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Appetite for Engineering event highlights the need to prepare for change

20 November 2017

Suzanne Gill reports on this year’s Appetite for Engineering event, which took place at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry on 19th October. 

The majority of the 150+ delegates at this year’s event rated the venue and the conference programme as either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ with both the structure and the content of the event programme being very well received. This year Appetite for Engineering set out to highlight the need for the industry to move forward and adopt smart technology solutions on the plant floor. “The answer to many productivity issues lies in the adoption of appropriate and effective technology,” said Chris Buxton, CEO at he British Fluid Power Association, and Appetite for Engineering event chairperson. “It is simply not possible to have a discussion about productivity today without talking about automation and robotics.”

Professor Ken Young, elaborated further on this subject and the aims of the MTC. “One of the strategic imperatives of the MTC is to accelerate industrial growth within the UK and to do this we need to convince industry to adopt proven technology. Sometimes this means we take technologies that are already proven in one industry and develop them so that they can be applied safely in other industries.” Young went on to point out that much of the risk surrounding new technology adoption lies in the people that run it. “Education is key, ensuring buy-in at all levels for the use of new technologies.”

Mike Wilson, chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA), set the scene on the use of robotics in the food industry. “UK industry has, traditionally, employed lots of people, yet productivity has not improved. There is also increasing demand for greater production flexibility so ultimately the food industry must change. It needs to invest in longer-term solutions which allow for the better use of existing resources and labour.”

Wilson then introduced the audience to Sam Part and Chris Tait, founders at Candy Mechanics, a company which makes personalised chocolate lollipops and gift cards that can be designed remotely and sent as a gift. “We set out to employ smart technology – both hardware and software – to bridge the gap between the consumer designing a product and us making it,” said Part. The company started out using a three-axis CNC machine but soon identified the need for a better solution. Tait took up the story: “We looked at more flexible automated solutions. We needed something scalable and which employs manufacturing processes that adhere to manufacturing standards to allow us to partner with other companies in the future. We had robotics in mind at the very start of the product development journey so had already designed products and processes that can be automated. 

“We specified a six-axis robot and are already seeing that we will get a quick return on our investment, just from the savings made in maintenance and cleaning. We can see other opportunities too, such as employing the robot to do a variety of other tasks such as packaging,” said Tait.

Next on stage was Mike Cobbledick, electrical and instrument team manager at British Sugar. He talked about how 80GHz radar sensor technology has helped the company solve some longstanding process issues. He started by explaining that innovative solutions are now available to solve some traditional problems. British Sugar has, for example, implemented the radar technology on its dissolver tanks which has allowed it to gain much tighter process control and has significantly reduced the amount of overflows. (see www.fponthenet.net/article/121977/Sweet-solution-for-liquid-sugar-level-control.aspx

A Bluetooth interface on the radar sensor has also allowed for safer access to sensor data which has proven really useful to control sulphur levels in its sulphur stove. Because the radar technology can work through glass it does not need to be situated inside the oven. With a glass window on top of the oven tank it is possible to shine a narrow beam radar through the window instead, which makes accurate monitoring of sulphur levels in the stove possible. Early trial results indicate that this solution is working well,” said Cobbledick.

Dr Nicholas Watson, assistant professor, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham, talked about how digital technology can be cost-effectively employed even in small-scale industrial processes. He discussed the development of ultrasonic sensors for use in craft breweries which, when combined with temperature and pH sensors and connected to a cloud empowered gateway, allows intelligent algorithms utilising real-time and historical fermentation data to predict optimal fermentation end point. To find out more about the Brewnet project go to https://connectedeverything.ac.uk/activities/feasibility-studies/brewnet.  

Moving on rapidly
Dave Scott, co-founder and technical director at IGS, reiterated the fact that technology has moved on rapidly in the last few years. He believes it is important to revisit traditional problem areas to see if there are any new technologies available now that could solve them. “If my vertical farm had opened five years ago we would have folded very quickly,” he said. “It is down to some recent developments in automation and technology that has allowed it be a commercially-viable proposition today. Read more about this disruptive food production project at www.fponthenet.net/article/135533/Innovative-use-of-automation-paves-the-way-for-indoor-food-production.aspx.

Preparing to disrupt
Barbara Warburg, R&D principal innovation engineer at PepsiCo International, set out to encourage the audience to think outside the box and to come up with new disruptive ideas to solve old problems. Disrupution, she believes, is an oxymoron. “We all want it but none of us really want to deal with it,” she said. Warburg posed the idea that many elements for disruption are already with us today in the shape of different technologies. She believes it is the application of this technology that is the true disruption. “The food industry has a cost-driven mindset which leads to sweating existing assets with the focus firmly on efficiency, cost-saving and food safety,” she said.

This has resulted in the creation of mega processing plants to allow fixed costs to be spread over large volumes of production to minimise costs and maximise profits. “However, what happens when someone creates a different strategy? How do we compete and how can processes be adapted to keep pace with customer and consumer demand?” questioned Warburg.

Warburg used a well-know quote to make her point: If you always do what you have always done you will always get what you have always got. “We need to work smarter not harder,“ she argued. “Working smarter is at the heart of understanding disruption. It is important to measure your strategies to see which work and achieve what is needed. 

“There is concern that jobs will be destroyed primarily due to the influence of technology. This is not true. Research shows that unemployment follows economic rules not the influence of technology. So, technology may destroy some jobs, but it will create more... Although these may require a different set of skills.”

In conclusion, Warburg urged delegates not to fear disruption. “Many enterprise-wide strategic plans are set for 5+ years, despite the increasing speed of technology change. The landscape can dramatically change in this period so it is vital to continually assess what is happening in your market on a regular basis and be prepared to be flexible with your strategies. Everyone needs to be looking for disruption and how it might be implemented. It is important to assess its relevance to you and it is important to keep in mind that this is not someone else’s job!”  

Excellence in hygiene
After a lunch break the delegates reassembled to hear Ian Abbotts, food technical consultant, talking about excellence in hygienic food practice. He used some interesting real-life cas studies to highlight poor hygienic design and its consequences for food manufacturers, their customers and consumers – of both food production equipment and building structures and layout.

Ryan Mc Neil, category sustainability manager at Nestle, talked about how the company is responding to global pressures and how it is collaborating to make energy savings across its plants by reusing energy. The company undertook an energy audit to formulate an investment plan for every Nestle factory in the UK. Over a three-year period this created over 250 opportunities to improve the consumption of energy and water and to reduce waste. Through collaborative ventures and projects the company has already exceeded its target, across all UK operations, to reduce CO2 by 40% by 2020, largely down to a significant renewable energy project. 

The single biggest obstacle to growth in the food sector (with the exception of Brexit!) has been a shortage of suitably qualified and skilled people with the right work ethics and this was the subject of the final session of the day. John Griffiths, engineering director at Princes Foods, argued that to make industry sustainable, competitive and relevant, factories need to be modernised for greater efficiency and he believes that this is not possible without a skilled and motivated workforce. Griffiths talked about the factory improvement journey – from defining a problem, putting strategies in place for dealing with skills issues and the organisational design challenges. He highlighted the importance of starting this journey and offered advice on how to gain business approval for change.

Gary Wyles, trainer and coach at E3 Leadership Development, pointed out the need for an agile, quick response to challenges and opportunities. He focussed on what might make a business fragile and what could make it more agile. He argued that, if companies are too accepting of the ‘status quo’, even if the results are currently good, they may not be agile enough to respond when confronted by the unexpected. “There is, therefore, a need for disruptive leadership,” he concluded. “To take full advantage of Industry 4.0, organisations also need Leadership 4.0.”

Chris Dobson, a student engineer who is now in his fourth year of an MEng food engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University, closed the event by highlighting the importance of industry placements for students – to both the student and the food industry. He demonstrated how students can, and have, added value within the food manufacturing arena by applying their newly-learned skills to undertake valuable improvement projects within a plant.

Some key take-home messages came through loud and clear from many of the presentations. Change is coming and the food industry needs to prepare itself for the future now. Many of the presentations also highlighted the need to take your staff with you on any automation journey. 

Delegates left the event more aware of the fact that they do need to look at automation technologies to help improve productivity and to give them greater flexibility. They also left with the knowledge that the only way to make technology work is to employ people with the skillsets to implement it and to work alongside it. The food industry needs to look more closely at new solutions that are available to solve old problems. Continuing to rely on cheap manual labour is no longer a workable long-term solution. 

To stay up to date with details about next year’s Appetite for Engineering event which will take place at the MTC on 18th October 2018, go to www.appetite4eng.co.uk


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