of Things to help monitor workers and site conditions, while Quality Executive Partners is using virtual reality to train pharma workers on production practices remotely.
There’s no lack of innovation in manufacturing, and these 10 companies are the ones that distinguished themselves from a crowded field.
For catalyzing a new way to make chemicals
When most people think of corn syrup, they’re not inclined to think of it being turned into industrial chemicals. But Solugen is using the sweet substance as a feedstock to do just that—using enzymes and metal catalysis to eliminate the use of oil, coal, and natural gas from the process of making chemicals for everything from water treatment to laundry detergent and fertilizer. The company—which closed a $357 million Series C at the end of 2021 and is valued at $1.8 billion—has found a way to make the process more efficient: Today, its production process for a chemical uses nearly all of the feedstock it puts in. The carbon-negative process and Solugen’s ability to sell flexible amounts of chemicals to companies looking to lower their own footprint have helped the company make inroads in a traditionally slow-moving industry.
For making a smart hard hat that protects more than just heads
As a symbol of industrial jobs, the hard hat has had very little in the way of an upgrade, but Guardhat is changing that. In a sector with 874 million injuries and accidents every year and 2.7 million deaths, the company’s Internet of Things- and cell-enabled hard hat has been used by leading manufacturers since its 2020 rollout to protect their employees. With a chip that enables 3D tracking to quickly locate workers in an emergency, along with an SOS button, recording capabilities, and the ability to make video and audio calls, the hat has been used by more than 5,000 people, preventing more than 2,000 possibly dangerous incidents. It can also be used for COVID-19 contact tracing among workers. The company’s founder, Saikat Dey, used to run steel operations across North America for a major global producer, so he understands the importance of worker safety. (He’s also aware of privacy issues and counsels companies to use Guardhat’s products to protect workers, and not spy on them.) As customers take notice—2021 revenue is set to double 2020 sales—investors have, too, with Guardhat bringing in an $18 million Series B in 2021. Guardhat partnered with Caterpillar in 2021 to create the Cat Connected Worker platform for its mining workers, scheduled to launch in Q1 2022.
Guardhat is No. 34 on the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
For keeping essential medications flowing
As a manufacturer of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and finished pharmaceutical products, Phlow is on a mission to improve the U.S. medicine supply chain. In 2021, as it continued to deliver on a four-year, $354 million contract with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to provide APIs and essential drugs during the pandemic, Phlow brought 11 leading children’s hospitals together to create the Children’s Hospital Coalition. Through the coalition, Phlow—which uses a speedier and yield-focused “continuous flow” process for manufacturing its APIs (basically allowing chemical reactions to run on a smaller scale continually)—will ensure supply and affordability of certain medications. Phlow is also focused on building a national stockpile of APIs to prepare for a public health emergency.
For forecasting how manufacturers can reduce emissions
Out of sight, out of mind. In the manufacturing world, that has long been how companies think about the greenhouse emissions that result from their plants, reflecting a general reticence to invest the money and time in manually forecasting emissions and implementing mitigation strategies. That’s where Aveva’s process simulation software comes in, which takes a tool widely used to help engineers forecast how design changes will maximize production rates and adds the ability to see the emissions generated by a given design. The company has found that its clients have realized energy cost savings of between 15% and 30%, and reduced carbon emissions by 9% to 15%.
5. Origin Materials
For making carbon-negative plastic production its PET project
In 2020, demand for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics was 27 million metric tons, according to Statista, which estimates that number is set to hit 42 million metric tons by 2030. Produced via oil-based feedstock, PET production creates a commensurate share of greenhouse gas emissions. Origin Materials is looking to change that: It produces PET plastic using carbon derived from biomass sources, such as wood scrap from paper mills and cardboard, creating a carbon-negative PET production process. Origin—which went public in 2021 to enable construction on its first commercial plant—reported $5.6 billion at the end of 2021 in contracted agreements and capacity reservations. Among its clients are Nestlé Waters, Ford, Danone, and PepsiCo, and it’s forging partnerships aimed at exploring other uses for the by-products of the PET production process.
For finding a natural nylon replacement from a local surplus
Typically, a company ordering 500 kg of strongwool would be making carpets or upholstery, putting the wool’s durability to work. Always one for a challenge, New Zealand-based textile innovator TMC—formerly the Merino Company—took that half-ton of the wool and, over the course of nearly three years, developed Herculan, a superfine wool yarn with ultra durability that makes it a perfect substitute for nylon and other synthetics and allows companies to boost the amount of natural fiber in their apparel. With strongwool comprising some 87% of New Zealand’s wool clip, some producers end up taking excess to landfill, making Herculan a viable option for reducing waste in this supply chain.
7. Quality Executive Partners
For spearheading the next generation of production worker training
Training workers in pharmaceutical production is hard enough. Add a pandemic and you have a logistical challenge that requires creative solutions. Quality Executive Partners, which styles itself as QxP, developed Virtuosi, a VR training program that came out of beta in 2021 to be put through its paces by leading pharmaceutical manufacturers. The company was able to reduce employees’ time to competency from six months to four months, with batch-rejection rates of zero among workers trained on the platform, compared with an industry average of 3.2%. As more cell and gene therapies emerge, QxP sees Virtuosi playing a role in training the workers charged with manufacturing these specialized products. Currently, there are roughly 5,000 Virtuosi licenses in use across 20 sites in seven countries.
For using AI to reduce emissions and process-driven losses
With its Process-Based Artificial Intelligence capabilities, Seebo is helping a host of manufacturers optimize their production processes, minimizing waste and emissions in the process. The company has helped food manufacturers—including Barilla, Nestle and Mondelez—reduce food waste through more efficient production processes, reducing waste by as much as 37% on a single production line. Seebo’s process-based AI also helps energy-intensive manufacturers in industries like glass and cement production customize goals like yield, throughput, and quality. As a result, companies are able to more easily manage energy costs and emissions levels, encouraging a shift to greener manufacturing.
9. Taylor Guitars
For playing a new tune with its wood sourcing strategy
If a guitarist in Southern California picks up a Taylor Urban Ash guitar, it could have come from a tree that used to grow around the block. The Urban Ash line, launched in 2020, is the product of Taylor’s partnership with tree maintenance company West Coast Arborists to take trees marked for removal from city streets and turn them into guitars. It’s yielding results—Taylor has sold 8,000 Urban Ash guitars, making the Taylor Builder’s Edition 324ce model with urban wood the 13th best-selling acoustic guitar in North America. Urban Ash and its success are the culmination of a decade that has seen Taylor scrutinizing its wood sourcing strategy, including a project to buy historically rejected marbled ebony in Cameroon—an effort that earned Taylor a $1.4 million grant in September as part of the Global Environment Facility’s $9.4 million reforestation effort in Cameroon.
10. Sight Machine
For putting an entire plant’s data at your fingertips
Sight Machine’s new software has been a decade in the making. The erstwhile computer vision company, founded in 2011, has emerged in 2021 as the developer of the first real-time manufacturing data platform, which can model an entire plant’s production process, create interoperable data with machine learning, and allow users to monitor every machine in a given plant, making them able to adjust certain processes on the fly to meet whatever manufacturing goals a manufacturer may have. The platform has cut its teeth working with leading glass, sportswear, automotive, and pharmaceutical companies, and has grabbed manufacturers’ attention in the past year: the company added 10 new facilities to its platform in the last three months of 2021.