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A key ingredient for success

12 March 2018

Existing opportunities for the food industry to introduce their workforce to Industry 4.0 environments include the UK’s first Cyber Factory training facility at Middlesex University.
Existing opportunities for the food industry to introduce their workforce to Industry 4.0 environments include the UK’s first Cyber Factory training facility at Middlesex University.

The UK food industry in the UK is experiencing a crisis – fewer new recruits are being attracted into the sector and experienced workers are leaving. What can companies in the food supply chain do to secure a suitably skilled workforce for the future? Andy MacPherson, examines the options. 

Food and drink production is responsible for employing more people than any other manufacturing sector in the UK – around 400,000+ direct jobs. It is predicted to need 110,000 new recruits by 2022. The increase in automation and the need to be more agile and flexible to meet customer expectations is exacerbating the challenges of training and retaining employees with relevant skills.

Some commentators have pointed at 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 that there is no longer a need to invest in people skills as machines will do everything. This is nonsense as the human operator is, and will remain, the key element of modern food production, only the tasks will change. Employees on production lines will, for example, be required to perform more complex decision making, including troubleshooting and preventative maintenance. Skilled engineering roles are likely to morph from being electrical and mechanical based to focus more on data analysis and interpretation.

Defining what skills may be required is a challenge. The food sector is particularly diverse and different parts of the supply chain are at very different stages with regard to the adoption of Industry 4.0 principles. Within the agricultural community, for instance, manual working continues to be the norm because people are still quicker and more adaptable than machines in many scenarios. By contrast, at the processing stage automation is more prominent. Minimising human contact during food processing can be positively beneficial from a hygiene perspective. In addition, technologies like X-ray and optical detection can remove non-conforming or contaminated products, as well as ensuring that labelling information about ingredients, weight and sell-by dates is accurate, far more efficiently than a human being. Today, packing, picking and warehousing are also often automated processes, supporting the growing customer trend for online grocery shopping.

There is an urgent need for the food sector to grasp the implications of increasing automation and identify what skills it will require in the immediate and longer term. Industry 4.0 creates an opportunity for the UK food sector 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. Festo’s Implementing Industry 4.0 courses were sold out in 2017 and dates for 2018 are already proving popular.

Take advantage
The food industry should also take advantage of existing opportunities for introducing the workforce to Industry 4.0 environments. In 2017 the UK’s first Cyber Factory training facility was installed at Middlesex University. Equipped with automation equipment from Festo and Siemens, the purpose of the Cyber Factory is to ensure that the key skills necessary to deliver the full potential of industrial automation are being developed alongside advances in the technology.

As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, the food industry needs to take a more proactive and prominent role in shaping its own future and lobbying Government for support. Organisations such as Sheffield Hallam University, Lincolnshire University and MTC Coventry are already campaigning to secure funding under the Government’s recently announced Industrial Strategy – but need the voice of the industry to really make their case.

A skilled workforce is a key ingredient for the long-term success of any industry and the food sector is no exception. Equipping people with skills to meet the future with confidence requires time, commitment and leadership. It is time for the food industry to act and make its needs known.

Andy MacPherson is Food & Beverage Industry Manager at Festo.


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