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Industry 4.0: no time like the present

12 August 2019

Wayne Johnson argues that food manufacturers need to start the Industry 4.0 now or lose out to their rivals.

Conservatism tends to be the major barrier to adoption of smart technologies in the UK. There also tends to be a reluctance to invest unless a return on investment (ROI) can be demonstrated within a very short time frame. Unfortunately, when it comes to Industry 4.0 transformation, this may need to be proven in years rather than months, something that can really put food manufacturing teams off.

However, there are some very good reasons why food and beverage manufacturers must now aim to catch-up with their European rivals in terms of implementing smart technology into their facilities. 

Firstly, there is the challenge around the national living wage for those aged 25 and over that has come into effect in the UK. In April 2019 it increased by 4.9%, from £7.83 to £8.21, and it is set to rise further. In an industry that has traditionally relied upon manual labour to maintain its flexibility, this could be a killer blow where margins are already on a knife edge. This is in addition to the reduced labour pool that the UK is now experiencing, making it harder to rely on a work force, whatever the cost. Quite soon manufacturers may be forced into investing in smart solutions to overcome this challenge. 

Manufacturers must not ignore this factor, assuming that because their European neighbours are also experiencing labour cost increases (for example, the minimum wage in Spain jumped 22% at the start of 2019) because these rises have less of an impact on the continent due to the fact that many European food manufacturers have already started to invest in smart solutions, if not installed fully automated lines, and so they are less susceptible to changes in the labour market. This will, ultimately, make it harder for UK brands to compete in the UK or in export markets. 

The general philosophy in food facilities is usually one of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ and it can be hard to overcome this mindset because it is often linked to fear of doing something new that might not work. Of course, this fear is valid as a failed technology can have negative consequences for the team who introduces it, either through the impact on production or the perception of a ‘wasted’ investment. The way around this is to undertake trials and small tests with smart technology to prove that it does work, reducing the pressure on the teams taking on the developments before a wider roll-out is introduced.

Food manufacturers must also take a holistic view of their operations and start to share data between departments, rather than working in siloes, before Industry 4.0 becomes a possibility. 

Considering a programme of continuous improvement and selecting software or devices that allow manufacturers to achieve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) is a good place to start as this will highlight areas of the process that are not working effectively. Steps can then be taken to improve efficiency, connect the processing line and begin the journey towards an Industry 4.0-enabled facility. 

The UK is seeing a productivity crisis. ONS deputy chief economist Richard Heys revealed in April 2019 that it has taken the UK a decade to deliver 2% growth, which historically was achieved in a single year. The food and beverage industry must start to do something different in order to overcome this slump. 

OAL is trying to overcome the industry’s risk aversion by conducting system studies. For a small initial investment, food manufacturers can trial their processes on its test equipment, giving a realistic idea of the ROI that is possible. This makes the whole process a lot safer, not only because there will be confidence that the robotics solutions will work in application, but also because it makes it easier to put the financial justification to the business when there is a clear roadmap for payback on the upfront investment.”

Wayne Johnson is OAL Connected director at OAL.


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