A long-term plan must be put forward by larger food and drink manufacturers and retailers to show the rest of the industry what role automation has to play in the sector, said Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation and Robot Association.
Wilson spoke at a Keeping lean and green debate organised by the Food Manufacture Group at this week’s Foodex show held at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham (March 24–26).
“The food industry is behind some of the major engineering industries in the country. Everybody knows that the automotive industry uses lots of robots, everybody perceives that robots are the right kind of tool for that industry, but they certainly have their place in the food industry and there are significant opportunities where we can use them in a more widespread way,” said Wilson.
However, the nature of food manufacturing often made it difficult for companies to see how automation and robotics would improve efficiency long term, he pointed out.
Food manufacturers had shorter production runs and needed greater flexibility, as products changed more frequently. This, as well as the need for higher hygiene standards, meant equipment was bespoke and costly as a result.
“There are challenges in terms of finance as the food industry requires very short payback criteria to its investments, which does also make the use of automation difficult to justify in food manufacturing,” said Wilson.
The food and drink industry’s “fragmented” nature also made it difficult for knowledge about the lean benefits of robotics to filter through the whole sector, said Peter Hines founder and chairman of lean manufacturing consultancy SA Partners.
Hines, who, together with colleagues, wrote the book Creating a Lean and Green Business System: Techniques for Improving Profits and Sustainability Format, said manufacturers were increasingly facing pressure from retailers to become more efficient.
“It’s in the same way that the auto makers put pressure on their suppliers in the 1980s,” said Hines. “I see this is increasingly coming and we’re working with a number of retailers who are now expecting their suppliers to go down this lean and green route.”
If suppliers were dealing with the likes of Tesco and Asda, then they would face this pressure to reduce waste and inefficiency to become more cost effective and help retailers pull in more “green consumers”, he said.
Although retailers were seen to be driving lean and green thinking for their own benefit, manufacturers could make huge financial savings, said Hines.
While working on a project with a sandwich manufacturer to reduce landfill waste, Hines said the manufacturer, which used sliced bread to make over 500,000 sandwiches a day, saved £700,000 a year by reducing the size of the crust at the end of the loaf of bread to gain an extra slice.
“When we look at the food and drink manufacturing sector, there’s usually something in the 10–15% bracket of cost savings to be had through implementing lean and green thinking,” he said.