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Home>INDUSTRY FOCUSES>Food & Beverage>Automation mitigates sector challenges

Automation mitigates sector challenges

16 August 2018

In common with many UK industrial sectors, food & drink is facing challenges when it comes to training and retention. Automation can go some way towards addressing this, as Charlotte Stonestreet explores in this article, along with some of the products and technologies to be embraced

The food and drink industry is enormously important to the UK; employing around 400,000 people, according to the Food and Drink Federation, it is the biggest manufacturing sector in the country –  larger than automotive and aerospace combined –  contributing £28.8bn to the economy. In fact, the food supply chain as a whole employs almost 4 million people and generates over £112 billion of value for the economy each year. The FDA which has, incidentally, pledged to triple apprenticeships within the food and drink industry by 2020 also predicts that 140,000 new recruits will be needed by 2024 to feed an expected population of 70m people and meet market demands.

According to Andy MacPherson, Food & Beverage Industry Manager at Festo, in addition to presenting a challenge in terms of training and retention, such needs are made even more complex by a supply chain in which automation adoption is very varied and a customer base that is demanding extreme flexibility and adaptability from its suppliers.

the human operator is and will remain the key element of modern food production

“Some commentators point to the weak pound and the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit trade negotiations as the reason for the recruitment crisis: but any sound business plan takes into account that we operate in a global market where currency fluctuations and political upheavals are common. Others suggest that the adoption of Industry 4.0 and digitalisation means we no longer need to invest in people skills because machines will do everything. This is nonsense: the human operator is and will remain the key element of modern food production, only the tasks will change. For example, employees on production lines will be required to perform more complex decision making, including troubleshooting and preventative maintenance. Skilled engineering roles are likely to transform from being electrical and mechanical based to focus more on data analysis and interpretation,” says MacPherson.

“The food sector needs to grasp the implications of increasing automation and identify what skills it will require in the immediate and the longer term future. Industry 4.0 creates an opportunity to remain globally competitive and able to meet the ‘customisation’ demand, but it requires leadership to help employees understand and accept the change. Identifying where and how to apply Industry 4.0 principles within the workplace is a real challenge and demand for knowledge is high.”

Product transfer

Another company advocating automation in the food sector, in particular in when it comes to product transfer is Seepex. Most food operations generate by-products, particularly if engaged in primary processing. Traditional removal methods include: manual removal using tote bins; blown air systems and vacuum systems; flumes that use water as a transport medium; or a combination of all three. However, these methods can incur high running costs, particularly in the form of manual labour. Progressive cavity (PC) pumps offer an alternative via enclosed piped systems. They remove solid, semi-solid or liquid waste from both high care and low risk areas, without compromising hygiene standards.

Seepex has designed a series of PC pump solutions for waste removal that can chop and pump in the same unit. Featuring an auger feed into fixed and rotating knives, or a grinder and pump combination, they can chop most products, producing a lower volume of waste which is easier to handle. Discarded products, defective raw materials, trimmings and rejects – including overrun – can be handled in a single system, enabling pre-treatment and source segregation of waste and by-products, even when they vary greatly in dry solids (ds) content and viscosity. This helps to preserve the residual value of the by-product; particularly beneficial if the resultant ‘soup’ is sent for treatment at an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant, to be converted into biogas.

Seepex also points to the fact that many food processors still rely on manual labour to move their product from one location to another, often with the help of tote bins or conveyors. Part of the reason for this is a belief that only liquids can be easily transferred via a pump. However, PC pumps can handle highly viscous products, or even those that don’t flow, with ease – Seepex pumps are used within food factories around the world to transfer everything from wet coleslaw, to sticky honey, to whole chicken breasts, and everything in between. And because PC pumps have a very low shear action, they maintain product integrity, making them ideal for very sensitive products such as whipped cream or foams, as well as very soft solids like soft fruits and vegetables in yogurts and sauces. They can transfer products over distance and can achieve high suction lifts of up to nine metres.

The ability to pump against almost a full vacuum enables the efficient use of degassing equipment and enhances the quality of the final product. In addition, a pipeline is significantly easier to clean than a conveyor belt, helping to maintain standards of hygiene.

Return on investment

David Jahn, director at automation specialist Brillopak is another to identify automation as a way of mitigating labour issues within the food and drink sector. Automating manual tasks like case loading and palletising has long been argued as a solution to labour shortages and increased productivity. Yet, for the uninitiated who are facing an uncertain future, pinning down the return on investment is understandably a deal breaker.

Stressing that ROI is not purely about labour savings, David highlights that the impending Brexit deadline provides an opportunity for UK packing operations to get back to basics and review the entire productivity picture in the context of long-term strategies. “If and when we do leave the EU, the strongest food manufacturing plants and packhouses will survive. However, the business rationale for automation needs to look beyond the short term goal of survival post-Brexit.”

the business rationale for automation needs to look beyond the short term goal of survival post-Brexit

He continues: “If the recession that economists are foretelling happens or if Brexit turns out to be a disaster, food costs will inevitably rise. Those with the foresight to invest in automation, especially marginal businesses like packhouses, will be more able to absorb production and wage increases, potentially opening their company up to new contract opportunities. Equally, if Brexit is a success, then these businesses will be optimised for future growth.”

Automated systems enable food businesses to react faster to the spikes and troughs in demand. This can allow a packhouse to accommodate seasonal demands, scale up when required, and flex to different retailer SKUs and presentation requirements, increasing the potential to tender for potentially lucrative contracts or enter new distribution markets. Additionally, automation needs to provide flexibility to handle what we know today, as well as adapting to what may happen in the future.
By deploying end of line automation to replace manual or mechanical processes, the workforce can be reallocated to perform more meaningful and productive business tasks, including asset care. Getting staff involved in the commissioning and ensuring they are trained properly can result in less robot resistance. Jobs also become less pressurised and more fulfilling.

Cask checking

Of course, it’s not always the whole process that needs to be automated in order to reap the benefits. At Flir Systems the company has found its technology being used to check when gravity fed casks of real ale are nearing empty.

No one wants to serve, or be served, a glassful of sediment so the traditional prevention methods are to manually record the number of units dispensed from the cask coupled with dipstick testing to double-check the level. This is laborious and time consuming and certainly not ideal when there are queues of thirsty customers waiting to be served.

One solution that is proving increasingly popular is thermal imaging. This technology is extensively used throughout industry in all manner of fault finding applications as well as for inspecting vessels and monitoring their content level. Until recently, however, the cost of an infrared camera has ruled out its use for niche applications such as commercial beer cask checking.

FLIR Systems has been instrumental in rolling out the technology to a much wider audience with the development of its Lepton micro-detector which is the size of a SIM card. This has led to thermal imaging being incorporated into meters for the trades and even smartphones. And as a result it is now a simple, quick and highly cost-effective detection method that recently proved its worth at the Cambridge Beer Festival.

Thermal imaging expert, Allister Pirrie – a thermographer with Baldock-based building surveyors Stanburys – was invited to demonstrate the scope of the technology at the event.

“I met one of the organisers at a completely unrelated trade show where I was using thermal imaging to confirm the energy efficiency of a new pipe lagging system,” Allister explained.  “A guy in the audience then asked if the camera would be able to detect fluid level in beer casks and I ended up putting the camera through its paces at the festival. The images show how clearly the beer level can be seen in the cask and there is a range of FLIR cameras available from Stanburys suitable for the job including the entry level FLIR C2 and FLIR C3 fully-featured, pocket sized thermal imaging cameras.”


Physical contaminants in food are a global safety concern. If fragments of metal, bone, plastic, glass or any other foreign body enter the food chain, they could cause serious harm. But there's more to it than consumer protection alone. Product recalls caused by physical contamination are also a considerable risk to reputation and can destroy the worth of a brand name in an alarmingly short space of time, says Paul Warfield, Product Inspection Specialist at Mettler-Toledo.

Automated product inspection technologies mean that most types of foreign body contamination are now detectable. However, the performance of such equipment is dependent on a range of factors that impact sensitivity. These may include the size and location of the contaminant, the speed of the production line, the comparative density of the contaminant to the product being inspected, and the type of product packaging material being used.

most types of foreign body contamination are now detectable

The capabilities of modern metal detection and x-ray equipment have already evolved to enable the detection of a wider range of contaminants, in smaller shapes and sizes and with better resolution. With the development of better software and more intuitive touch screen displays, the usability of such technologies is also much improved, allowing for faster and automatic set-up on the production line.

Warfield goes on to say that product inspection systems support the digitalisation trend by enabling real time data collection. They are also able to connect to other production equipment as part of a quality control network. In the event of a product recall, manufacturers and brand owners need to demonstrate that they have exercised full diligence to authorities. The most effective way to achieve this is from real-time reporting of all contamination checks. Product inspection systems now come with full data acquisition acting in support of audit compliance. This enables food manufacturers and processors to prove due diligence in their actions, taking all potential precautions to minimise contamination risks.

Key Points

  • Seepex pumps are used within food factories around the world to transfer everything from wet coleslaw, to sticky honey, to whole chicken breasts
  • Automating manual tasks like case loading and palletising has long been argued as a solution to labour shortages and increased productivity
  • Capabilities of modern metal detection and x-ray equipment have evolved to enable the detection of a wider range of contaminants