Suzanne Gill spoke to some automation industry spokespeople to get their thoughts on why food and beverage manufacturers need to look more seriously at adopting automation and digitalisation technologies on the factory floor. 

Numerous reports, including Made Smarter, have highlighted the relatively weak plant and equipment investment track record in UK food production – a sector that is amongst those with the most to gain from industrial digital technology. Arguments against automating food factories have tended to revolve around the fact that there was wide availability of low-cost and flexible unskilled labour.  Added to this was the perceived cost and complexity of automating or updating systems.

However, the business of automation are clear – it results in lower unit cost manufacturing at scale, aiding both productivity and sustainability. It minimises risk, product and production variability whilst creating business insight through machine-derived data.
A goals driven strategy
Steve Brambley, chief executive at GAMBICA, believes that any strategy for automation and digitalisation should be driven by goals rather than by technology. “When it comes to exploring solutions, it is important to start with the questions,” he said. “What problems are you trying to solve? And what is your objective?”

From this starting point, Brambley says that the most appropriate solutions can be identified and the effects modelled. “It is very common that, as well as addressing the primary goal – for example, increasing throughput – there will be a host of additional benefits available too, such as reducing waste, improving accuracy, reducing energy, preventing accidents, remote access, and better data.”

In the food and drink sector, there are also some specific drivers where technology can provide a solution. Firstly, there are the manufacturing drivers: Flexibility for multi-product lines, quicker changeovers between products, better process control for temperature, viscosity, timing etc.

Some of the drivers are quality assurance requirements: Traceability, testing for contaminant and verification of ingredients. Others are consumer trends: processing meat-free proteins, separation of vegan products, and low carbon manufacturing. Finally, there are packaging considerations, for example plastic-free packaging or customisable printing to meet consumer trends.

“There is also a strong argument for using the power of data to improve your business processes such as production planning, demand forecast, ordering, logistics and predictive maintenance,” continued Brambley. “The bottom line is that automation and digital technologies are the keys to unlocking competitiveness and growth – the benefits are numerous and the potential for improvement is high. You will start with the question ‘what problem am I trying to solve?’ and as part of the answer you will find that you can solve numerous other business issues at the same time”.

Grasp the nettle
Ken Young, technology director at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), warns that those who do not grasp the nettle and start to automate their processes may not have a business to run in the long term. “For me it is clear that the food industry can’t afford to not automate and digitalise their processes,” he said. “The benefits include improved process knowledge and control; reductions in human introduced variation and contamination; a reduction in demand for low skilled labour; better product consistency; and faster response to customer demand.”

According to Young, the question that should now be discussed is not whether to automate, but how to start the automation journey as quickly, cheaply and as risk free as possible. “My advice is to start with a small project and develop expertise in some of your key staff. The project needs to be led from the top level of the business, as there will be problems along the way and it is important that early issues are not allowed to derail the longer-term strategic goals or to knock confidence in the technology.  

“It is first vital to understand what the long-term objectives are these need to relate to issues that are important to your customers and will help you get larger, longer, more consistent orders from them.

“Learning from others can make the experience less costly. A good coach for your implementation team will be invaluable and this will help keep you on the track to success. They will ask you the difficult questions and ensure that investments deliver what you need and take you closer to your long-term goal.”