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Helping hands

By Laurence Gibbons , 02-Jan-2013
Last updated on 07-Jan-2013 at 10:40 GMT

Keeping human hands out of the mix cuts the risk of product contamination for safer processing

Keeping human hands out of the mix cuts the risk of product contamination for safer processing

Insecurity makes UK food firms wary of investment in automation, reports Laurence Gibbons

Too many UK food manufacturers are missing out on the advantages of using automated production techniques because they lack understanding of the benefits on offer, according to experts in the field. Companies are also deterred from making capital investment at a time when retail contracts are so uncertain that payback isn't guaranteed. To make matters worse, shortages of qualified engineers in the food and drink manufacturing sector mean some companies fear they would not have the necessary in-house expertise to maintain sophisticated equipment properly.

"The food industry sits back and doesn't want to invest," says Jim Carr, sales and senior manager at Kawasaki Robotics. "A lack of knowledge surrounding the benefits of automation and fear that supermarket contracts are too unstable and short to risk investment is holding it back."

The UK's lack of progress comes at a time when firms in mainland Europe are embracing automation and robotics, says Grant Collier, head of marketing at the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA). The latest BARA research indicates that the UK has 27 robots for every 10,000 employees, which is far fewer than Germany, which boasts 137. Even more worrying than lagging behind Germany (which is famous for its keenness to embrace automation) is how far the UK lags behind other European countries. Sweden has 123 robots per 10,000 employees, Italy has 113, France 59 and Spain 61.

The UK is missing out on the potential to grow its successful food industry by not investing in automation, claims Martin Walder, industries manager at control systems specialist Rockwell Automation. "We have some of the largest food manufacturers in the world and many medium-sized ones that could become bigger," says Walder. "Automation is a key ingredient in helping firms reach their potential and grow from mid-sized manufacturers to big companies."

Automation helps manufacturers increase productivity, while saving money on materials and labour costs, according to Steve Cann, general manager at the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA). Alan Spreckley, channel partner manager at ABB Robotics adds that robots are also more hygienic, as they remove human contact from the manufacturing process, which means less risk of food contamination.

BARA is trying to educate manufacturers about these benefits through the government- funded Automating Manufacturing Programme (AMP) and Collier is keen for food firms to take advantage of the free automation advice it provides while it lasts.

Barriers to automation

"The UK traditionally has been very slow to automate," says Collier. "This is changing thanks to programmes such as the AMP. If people are keen to try automation they need to explore options sooner rather than later, as there is no guarantee programmes will continue to offer advice and guidance when the programme ends in March."

The AMP is a £600,000 government-funded programme managed by BARA, which aims to encourage the uptake of automation among UK manufacturers. The programme is divided into two stages with stage one providing a strategic review of a firm's manufacturing operation.

This starts with an audit aimed at identifying opportunities to improve production through automation. The second stage provides a more detailed intervention to develop the findings from the audit. This will provide the manufacturer with the knowledge and information required to plan and successfully implement a robotics project.

Collier suspects many manufacturers are wary of exploring automation because they fear that short-term contracts offered by supermarkets might not be renewed so any capital investment they make might not be rewarded. "The biggest barrier to automation is supermarkets, because they only offer such short contracts, so payback isn't good," remarks Collier.

Retailer commitment

Mark Staples, UK food and beverage segment manager at control systems company Schneider Electric, which specialises in automation, says the industry would be more open to investigating the use of automation if supermarkets collaborated more with manufacturers. "If supermarkets would commit to longer contracts then a lot of the worry would be taken away," says Staples. "Manufacturers will not want to invest in their production line for a six-month contract; they need to know they will get some return on the new piece of kit."

Walder thinks more favourable government tax breaks for capital investment would provide a greater incentive and drive interest and confidence in automation. This would "make automation appealing to companies", he says. "Then we could connect with them and show them how much they could benefit."

But Staples believes manufacturers need to be educated about the full advantages of automation. "End users need to understand why they need the equipment," he says. Staples suggests that the AMP would achieve greater engagement among end users were it to be a regional rather than national programme.

Spreckley agrees, but suggests that regional activities would need to be co-ordinated on a national level. "AMP was a good initiative that we can't allow to end, but it needs to be taken to the next level," says Spreckley. "I believe in regional programmes. They provide good opportunities and are a great way of getting messages across, but they have to work with a national programme."

The CenFRA is running a project called InnovateBetter across the Yorkshire and Humber region which, like the AMP, funds consultancy for robotics and automation. "I know local programmes are working well in the Yorkshire and Humber region," says Carr. "An investment in local projects would help to gain interest anywhere where there is a big collection of food manufacturers."

Staples argues that automation and robot manufacturers need to do more themselves to ensure their products are more versatile than at present and are understood by end users to be so. This would go a long way towards overcoming worries that equipment could become redundant if contracts are lost. "It is about putting flexibility in automation, showing that one bit of kit can do the jobs of two separate pieces of equipment and then also do additional jobs that you might not have considered," says Staples. "We are working towards multi-faceted automation, and educating customers into how it will benefit them to use this system that does x, y and z."

Flexible friends

With advances in vision systems and gripping enabling more foods to be handled by automation, robots have become far more versatile in recent years, says Collier.

Spreckley, however, suggests that a bigger problem is the failure of the food industry to attract engineers. "The problem is the way we treat our engineers in the UK," he says. "In Germany, engineers are held in as high a regard as doctors and lawyers; it is an appealing profession. We need to adjust the status of engineering in the UK."

Walder concurs. He says the UK needs to attract bright young people and raise the status of engineering before automation will achieve its potential. "Any manufacturer needs to have confidence in the equipment they are buying and know their staff can operate it," says Walder. "Many manufacturers will want to take new technology on board, but are prevented from doing so by fear that there is not a pool of people who know how to operate it or deal with problems should something go wrong."

So it seems more work is needed before the UK food industry achieves the levels of automation that are seen in mainland Europe and Germany. Spreckley, for one, fears it will be a long and uphill battle. "We'll never say never, but if we do catch up with Germany it will take a long, long time," he says.

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