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Moving forward with the right skills

27 July 2020

Suzanne Gill spoke to a cross section of food industry spokespeople to get their views on the engineering skills that the food industry will need to move on from the current pandemic and ensure it is prepared for other unexpected events in the future. 

Q: What engineering skills do you think will be most needed to help the UK food manufacturing sector recover from the effects of the current pandemic and the predicted recession that may follow? 
Nik Watson (NW): Increased automation will be a major factor. This will allow for increased social distancing between staff as one operator will be able to work multiple machines/processes. But time will be a factor, so optimisation of the components will also need to be investigated. This could mean ‘smart’ devices that can achieve some level of self-diagnosis to reduce downtime and all of this requires some skill or/and knowledge updates for both operational and engineering teams. 

Andy MacPherson, food and beverage industry manager at Festo UK (AM):
Before the pandemic we were all aware of the ticking time bomb that the food sector is facing relating to the loss of engineering skills. This situation will not have got any easier so the industry will need skills across all engineering disciplines. One of the most important ways of meeting this challenge is to continue to develop apprenticeship schemes within the food processing sector and to continue to recruit new apprentices. We cannot afford to reduce the intake or postpone recruitment because as skilled engineers retire, the skills gap only gets wider.

Toby Kinnaird, head of partnerships, NMITE (New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering) (TK): All the food manufacturers that I have spoken to have been busier than ever during the pandemic. This shows the resilience of UK food and drink manufacturing compared to many other sectors. I believe that the engineering skills required by the food manufacturing industry will be the same post pandemic as they were pre. 

Marcus Billig, site manager at Avara Foods Hereford (MB): I believe the concerns around UK engineering are the same as before the pandemic; that there’s a skill shortage within engineering generally. I think there will be a great need for businesses and engineering in general to be more self-sufficient, bringing more skills back in-house going forward. 

Q: Do you think that digital processes and engineering techniques will have an important role to play in helping industry improve its post-pandemic productivity (if so, why)? 
NW: Yes. The increase of self-diagnostics, smart components and even maintenance procedures will have an increasing role to play. From components that let the engineers know their health status to enable preventative maintenance to a sea change, where engineering work is done in production downtime with the use of predictive maintenance, so parts/machines/systems have fixed service schedules planned  in to site work patterns. This would enable a smoother production cycle and better productivity.

AM: Improved productivity will be vital to ensure the sector continues to compete in the future especially considering the changing competitive environment that Brexit might bring at the end of this year. We need require agile production processes that can increase or reduce capacity quickly. As a result, digitally proving processes through simulation will become more important along with the need for increased production and performance data. However, this will bring additional challenges – for example, how do you extract valuable data from all the information available by doing the right analysis and making the necessary adjustments or changes? Another important factor that will help to improve overall operating efficiency will be an increased use of digital maintenance tools to allow for faster times-to-fix and improved production line up times. 

TK: I believe that digital skills, which enable tasks such as monitoring and maintaining equipment to be done remotely, are of increased importance. 

MB: Restrictions on labour and movement mean that engineering will need to improve or look for new techniques to solve problems. For example, virtual reality and remote video calls with machine builders to fix problems remotely. Even prior to Covid-19, automation has been gathering pace and we have significant plans to invest in technology to improve productivity and offer more skilled opportunities.

Q: Do you think the UK food processing industry has the level of skillsets required to adopt digital solutions to help increase productivity and efficiency?
NW: There are a few businesses that have embraced up skilling of their staff, but many more need to do this. The major problem with this however, is the nature of the food industry – there are many small ‘field to fork’ businesses that work on small margins and therefore depend on lower paid and lower skilled staff to survive. They have a fear that to upskill a staff member makes them both more desirable for other businesses, but may also lead to demands for higher wages. This is also increased by the transient nature of some staff, being contracted-in when demand dictates. There will need to be a blend of skilled permanent and semi-skilled contract to ensure that some businesses can survive and flourish in the new normal.  

AM: We know we have a general skills shortage, but in my experience the engineers we do have in the food sector are highly knowledgeable on production processes and highly skilled and eager to learn about new technologies. I believe that with the right support (continuous personal development) they can develop the skills required for their future. 

TK: It is worth remembering that the food industry was one of first to use robotics and automation, however, the number of engineers available with the understanding and ability required to operate and maintain such technology are currently low in number. Our strategic partner, Avara Foods, has identified a skills gap and is working hard to fill it with a number of solutions, including training operators in the machine-minding technical skills, delivering in-house training programmes, and investing time into training and developing apprentices and graduates at different levels. 

Q: What lessons do you think the food industry needs to learn from the current pandemic, in relation to the preparedness of its engineering teams to quickly adapt to changing consumer demands?
NW: Of all industries, I feel that the food sector is one of the better placed to cope. Many are already supplying seasonal demand products and have infrastructures that will allow them to adapt and change, raw material availability allowing. 

AM: I hope the sector can learn from the pandemic. If you look at the start of the process, the fact that farmers are having to fly in labour to pick crops should indicate that we need more automation. This automation needs to be flexible enough to respond to  rapid changes in demand. For food processors to have the confidence to invest they must have a good return-on-investment (ROI), but this needs to be looked at over a longer period than we do today. Automation can reduce labour costs, improve flexibility and ensure food security. However, you also need to invest in the selection and development of skilled staff to run and maintain the factory and that all costs money. 

TK: Adapting to change is a central part of the food manufacturing industry, but I think the pandemic will continue to accelerate that change and put increased focus on the need for individuals and teams to be agile. Having the engineering skills required to deliver this in-house, rather than going to external suppliers makes the process quicker and more efficient. 

Q: What engineering skills do you believe the sector is most in need of, to help industry prepare itself for the future?
NW: Multi-skilled engineers with an ability to work on hybrid technologies and optimise performance of the components. SMC UK has found that many businesses are looking to increase the skillset of their engineers to understand and embrace the hybrid electro- pneumatic system and the advantages that it can bring, SMC is training many engineers around the UK with this aim in mind.

AM: The new skillsets required fall into two areas – technical and soft skills.  Because it is unlikely that any one engineer can be a master of the all the emerging technologies, it places a greater demand on soft skills to ensure the new opportunities are understood and realised. The demands on engineers – from corporate level, heads of engineering, and shop-floor personnel –will require them to constantly and increasingly update their skillsets.  The acceleration of technology is becoming hyperbolic, therefore the half-life – for example, the decay of their knowledge – is decreasing more rapidly.  

TK: I think the industry needs well-rounded engineers with an eye to the future and continuous improvement. Such people will be able to ensure that the pandemic causes a blip to their industry rather than a catastrophe. 

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