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Speaking with authority

17 February 2010

This year's Appetite for Engineering conference will feature its best list of speakers ever - a glittering array of talking heads including the National Skills Academy's Justine Fosh (pictured)

The event will be opened by former Northern Food Group chairman, Lord Chris Haskins, who will address the promotion of automation in the food sector and will spell out what the sector should do to climb out of - and recover from - recession, using automation and engineering for best advantage.

Hosted by Chris Buxton, CEO PPMA (in association with UKIVA & BARA), several star speakers are scheduled to appear. One is Simon Allison from Marks & Spencer, who will represent the supermarkets.

With impending food shortages looming and sustainability becoming an increasingly pressing issue, Simon will discuss how the relationship between supermarket and supplier will evolve in the not-too-distant future.

Charles Baughan, the MD of Westaway Sausages in Newton Abbott, will also speak. He has single-handedly and successfully fought the bureaucracy that was threatening to stifle his sausage business, by driving a hard bargain with Government, the banks and government-sponsored organisations.

His story is a fascinating tale of how the little guy can bite back - and win. We all hear stories of how the SMEs are crushed by an over-mighty bureaucracy of red tape. Many MDs simply give up the fight against what they see as a grey wall of official obstruction. But sometimes, it's worth taking on the 'big boys' - the banks, the quangos, the Government - to get what you want. At times, this can produce the desired results.

Charles employs 25 people with £3m sales. In the past 18 months he's addressed the issues of increased raw material costs and significantly improved profitability. He's now investing in new machinery and staff and aims to improve gross profit further and quadruple sales over the next three years. But this has been achieved only by taking on those who stood in his way. When the Government promised funding to SMEs, Charles wanted to know why it was made difficult for him to get it.

When the banks said they didn't have the money to fund his investment, Charles wanted to know why he'd been told that there wouldn't be a problem. He was interviewed by Sky News, which led to some high profile figures taking up his cause, and he eventually got to see Gordon Brown in an effort to get to the bottom of the obstacles he faced.

On the robotics and automation front, David Cheeseman, commercial director of CenFRA, will speak about how his organisation supports the future sustainability of the industry by providing independent, affordable automation solutions. He will explain how working with the bakeries is helping this happen.

Angela Coleshill, HR director for the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), says skills are crucial to the food sector. How much should food manufacturers be investing in up-skilling their workforce, and what qualifications and organisations are available to help them do so?

Justine Fosh will join Angela on stage. She is an executive director of the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink Manufacturing and says her main message is conveying just how important engineering, and particularly engineering skills, are to the industry. ``If you look at something like maintenance engineering, its value is probably a little overlooked in food and drink,'' she says.

``Without it, companies can find their business aims being compromised. For example, it is very difficult to implement an approach like lean if you do not have a strategy and the skills in place to continually monitor machine optimisation.

``As more and more technology is introduced into food processing, the importance of engineering is going to increase. We need a new breed of multi-skilled engineers, possibly trained to a higher level than has been in the norm in the past, to make sure the industry can keep pace with the rapid pace of change in that technology.

``I think it is also crucial that the UK starts to play a bigger role in developing new technology. At present, most industrial food processing equipment is manufactured abroad. That can mean the option of a quick upgrade, or even the expertise needed to keep checking the machinery is working at its optimum level, is not always available.''

With respect to waste management, commercial director Dave Forster, AB Agri will talk about how it has built its business around offering deliverable co-product solutions to food businesses. It says its work with British Sugar indicates how it is working with the sector to drive sustainability and turn waste into profit. The paper will include contributions from John Giles of Promar International and Rob Pye of British Sugar.

John Giles is divisional director of Promar International's Strategic Consulting division, a UK-based consulting and research group operating in the agricultural, food and drink sectors, and also chairman of the UK Chartered Institute of Marketing's Food, Drink and Agriculture Group.

He has worked on assignments in some 30 countries, including the UK and other EU markets, China, New Zealand, Australia, the Middle East, Chile, Brazil, the Caribbean, East and South Africa, the US, Canada, Russia, the FSU, the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

Rob has worked as a mechanical engineer for British Sugar since 1995. Having been involved in all areas of factory operations, he now manages maintenance strategy for the business. In addition he is responsible for the overall management of British Sugars' Animal Feeds operations.

Kaarin Goodburn, the CEO of the Chilled Food Association, will address issues around the UK chilled food market, which is virtually completely retail own-label. Hygiene standards and management implemented by UK chilled food manufacturers lead the world. How does this investment in sophisticated equipment and systems contrast with other segments of the UK food supply chain?

Then there's the bank's role in investment in the food and beverage sector. Guy Reeves, corporate relationship manager and Vasgen Edwards, asset finance division, of Lloyd's TSB will be talking about how they fund the decision to go down the automation / engineering route?

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