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Food Processing: Our reader survey 2012

29 October 2012

A recent survey among our readers indicated a shift in the type of news and features for which food engineers are looking. David Strydom details the top concerns.

We've known for some time that skills is an urgent issue in UK manufacturing, but our survey makes clear just how urgent. One operations manager said it is important to find out how to make manufacturing in general, and food processing specifically, attractive to graduates and school leavers. A project manager specified skills as her most pressing concern. She wanted more information on ''skills for the future including apprenticeships and any specific skills required for the food industry.''

A technical competence manager pointed out that innovative ways of delivering good quality technical training and partnering to deliver better value training were important. An engineering manager said his top two concerns were talent acquisition and retention and skills development. An operations manager asked whether colleges and schools are developing the right quality of young people in the right skill sets to support the engineering departments of the future.''

A recurring theme among food manufacturers is that they want to know more about legislation and how it affects their businesses. This is an increasingly important part of the sector for several reasons. One is that most retailers will deal with a food manufacturer only if it meets all standards required by a variety of legislative demands. These range from food hygiene, safety, packaging, labelling and waste management to machinery directives.

One operations manager said that ''introducing technology to assist (engineers) in complying with all current food safety practices,'' would be helpful. ''Engineers by default do not respond well to endless paperwork.'' Another operations manager stressed the need for more information on future legislation and its impact on the food industry - for both manufacturers and retailers. A managing director pointed out that one concern is that some engineering standards in the food industry impact the end-user. ''Engineering standards are often excellent but without any obvious assessment to the hygiene of the equipment.''

An engineering manager said that ''compliance with statutory articles'' was an area of interest, while a project manager stipulated ''legislation requirements in terms of its impact on business.''

It may sound obvious but food manufacturers across all sectors (bakery, dairy, fruit etc) want to know about new technologies on the market, and they want to know how these can benefit their plant. Clearly, there is an appetite for information among manufacturers with respect to new technology. But, crucially, this technology doesn't always have to be machinery. As one MD pointed out: ''New technologies and techniques are needed to communicate with end-users, employees and others in industry. (These will help) identify, satisfy and retain customers in a personal, charismatic way.''

An operations manager pointed out that there can be some crossover between important topics. For instance, new technology can be used to assist engineers in complying with all current food safety practices. A health and safety advisor at a food plant listed new technologies in meat production and packaging machinery, including robotic equipment, as his biggest talking point. And a project manager with a fruit and vegetable producer stated that new technologies were the second most important interest in his job, after benchmarking.

Once manufacturers have their machinery in place, they need to ensure it is properly maintained. Our survey shows this is an important part of the job, and that most engineers want to know how they can keep their plant better maintained. Maintenance takes on particular importance in a fragile economy because food companies cannot simply go out and buy new equipment each time the old equipment fails. One engineering manager we spoke to said his biggest interest is reading articles or listening to talks about plant reliability.

He added that it was important to know the costs of buying new machinery versus maintaining the old. Information regarding the ''long-term asset care of 'mature' plant'' was also crucial. Another engineering manager mentioned ''equipment reliability strategies''; this falls under plant maintenance because a plant that isn't correctly maintained won't be reliable. Furthermore, strategies are needed to proactively deal with any maintenance issues down the line.

Improvements in engineering design of food processing equipment were highlighted by several of our respondents as important. One pointed out that stitch welding is cheaper to design and produce, harder to clean and presents a higher risk to the end user. He added that illogical use of ferrous metals in food production equipment was a problem - for example with respect to stainless-steel air conditioning casings with milk steel hanging brackets.

Then there is the ''inefficient dismantling capabilities of food processing equipment''. The respondent - an MD - was referring to the smaller items of equipment that often need engineering assistance or multiple screws, nuts and bolts to remove to dismantle the kit for cleaning.


It's easy to overlook the importance of the 'also-rans' but the other concerns listed by those who participated in our survey deserve almost as much attention as the big issues. Among these is nutrition. As one MD pointed out: ''Nutrition, how we can add more value to what we offer, identifying the trends and better positioning our NPD (will help us make better, cheaper products).'' This MD also mentioned environmental impact. ''Is there any easy approach to the Carbon Footprint Audit and Corporate Social Responsibility?,'' he asks. ''How can we food manufacturers show that our hearts are really in it?'' An operations manager who placed waste and environmental initiatives at the top of his list echoed this.

A technical competence development manager said he was interested in finding out how similar manufacturers approach competency delivery such as IT, mapping, return-on-investment, benchmarking and general successes and failures. Another MD said he was mostly interested in improvements in the engineering design of food processing equipment. He listed stitch welding, illogical use of ferrous metals and inefficient dismantling capabilities of food processing equipment as particular bugbears. And two managers – one of plant projects and the other of technical training – said that benchmarking, and finding out what provides return-on-investment, is crucial.

* For our poll, we spoke to 100 food manufacturers in positions ranging from managing director to operations manager, project manager, technical competence manager, health and safety manager and engineering manager.

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