Factory automation offers a bright future for the food and drink industry. Mark Cook explains how automation will help the sector survive market disruption from labour and legislation, and unlock £56bn in the next decade

The UK food and drink industry is one of the largest manufacturing sectors, worth over £1bn and employing more than 400,000 people. However, despite the industry’s scale and ongoing demand for its goods, there are significant challenges on the horizon. With Brexit looming in May 2019, many issues around legislation and labour are set to intensify.

Out of time
Workforce is a constant challenge for the industry and, in the coming years, it’s predicted that there will be a chronic shortage of labour available in food processing. As an industry heavily reliant on non-UK nationals, with many European migrant workers undertaking factory and production line work, Brexit threatens to further impact the shortfall. Without the free movement of labour, it’s estimated that quarter of the current workforce in the UK could be lost.

With the majority of food standard legislation set by the European Union, UK food manufacturers are also bracing themselves for further Brexit-induced regulatory changes. The sector already faces some of the most extreme manufacturing and quality control regulations in industry, and as Britain exits the EU, new legislation could come into effect, forcing businesses to update their business models and policies.

In addition, there is a constant drive for efficiency, with many businesses facing increasing pressure to deliver products in a faster and cheaper manner to remain competitive. If the labour pool does dry up or become prohibitively expensive, food and drink businesses need to ensure they can continue production.

Likewise, as the UK faces an uncertain future, and efficiency savings continue across the board, there is a huge opportunity within the food and drink industry for automation to alleviate some of these pressures.

Automatic for the people
Automation is transforming many of the world’s key industries, making everyday production tasks more efficient than ever. With research revealing that the UK food and drink sector could unlock £56bn in value over the next decade by maximising digital technologies and robotics, it’s no surprise that many larger businesses have already invested in automation to replace manual or legacy production systems.

Automating factory processes brings greater accuracy, improves productivity and minimises production costs. It also provides an effective solution to a shrinking manual labour workforce. It’s not a case of robotics replacing humans. It’s about the two working in harmony to create better, more efficient processes.

Automation can also help a food and drink manufacturer to have end-to-end traceability, keeping track of a product and monitoring its quality from farm to factory to fork. Through automation, and the data that comes with it, manufacturers can detect any issues much earlier in the supply chain.

When it comes to choosing an automation partner, food and drink manufacturers need to consider the wider benefits, rather than just the initial investment cost. Many providers will offer a cheap off-the-shelf solution, but it’s unlikely to go the distance.

Making long-term efficiencies the priority, businesses should invest in precision engineered, bespoke automation solutions that are specifically built to address their individual needs. Differentiating partners is set to become easier, as the sector’s leading British Automation and Robot Association has launched an accreditation scheme which will recognise suppliers that meet the highest standards.

Case study: bakery primary and secondary packaging
One success story that showcases the benefits automation brings to FMCG companies is in primary and secondary packaging for baked goods.

A bakery sector client tasked our engineering team to create a packaging solution that would handle a demanding workload quickly and efficiently. The solution that was designed comprised a high-speed pick and place system and a third-party flow-wrapping machine, which accommodated hundreds of products on a packing line ready for sorting, quality control and primary packing.

Once the products arrive from the upstream production area, the system separates the goods into product streams and uses 3D scanning technology to run a quality control process across each product. Any rejected items are returned to an inspection point at the end of the belt. The pick and place robots collate and stack the correct number of products on the infeed of the flow-wrapping machine at an output speed of 100ppm, ready for primary packaging.

Further downstream solutions are also possible for secondary and transit packaging. An example of this is a bespoke case packing system designed for the same client, consisting of a heavy duty two-axis robot and a custom vacuum gripper tool. These manage, group and collate high volumes of primary packed product with speed and efficiency, with tool-free machine adjustment included. The two-axis robot loads each layer of product into pre-erected cases before each one is moved to closing system and shut securely.

Introducing automation can be a daunting prospect, with many businesses wary of the initial investment and changes to their production process. However, with the future looking uncertain for the manufacturing industry, now is the time to harness automation, improve processes and ensure your business is fit for purpose for decades to come.

Mark Cook is managing director of Sewtec. The company designs and manufactures factory automation systems for global blue-chip clients in the food and beverage industry. Its clients include Nestlé, Twinings and Unilever.