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Flexible automation is way forward says M&S

04 January 2012

John Quinn, food technologist for traditional meals, gastro pub and bistro at Marks & Spencer, will deliver one of the keynote address at the Appetite for Engineering networking conference at the Hinckley Island Hotel in Leicestershire

John Quinn works in the Meal Solutions category as part of the buying team for traditional, gastro pub and bistro. He carries out the role of a food technologist, and his principal responsibilities are to maintain the quality and safety of the products produced in the supply base for M&S.

''Having the highest quality products is something of which we're hugely proud,'' says John. ''A fair percentage of the week is involved with monitoring and improving quality of finished products and raw materials used in the manufacture of the product(s).''

John says overall manufacturing standards have improved since he began work 15 years ago. ''You only have to look at the various products across the retailers to see genuine innovation. However reading various industry journals and listening to suppliers there is a reticence to invest in new technologies owing to what they perceive as a lack of long-term commitment from the retail end.

''Also, investment seems to require a two-year payback that is quite short and virtually puts most investment on hold. It hasn't been helped by the current economic climate.''

With respect to his requirements from food manufacturers, John says at M&S there's a procedure in place to assess potential suppliers to ensure both parties can make a reasonable judgement early in the approval process to ensure standards of quality, safety and governance can be met. ''We have two audits that need to passed for supply to commence - a hygiene audit and a PPC (product and process control) audit.''

John points to the variety of products being produced as a sign of how manufacturing has improved. ''I think most of us have visited other retailers overseas and the difference is clear to see. However, I feel having been on both sides of the fence, both retail and industry, that when it comes to new ideas and innovation in processing/production there is reticence to embrace new ideas and wait and see if new innovations are adopted by other suppliers.

''This is a generalisation but my experience has been one of caution and ROI.''

When it comes to machinery manufactured in the UK, John has interesting opinions, particularly with respect to a 'one solution fits all policy'. ''I think - and I've only been focused on this for several years, we may have a way to go in catching up in this area. Within in the chilled food industry the techniques and equipment for heating, cooling, depositing, while fit-for-purpose, haven't really developed much since the chilled meals category was invented back in the '70s.

''As an example most of the automation/robotic companies seem to be European with agents based in the UK. I've also alluded to in a recent presentation that the equipment isn't always necessarily fit for purpose and ultimately doesn't deliver. A one solution fits all is not the case.

In his role, John faces many challenges. ''On a day-to-day basis, it's about maintaining the high standards of quality products customers expect from M&S. But on the subject of manufacturing equipment and suppliers it would be trying to manage the implementation of automation / robotics / novel techniques within a chilled food industry which to a certain extent is slightly skeptical about the flexibility of some solutions on offer. I think both sides need to address the real requirements. I keep hearing one main theme of flexibility.''

Like many others in the industry, John is concerned about skills. ''I think it goes without saying they're vital as the industry is more complex and varied than ever. However the fundamental basics of what is required to run a factory technically haven't changed. We are, however, as an industry starting to see less people looking to a career in food production.''

As for his vision of how the food industry will look in 20 years, John says: ''Twenty years is a long time in the future but I think the industry will be much more efficient in its methods of production and assembly of chilled ready meals. I'd suggest manual assembly of the chilled ready meals will be assembled by automation and robotic solutions.

''The reason for envisioning this is to remain a viable industry against rising costs, in virtually, all components of a ready meal, the chilled meals manufacturing base will need to innovate to remain competitive to the customer that buys the products.

''Already some raw materials price rises are pushing some products (albeit a few) to a stage were the customer will balk at the price, regardless of quality. The chilled food industry production process will be managed and serviced by a team rather than packing product by hand.''

John believes better dialogue is needed between all concerned in the manufacturing/processing part of the supply chain.

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