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All talk, plenty of action

04 May 2010

Forget the run-up to the elections, all the talk in Spring was of Appetite for Engineering which, in its third year, delivered on its promise of quality and knowledge transfer

During the harshest recession to hit the UK in nearly a century, few dared imagine Appetite for Engineering, Phase 3, would be not only a great success but one of the most phenomenal food networking conferences of 2010.

We might be basking in the reflected glow of an economic recovery now but only 18 months ago there were realistic fears the food industry would be too worried about their businesses failing to spend a day at a conference.

Well, all's well that ends well. This year's event was much warmer outside than it had been in February 2009 (when a flurry of snowstorms threatened attendance) - and even warmer inside the Hinckley Island Hotel, where the speakers were delivering their red-hot talks.

The day started with an opening address from Lord Chris Haskins, former chairman of Northern Foods and Tony Blair's 'rural tsar' during the foot-and-mouth epidemic. He emphasised the promotion of automation in the food and drink sector and spelt out what the sector should be doing as it recovers from a turbulent economic situation, using automation and engineering for best advantage.

Chris Buxton, PPMA CEO, kicked off proceedings with his customary dash of sophisticated urbanity. It's been an exciting time for the PPMA as its new relationship with BARA and UKIVA has led to more opportunities for the association, and Chris' reassuring presence is always crucial to the Appetite brand.

The much-awaited talk from the M&S Food Technology Team, entitled 'Innovation through Engineering', featured contributions from Simon Lushey of M&S and Ginsters' project manager, Tom Crawford.

The talk centred on the M&S premise that 'as a differentiated retailer of premium food product, Marks & Spencers' continued success is reliant on its ability to maintain its points of difference through innovation. It believes that true innovation comes through good engineering'.

As David Mainon, meat and poultry technologist from Asda, proved last year, the supermarkets are seen as crucial partners in the supply chain. Everybody was clamouring for a piece of Simon's time.

Ginsters of Cornwall has had fantastic growth supported by automation, Tom explained. ''Our core values are people, quality and the profit will follow.''

Next up was Dr Richard Coulton, MD of Siltbuster, who spoke about trade effluent charges, minimising trade effluent costs, primary treatment, Lamella clarification, dissolved ar flotation and aerobic treatment and anaerobic treatment, and water re-use with respect to the double-membrane system.

Angela Coleshill, competitive director of the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), then spoke about her federation and how it approaches skills and training in the sector. Justine Fosh, executive director of the National Skills Academy, joined her.

Justine conveyed the message of just how important engineering and particularly engineering skills are to the food and drink industry. If you look at something like maintenance engineering, its value is probably a little overlooked in food and drink, she pointed out. Without it, companies can find their business aims being compromised. For example, it's very difficult to implement an approach like lean if you don't have a strategy and the skills in place to continually monitor machine optimisation.

Kaarin Goodburn, CEO of the Chilled Food Association, spoke about the CFA, which represents manufacturers supplying the UK retail market, with a mission to promote and defend the reputation and value of the professional chilled food industry through the development and communication of standards of excellence in the production and distribution of chilled food.

The fascinating case study from AB Agri (KW Trident) was next up. This included contributions from Dave Forster, commercial director, (KW Trident) AB Agri; Rob Pye, engineering manager, British Sugar; and John Giles, divisional director, Promar International.

The talk revolved around how AB Agri has built KW Trident business around offering deliverable co-product solutions to food and drink businesses. Its work with British Sugar in this case study indicated its drive to turn waste into profit.

One of the highlights of the day was the presentation from Charles Baughan, MD of Westaway Sausages based in Newton Abbott. Charles focused on the fact small SMEs are not as helpless as you'd imagine. 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.

Charles explained Westaway Sausages employs 25 people with £3m sales. In the past 18 months, it has addressed the issues of increased raw material costs and significantly improved profitability. It's now investing in new machinery and staff and aims to improve gross profit further and quadruple sales over the next three years.

David Cheeseman, commercial director of CenFRA, was the next speaker, and the only one who also delivered a talk last year. He explained why automation was so important to the food and beverage industry.

Then it was the turn of the big banks - Lloyds TSB to be precise. Guy Reeves, relationship director for Lloyds TSB corporate markets and Vasgen Edwards, of the asset finance division, looked at the impact of the Recession, prospects for the recovery and how businesses can secure the funding they need.

The day was rounded off with the one-to-one consultations chaired by BioScience's Bob Marsh, another familiar face in the Food Processing annals of fame.

This was the first time Appetite for Engineering had introduced this format of consultation process between sponsors and delegates. Based on the well-known speed-dating format, it saw delegates 'playing musical chairs'.

Each 'meeting' lasted eight minutes (seven minutes of actual face-to-face and one minute to move to the next 'meeting'). This gave delegates the opportunity to talk to all partners in the event. This was an important chance for problems to be addressed and solutions investigated.

Finally, the next morning saw the International Agri-Technology Centre hosting a breakfast meeting for those who wanted to develop their international trade activity.

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