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Robotics or die: food manufacturers’ 10-year choice

By Mike Stones , 28-Sep-2011
Last updated the 30-Sep-2011 at 09:23 GMT

UK food manufacturers have between just five to 10 years to adopt robotic technology or face terminal decline.

That stark choice was delivered by Mike Wilson, director of the Automation Advisory Service [AAS], at the PPMA trade show in Birmingham, yesterday [September 25].

Speaking exclusively to FoodManufacture.co.uk, Wilson said: “Food manufacturers have five to 10 years to get this right, or they will lose out in the long term.”

The UK lags significantly behind other EU countries, such as Germany, Italy, France and even Belgium, in the adoption of robotic technologies, he said. Germany leads the way in Europe with 127 robots per 10,000 employees in non-automotive sectors, according to the International Federation of Robotics. The UK has only 25 robots per 10,000 employees.

“The UK is excellent at developing new products. We are good at improving manufacturing processes such as lean manufacturing. But poor, as an industry, in technology innovation such as robotics,” said Wilson, who is also president of the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA).

Lack of funding

In the UK short-term thinking and, in some cases lack of funding, is blocking the adoption of robotic technology and threatens to blight the future of food manufacturers, he added.

“In Germany, Sweden and other countries, manufacturers plan for a three-year pay back. But it the UK it is often six months despite the fact that the equipment will last for 10 to 12 years.”

To remedy the problem, the government has awarded £600,000 to fund an Automating Manufacturing Programme managed by BARA by which aims to encourage the uptake of automation among UK manufacturers.

The project, which will run until the end of March 2013, has been developed by BARA, will offer independent, impartial advice to assist manufacturers in their implementation of automation solutions.

Although helping small- to medium-sized enterprises are the main target, larger companies with limited knowledge of and expertise in automation are also eligible.

BARA is a PPMA group association. PPMA ceo Chris Buxton told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “This is a great opportunity for UK companies to take advantage of a government funded programme. It offers the chance to take what is a risk-free plunge into the automation arena. It could fundamentally change for the better, the way that they do business.”

Recommendation report

Robotics advice will be delivered in two stages. The first phase is a free strategic review of a firm’s manufacturing operation. It will start with an audit aiming to identify opportunities to improve production through automation, followed by a recommendation report.

The second stage, which will be half funded by the client firm, will conduct a more detailed analysis. This will provide the manufacturer with the knowledge and information required to plan and successfully implement the automation solution and commission equipment.

Wilson told FoodManufacture.co.uk that the first three applications for funding, including one from a bakery firm, had been received already. The first site visits would begin next month, he said.

For more information about applying for robotics funding click here .

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