“The food and beverage sector in general is well-known for having some of the most severe manufacturing and control regulations in industry,” Jonathan Wilkins, European Automation marketing manager, told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
“This is part of the reason why UK manufacturers have been relatively slow in the uptake of automation.”
Food firms had needed to ensure production changes complied with continuously changing international standards for good practice set by bodies such as US Food and Drugs Administration or Good Manufacturing Practice norms, said Wilkins. This had made them reticent to innovate, he claimed.
“However, this guarded attitude is slowly starting to change. Increasing costs of raw materials and energy, combined with growing pressure from large retailers seem to be bringing on a change in mentality for some food and beverage manufacturers in the UK and worldwide.
“Purchasing more advanced industrial automation equipment is now justifiable, if return on investment is relatively quick and allows for sustainable and more flexible production lines.”
In tandem with this, energy efficiency was a major trend driving automation in the sector, Wilkins said.
“Whether it’s a case of retrofitting older-generation, inefficient motors with variable speed drives to respond to the EU’s Ecodesign Directive or purchasing the latest generation of robots that can work alongside humans on the production line, almost every recent investment in automation equipment has energy-efficient and cost reducing reasons behind it.”
Batch automation, which enables manufacturers to make precise amounts of products and switch to making other things on the same production line, rather than continuously producing one item, was another trend, he said.
The approach offers much greater control over the amount of ingredients used, more consistent quality, greater flexibility, better record keeping and less waste.
It was hard to say whether UK food and drink manufacturers were investing in equipment from overseas or the domestic market, said Wilkins. “One thing that is clear though is that investment in new machinery and the research and development of new products is definitely happening.”
The UK food industry makes the fourth largest contribution to the EU’s total food and drink turnover out of any EU country: £95.4bn, according to European Automation. That figure represents more than half the turnover generated by UK manufacturing as a whole, it claims.
Top 10 EU countries by food and drink turnover