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Exploring the barriers and benefits of technology adoption

18 February 2019

A Food Processing roundtable event, hosted by Siemens Digital Industry, set out to tackle a big subject – digitalisation in the food industry. The event brought together representatives from a diverse cross-section of the UK food industry to discuss the issues facing industry today and looking at the barriers and benefits of technology adoption. 

With digitalisation of the manufacturing industry being discussed at Government levels today momentum across industry is growing. Keith Thornhill opened the roundtable discussion by pointing out that the food industry cannot afford to be left behind and needs to grasp the automation and digitalisation opportunities that are now available. And, with automation levels within the food processing industry currently only at around 15% what they should be, the industry has a great deal of work to do. 

The discussion about technology adoption in the food industry is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2014, for example, the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) was working alongside the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and Innovate UK to produce a ten-point plan to identify innovation priorities for the food sector. This document identified that greater technology adoption would contribute significantly to increasing efficiency, flexibility and reducing waste. 

“This 2014 report highlighted the need for pre-competitive collaboration to solve industry problems,” explained Thornhill. “Today the UK Government is trying to promote collaboration through its funding mechanisms. However, traditionally, the food sector has not embraced a culture of collaboration with either its retail customers, its peers or its suppliers and this has slowed up the speed of technology adoption.”

As part of the Government’s Industry Strategy program. Industry 4.0 and technology were cited as key areas to ensure increased productivity across all manufacturing sectors.  The ‘Made Smarter’ working group was set up, chaired by Juergen Maier (CEO at Siemens UK) to establish the value to industry that technology adoption would bring. This led to the publication of the ‘Made Smarter Review’ at the end of 2017 which looked at the effect of automation on productivity. The Review identified that £55.8 billion of benefits could be realised by the food industry through automation and digitalisation over 10 years. The second largest sector (after construction) to gain from greater adoption. This value generation would mainly come from increased productivity by utilising greater automation and robotics. Digitally enabled assets with seamless connectivity and increased process control by decoding many of the food sector’s process variables with cloud analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). 

Thornhill explained further: “Digitally-enabled R&D, for example, can help get projects to market more quickly. With a digital model it is possible to simulate a product through its manufacturing process. Most new projects currently fail or do not achieve a return on investment due to the fact that it is not possible to replicate production characteristics until a product is actually in a production environment. Simulation allows potential problems to be quickly identified and solved or it allows the team to move on to other product ideas more quickly.”

The Review also highlighted how the automation of manual tasks could offer huge savings. This is particularly relevant to the food sector which relies heavily on casual manual labour that may not be available in the coming years due to the effects of Brexit.

Made Smarter
The Made Smarter Review has resulted in more funding being made available. Thornhill explained how some of this going to be used: “In a financially driven culture, ROI is paramount and investing in new technology and the deployment of digital technology can often be seen as something for the future – companies want to see evidence about its benefits; about their return on investment; and they need to know that they have access to the skills required to make it work.  For this reason a number of digital demonstrators will be created around the country to showcase new technologies and demonstrate the benefits.”

As well as this it is hoped that the Food and Drink sector will receive a sector deal from Government later in 2019 to further encourage the adoption of technology.

At this point Chris Buxton intervened, pointing out that SME manufacturers are, by necessity, risk adverse when it comes to employing new automation technology because of a fear of failure.  He mentioned a previous Government initiative which set out to offer free audits for SMEs, providing them with suggested areas within their own plants where automation would help increase productivity. It also gave expected payback periods for any technology adoption. “This initiative was well received by industry, but it ceased when the grant period expired,” said Buxton. He pointed out that if automation vendors were willing to undertake similar free and independent audits for SMEs it might help solve the current impasse. “The main reason that productivity is low is because the food industry is a low adopter of technology. If automation and robotics vendors took the lead here I believe that their investment would be repaid.”

Thornhill agreed that vendors and manufacturers need to get better at articulating the return on investment that automation technology can offer. He is confident that digital technologies like simulation, and VR can help overcome this by making it possible to show the automation solution in a virtual environment, including ROI’s and with ability to run capacity variables within the model. 

Marc Booth highlighted another issue – that while there are some great funding initiatives available today, the Government’s communication channels with SMEs is not really very good. The table discussed the issues surrounding a variety of funding options and it was concluded that the best way for an SME to access any available funding is to first identify the biggest problems they want to solve and then to collaborate with a University who will have a good understanding of the funding and grants that are available.

De-risking innovation
Discussion about R&D Tax Credits was of particular interest to many around the table, some of whom had only a vague understanding about this current opportunity to cover many of the costs associated with research and development activity. It would seem that there are still many qualifying companies who are not taking advantage of this opportunity and everyone around the table agreed that it is a good idea to take a closer look at what can be claimed for as it can offer a good tool to help de-risk the innovation process.

The conversation moved on to the subject of skills and it was pointed out that many food industry companies are struggling to keep up with customer demands for greater flexibility. The packaging machines that are being used today, for example, were not designed to offer the flexibility that is now needed. The further down the automation route industry moves, the skill sets required to work with the equipment is also changing. It was pointed out that most food industry engineers currently have mechanical skills, but as automation increases there is a growing need for more electronics skills. 

It is important to consider what engineering skills will be needed in a digital factory. While it is expected that a hybrid of IT and OT skills will become the norm in the future, today the food industry is in need of engineers that understand how to control a process and also understand how digitalisation can help improve the process. They do not need to be digital engineers but they do need to know where to go to get help when needed.  

There are cultural issues which also need to be addressed within the food industry. The table discussed the need to change traditional buying habits, which has resulted in islands of automation around the food factory. Moving away from simply purchasing a component to solve an immediate problem is vital. Instead engineers need to look at the challenges they are facing and to talk to technology providers and machine builders – shifting the vendor relationship to enable a more collaborate approach to be taken to solve these challenges. 

The table accepted that futureproofing a factory demands the adoption of a more innovative approach and this will always carry an element of risk.  It is this that poses a big problem for the food industry as many of its engineers are risk averse. While they know that automation may be the solution, the risk of failure or not getting a rapid return on investment holds many back. It was agreed that most food manufacturers are unable to take the risk of even a minor service interruption for fear of losing a contract. The best solution to this would be to take the first step towards automation on a project where the risk of supply interruption is less. Where, if a new system takes time to get right, it will not have such a big business impact.

Involving retailers
Retailers also need to become much more involved in the change process and should be supporting their suppliers in the process of new technology adoption. It was agreed that everyone would benefit from a more collaborative approach to automating the food industry. Longer contracts would be helpful, for example, as this would enable more food manufacturers to invest as they could accept a longer return on their investment.

The conversation concluded with a discussion about the need for greater education relating to the benefits that technology can offer and the need for the food industry to move away from simply being in survival mode and fighting to manufacture products at ever lower cost as this is not sustainable. 

Concerns associated with new project risk can now be addressed – through the use of technologies like simulation – helping to promote the business case for automation and helping reduce risk by designing out problems before any physical equipment is needed. 

Today there is so much inefficiency in food production because nothing on the shop floor connects to anything else. “Connectivity does present risks, but the risks of not connecting far outweigh these concerns. Industry needs to have more faith in technology,” said Thornhill. “Even small gains in OEE – just 2 or 3% – can make a massive impact on capacity. However, it is first necessary to be able to accurately measure OEE so that you are able to demonstrate any improvements. This can be so easily achieved by adding just a few sensors to a line to collect data. You need to know what you have before you can improve on it so this really should be everyone’s very first step on the digital transformation journey.”

Attending the event were:
Ed Bury – Director at Sam Browne Foods
Ross Townshend – EMEA business manager - Advanced Services & Data at Ishida Europe
Ed Pooley – Continuous improvement manager at British Sugar, Bury St Edmunds
Rob Taylor – Continuous improvement engineer at British Sugar, Bury St Edmunds
Nigel Stevens – Feasibility design project manager at TSL Projects Chiara Breda – Feasibility project engineer at TSL Projects
Mark Foster – Central engineering manager at Weetabix
Chris Buxton – Director/CEO at British Fluid Power Association (BFPA)
Suzanne Gill – Editor at Food Processing
Marc Booth – UK sales manager OEM & Discrete Materials at Siemens
Keith Thornhill – Business unit manager – F&B at Siemens
Stuart Westley – Sales director, Robson Handling Technology

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