Two-part interview on take-up of software and automated processes

EU exit concerns drive companies towards automation

By Rod Addy contact

- Last updated on GMT

Firms producing perishable products are increasingly turning to software systems to keep pace with raw material orders
Firms producing perishable products are increasingly turning to software systems to keep pace with raw material orders

Related tags: Meat & Seafood, Supply chain, Technology & Automation

Food firms are being driven to automate ordering and production in response to the effects of the UK Brexit vote, according to Systems Integration (SI).

Rob Stephens, managing director at the company, which supplies software solutions, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES), tailored to companies' existing processes, said several factors were responsible.

"One is to do with staffing, because pretty much any food plant that we work in can have anything from 20-60% European labour,"​ said Stephens. "A small percentage of it is actually agency workers. These are full-time people in a lot of cases who have been here for five, six or seven or eight years.

"With the advent of the Brexit vote they feel a bit unwanted. Combined with the fact that they are sending their money home and the exchange rate has dipped, what they are earning and sending back has significantly diminished and there are opportunities in other parts of Europe to probably earn better money.

Labour saving

"What does that lead to? When you’re struggling to retain staff, ​[companies] start to look for things they can do in the factory that reduce the labour content. So, levels of automation, whether scanning, issuing and doing things that don’t require somebody with paper and a pen and writing things down to labour saving devices, for example labelling a box automatically. Companies are more interested now in anything that can save time."

Another element fuelling the increased take-up of software systems to automate production was concern about the availability of raw ingredients post-Brexit, said Stephens. This concern varied by sector, he added.

"If you’re talking about things like fresh produce for example, 80-90% of it comes from Europe. If you’re a value-added meat processor 50% of your meat could come from overseas. If you’re an integrated business where you’re a kill, bone, retail packer over here, 20-30% of your packaging will come from Europe, so every one of these businesses has a dependence on products coming from Europe and they are affected differently.

"These guys have all got customers. The orders are going up and down. They never know quite what they are going to order next week. There’s also then great potential for variation in ordering going forward. As consumers twig that there might be a shortage of tinned tomatoes next week, they will rush out and buy some. There might be a shortage of pork loin steaks, so everybody goes out and buys pork loin steaks, so there’s bigger difference in normal ordering patterns. People swing from one thing to another because they think there might be a potential problem.

Fairfax Meadow case study

In a UK first, leading catering butcher and foodservice specialist Fairfax Meadow announced in July that it was connecting its multi-site operations through a major investment in real-time integration through SI. The move was designed to support continued delivery of quality products to customers, via facilities across six UK locations.

Fairfax Meadow processes and delivers more than 3,000 orders a day and said SI's solution would provide it with a real-time view of its entire operation. “Connecting all of our sites into one system that can give us real-time information, with enhanced visibility and control, is going to change the way the whole business operates," said head of IT & systems Tony Carlisle.

“Throughout the initial phases of the project, we have worked collaboratively with the SI team to push the boundaries of what we could achieve. Their tacit knowledge of the industry has been particularly useful, as they understand multi-site operations and were therefore able to recognise the unique challenges we face as a business.

"Further enhancements including improved systemised production planning and advanced industry leading traceability will also be rolled out through the implementation.”

Fairfax Meadow aims to complete the roll-out of the system to all its sites in 2021.

"When you’re running a business and you need to order ingredients and things in, if you’ve got the ability to ring up today and get it delivered tomorrow, you don’t need to be that good at what you’re doing. When you’re in the position where if you know today you want it, but you’re not going to get it for four days you’ve got to be far better at planning because if you haven’t planned for it, you end up with your factory stopping.

So what we’re finding is pretty much everybody the first thing on their agenda is: how do we plan to make sure that we don’t run out of raw materials, whether that’s meat, ingredients or whether it’s packaging? They’re the bits that everybody focuses on, so if I know that my lead time for getting trays in from France has gone from one day to three days, how can I visualise a) what my requirement is and b) that I need to order it today because if I don’t order it today we are going to run out on Tuesday next week."

All these considerations particularly affected suppliers of perishable goods anyway, but Brexit-related concerns about delays of goods as they passed through border customs posts were leading firms to mull over every contingency.

  • Look out for the follow-up article shortly
  • Systems Integration is a key sponsor of the Food Manufacture​ Excellence Awards, which are being presented at a lavish dinner in London on 13 February 2020. The shortlist of candidates has been decided​. For more information on how you can sponsor the awards, visit the official website​. To book a table, click here​.

Related topics: Industry 4.0, Operations, IT

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