Short-term thinking is the main barrier to automation

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Robot

Justifying return on investment and retailer dominance are two of the biggest barriers to automation in food and drink manufacturing, with smaller firms in particular tied to short-term payback.

That was the verdict of delegates at Food Manufacture's Robotics and Automation Roundtable, held at the HQ of the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA) in Doncaster, Yorkshire.

Two-tiers of processor exist: smaller firms, shackled to short- term payback periods because of tight cash flow and retailer dominance and larger firms with more leeway, said one delegate.

Another said: "In the UK people talk about payback in 18 months. In Germany it's five years."

UK retailers changed product lines so quickly to suit consumer trends that many manufacturers did not want to risk committing to automation specifications that could change to suit their demands, said one attendee. "The longest payback we had in the past year was six months."

Some challenged the short-term thinking. Automated installations lasted at least 10 years, said Mike Wilson, CenFRA chairman, president of the British Automation & Robot Association, who chaired the roundtable debate. "So why are we using this short payback criteria?"

Payback pressures led to demanding too much from a single installation, he continued. "Because we face challenges with payback we try to put together a system that does an awful lot and it is a heck of a lot more complicated." A possible solution was to pick something simple and relatively inexpensive first to provide experience and build on that, he said.

One manager from a large food manufacturer said: "We work with a variety of payback mechanisms and judge each case on its own merits. It can't be that you just can't have something if you can't have payback in, say, 12 months. Hearing some of the constraints these guys are working under around the table it's hard."

Designing something simple or flexible enough to be changed or added to with minimal further investment was a good starting point, he said.

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