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Delivering better plant, productivity & people in the UK food & drink manufacturing sector

Author : Andrew MacPherson, Industry Sector Manager, Food & Beverage Manager, Festo

03 October 2016

Festo is pleased to be involved again with this year’s Appetite for Engineering (A4E) event, the forum for senior engineering leaders in the UK food and drink manufacturing and processing industry. This year’s programme is focused around the need for better plant, productivity and people in our industry – all areas Festo is committed to helping its customers improve through its industrial automation solutions, as well as its training, development and consulting services. 

The UK food and drink industry has a great deal to feel good about. According to data from industry body, the FDF (Food and Drink Federation), it is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, accounting for 16% of total manufacturing turnover. The sector employs over 400,000 people and has over 6,600 businesses – 96% of which are micro to medium-sized. It’s also one of the best performing manufacturing sectors: annual gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy is £22Bn, almost as much as automotive and aerospace combined. In the last decade, annual exports have doubled to around £13bn – bucking a decline in total UK exports. Productivity too has increased by 11% over the last five years, compared to an overall UK productivity increase of just 0.5%. 

At the same time, despite its apparent health, the sector still faces some major challenges. Skills shortages and an ageing workforce means it needs to attract around 120,000 new recruits over the next decade. In common with other UK manufacturing sectors, it is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the high calibre, skilled workforce it needs to drive innovation, particularly engineers and scientists. And while productivity growth is ahead of the average, it still lags behind manufacturing sectors with smaller workforces and greater levels of automation, such as automotive, aerospace and rail. GVA per employee is higher than many of its European counterparts, including Germany, Italy, Spain and France, but is less than half of that enjoyed in the US. Productivity growth has also experienced a slowdown since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009, as investment in automation has stalled and falling output has not been matched by reductions in labour hours worked. 

As the economy recovers and the advances in intelligent connectivity and automation technologies offered by Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and smart factories begin to be realised, the UK’s food and drink manufacturing industry has an opportunity to make a major productivity step change. And for engineering leaders in this vital, vibrant sector of the UK economy, this year’s Appetite for Engineering is all about helping you understand and maximise this golden opportunity to grow and develop your business and organisation through better plant, productivity and people. 

If our sector can successfully realise and unlock its potential, the collective opportunity that increased digitalisation of manufacturing offers is exciting and substantial. Connecting all the elements of the plant and supply chain will deliver capabilities for faster, more diverse, more flexible and more intelligent production, together with increased energy efficiency, reduced wastage, closer links to logistics processes and an optimised value chain. Systems and components exchanging information to control and regulate themselves will also considerably increase the potential for leaner production, condition monitoring and predictive maintenance. 

If you visited this year’s PPMA Total Show for processing and packaging machinery, you might have observed that there is more and more collaboration taking place between industry players. Partners are combining their varied expertise to offer manufacturers and machine builders increased flexibility, improved connectivity and communications, and mass customisation capabilities. These partnerships are designed to deliver improved automation and reduced labour costs through better plant and production equipment. 

One such example is a recent collaboration combining linear motor and mechanical guidance technology from Festo, with Siemens’ extensive controls expertise, to create an adaptable, modular transport solution, the Multi-Carrier-System (MCS). Easily incorporated into existing production and packaging environments, it addresses the acute need for flexibility in modern manufacturing environments, driven by increasingly complex product diversity, shorter product life cycles and growing levels of mass customisation. Its configurable linear transport rail can be integrated into existing intralogistics and standard conveyor systems, with precise synchronisation and seamless infeed and outfeed of transport carriers. Movement of carriers can be rapidly adapted to deal with different formats, sizes and types of product – down to batch sizes of one, or even to handle seasonal requirements. 

Incorporating decentralised sensors and intelligence, its flexible electromechanical design enables adaptable, reconfigurable and economic production, even for mixed requirements and small batch sizes. It also benefits from an OPC-UA interface, enabling integration into Industry 4.0 host environments. Validating the success of the collaboration, judges at this year’s PPMA Industry Awards recognised MCS, Festo and Siemens with two awards, for Most Innovative Automation System and Partnership of the Year, citing the innovation, flexibility and impact MCS offers machine builders. 

While we shouldn’t underestimate the benefits investing in Industry 4.0-ready better plant can deliver, it is important to understand that in order to unlock and maximise its potential productivity gains and return on investment, it is critical to focus on people and help them address the challenges they will face. This begins with leadership: success will depend on managing and leading the organisation through substantial and sustained change, where the accelerating pace and rate of change across technology and process may contribute to increased levels of stress for some employees. Business leaders must be mindful of this and start by defining and articulating a compelling vision of the future for their teams that engages and galvanises the entire workforce – because the value of Industry 4.0 can only be realised if it is fully embraced by shop-floor workers. 

The role of people in the successful digitalisation of manufacturing is absolutely critical. Human operators will remain the key element of modern production, but can expect to be assigned more and more new tasks. Employees on production lines will be required to perform complex decision making, enact swift troubleshooting and oversee effective preventative maintenance strategies. This will create an opportunity for traditional, higher labour cost regions to remain globally competitive, able to address high value manufacturing and the ‘customisation’ demand. That is an exciting possibility for countries like the UK, which have traditionally struggled to compete with emerging nations on cost alone, and can be observed in the increasing trend towards on or re-shoring. 

But, if Industry 4.0 is to deliver smarter factories, it will require an army of knowledgeable staff. Festo has been quick to identify and address the training needs, with its ‘Qualification 4.0’ approach. As the role of employees within the modern production environment transitions from that of simple machinery operator to highly skilled and quick-thinking problem-solver, new levels of training and knowledge will be fundamental. Education will become a key success factor in smarter industrial environments. For workforces to fully embrace increased digitalisation, performing new and different tasks, such as working alongside collaborative robots, they have to understand what it means and know how to make best use of it. 

It will be essential too for successful business leaders to continuously improve and develop their own leadership and change management competencies, creating an ongoing long term plan to proactively manage the change programme within their organisation. This transition will be critical in fully realising the value and productivity gains promised by Industry 4.0-enabled better plant, but will also help enhance and transform tomorrow’s production roles and environments for its people.


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