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Skills: a vital ingredient for Industry 4.0 success

16 February 2020

Food Processing looks at the changing skills requirements as industry moves towards Industry 4.0. 



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The UK food sector has much to gain from the adoption of increased automation and new digital technology. However, alongside the introduction of new technologies there is also a need for the adoption of new engineering skills and the upskilling of existing knowledge and know-how within the workforce. It is vital that food processors invest in both soft skills and hard skills. 

“When setting out on an Industry 4.0 journey it is important that senior management teams first have a vision of what they want to achieve from a business excellence position,” said Keith Thornhill, head of food & beverage industry at Siemens Digital Industries UK. “Digitalisation offers the tools to achieve the goals of Industry 4.0, but the journey should begin with minor, slow adaptations to existing equipment. Once the process is in place, food processors will be able to further explore all the other benefits that data capture and analysis can bring to a business.” 

According to Thornhill soft skills are required to help the workforce adopt and adapt to change. “For example, having cobots and robots carry out some functions that can help humans do more meaningful and intelligent tasks will allow the workforce to learn, through the implementation of soft skills, to accept cobots as effective workmates that add value to their own task.” 

Thornhill also advises that engineers; machine operators and other factory employees are helped and encouraged to upgrade their skills to ensure they are aware of the technology being implemented and the language associated with it. He said: “Not everyone can be a data analyst, but a basic understanding and training should be provided to support the workforce with their new digitalised job function.”

Understanding opportunities
Andy Macpherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo UK, is in agreement about the importance of soft skills when adoption new technologies in the food factory. He said: “It is unlikely any one engineer could be a master of the all the emerging technologies, and that this places a greater demand on soft skills to ensure that new opportunities are understood and realised. These soft skills include a need for greater analytical thinking and complex problem-solving capabilities as well as greater creativity and cognitive flexibility to help integrate robots and cobots safely into production. MacPherson also says that there is a greater need for emotional intelligence and better team management skills. “Projects around digital maintenance and energy saving, for example, have been shown to have a fast payback. However, the challenges of implementing the new technologies requires a cross-function approach and at times it can take longer to get the people talking than the machines!

“All engineers in the food industry – from a corporate level, through heads of engineering, to shop-floor personnel – will need to constantly and increasingly update their skillsets.  The acceleration of technology is becoming hyperbolic, therefore the half-life – the decay of their knowledge – will rapidly decrease.” 

Finding expertise
Commenting on the company’s own skills issues, Ian Cumming, head of systems engineering at product inspection company, Mettler-Toledo, said: “A key issue for us is finding engineers and technicians with the appropriate expertise. There are many qualified people out there, but they often lack the relevant 'hands-on' experience that is vital in developing practical solutions to the challenges of the food sector.” 

To address this skills gap, Mettler-Toledo participates in a range of engagement initiatives, including working with local schools and colleges, delivering workshops and taster days to break down misconceptions and barriers, and to give students first-hand experience of working in the manufacturing sector. The company also offers an apprenticeship programme that introduces its new recruits to different engineering experiences and environments from the outset. 

 “Engineers and technicians in our business need to be flexible and adaptable. As part of their learning, we provide our apprentices with the opportunity to develop their mechanical CAD design experience. They also spend time on our shop-floor mechanically fitting out conveyors. They then move on to electrical installation activities. Apprentices also get the chance to test the systems they have built. This results in an engineer with a broad range of practical experience.”

So, what advice does Mettler-Toledo have for others in the food sector who are struggling to bridge the skills gap? Cumming said: “The success of our own apprentice scheme relies on the support and commitment of all our team leaders, from HR to the shop floor. For our industry to prosper this sense of purpose needs to be replicated right across the food sector. We need to emulate countries like Germany, who encourage the next generation from a very young age. It is incumbent on every company to work with colleges and universities to nurture and develop the skills they need to remain successful. In addition, find ways to provide a platform for prospective engineers and technicians to gain valuable, hands-on working experience.”


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