Invest in automation, says study

By Charlotte Eyre

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food industry, Automation, Industry

Suppliers and manufacturers alike should investigate and invest in
automation production lines, according to a new report.

It adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that manufacturers will have to make use of automation in the food industry, but suppliers will also have to adapt machinery to individual business needs. The study was carried out by the University of Lincoln in association with the Fraunhofer Institute in German and the Institut des Sciences de la Nature et de l'Agroalimentaire de Bordeaux (ISNAB) in France, to try and understand how the food industry in Europe is using automation. In-depth telephone interviews were conducted with 250 companies in the UK, Germany and France across a variety of food sectors including snacks, meat, poultry, ready meals, salads, pasta, biscuits, confectionery and frozen food. Companies varied from small single site owner operations to large multi-site international groups. According to the study, there is strong industry support for automation across the three countries, thanks to perceived benefits of reduced labour costs, improvements in efficiency and consistency, and increased throughput. Most companies currently use standalone automation rather then integrated systems, although the report suggests that there is a learning culture and automation may progress to towards more integrated solutions. When asked which aspects of automation give the best return on capital, the respondents identified filling, packing and labelling as the major areas. However the report notes that some manufacturers are still wary of automation because of installation and uptake problems. For manufacturers of short shelf life products, there is a perception that automation can restrict flexibility, particularly where there are short production runs and frequent product changeovers. They also cited capital cost as a problem, with 70 per cent of people interviewed saying it could deter them from installing automated systems. "For these companies, automation is something of a double-edged sword,"​ said Mike Dudbridge, a University of Lincoln researcher. "Automation is clearly wanted, but they often feel there is a financial risk involved, particularly for those who supply mainly to retailers and who therefore can be subject to frequent changes in pack or product specifications." ​The report therefore advises suppliers to reduce the capital cost of new systems, as well as adapting machinery to the needs of businesses. "It is now less a question of sourcing a particular piece of equipment and more about finding equipment manufacturers who can offer a feasible solution to their specific requirements - and part of this solution involves building in an element of flexibility,"​ Dudbridge said. He encourages food companies to evaluate potential suppliers from the point of view of their total offer, including after sales service, training, and technical resources. This will optimise machine and line performance over the lifetime of the equipment, he said. Similarly, any decision to purchase equipment should be based on providing the optimum solution and the earliest payback for the business, rather than just the initial capital cost, he added. Automation is becoming more prevalent in the food industry, as manufacturers aim to improve competitiveness and productivity. It is also being driven by the chronic lack of skilled staff in the food sector, traditionally a sector with low wages and a high turnover, according to Thomas Ohlsson at a conference in Brussels examining the future research needs of the food industry in April. Ohlsson, a professor at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology said that "there will be more automation and robots to take over the manual repetitive work".

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