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Upskilling to ensure smart technology is properly utilised

12 October 2020

Suzanne Gill asks whether engineers in the food and beverage process industry have the skills needed to work with changing manufacturing models that employ smart technologies such as robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)? 

The recognition that changes would be needed within in the UK food and beverage processing industry first become obvious in June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union. When, in the same year the theme of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” it became obvious to all that change was coming. 

Sharon Blyfield, senior manager - People and Culture at Coca-Cola European Partners believes that these events should have acted as a wake-up call for organisations that the way they had previously conducted their operations would become more restrictive and that the use of more advanced technological systems would be required to meet the rapidly changing environments. 

Blyfield said: “OEMs have, for some time, been advancing new technologies and enhancing their offerings to industry, for example by addressing maintenance requirements for their equipment. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in organisations having to accelerate their digital technology strategy investments to enable them to find new ways of working and to rethink their manufacturing models and the engineering skills required for now and in the future.  

“I often ask myself whether our engineers are fit for the future and thinking about how we can ensure that they are equipped for the digital age,” said Blyfield. She believes that having the right skillsets to operate in an automated environment is critical. “Operators need to have the ability to understand and interpret data displayed on digital screens, and they must be able to take the necessary actions needed is vital.”

“In the digital factory engineers will also need to be excellent communicators, ensuring that the way information is shared is adapted to the relevant audience,” continued Blyfield. “Problem solving through diversity of thought will be critical in this new age, as individuals work across multi-disciplined teams to solve problems, of which they may only have some element of expertise and require input from others to resolve.” 

Demystifying technology
There is also a need to demystify robotics, AI and the IIoT, so that multi-generational employees all have the confidence to embrace the next evolution in manufacturing. Blyfield believes that this can be supported through greater collaboration with both OEMs and machine builders so that everyone working with their equipment fully understands the latest technology, and so that training plans are fit for purpose. “Another step is to work with training and apprenticeship providers to ensure that their curriculums and delivery plans align with the direction of travel of industry,” continued Blyfield. “The goal is not just to upskill the workforce, but also the tutors and teachers to ensure that they are competent and capable to support the digital technology agenda.”

Increasing flexibility
Andy Macpherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo UK says that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever the importance of increasing flexible automation in the food and beverage processing sector. However, he accepts that this does not come without engineering challenges. He said: “We need to consider how we can adapt existing equipment, what new process equipment we require, how can we get maximum flexibility out of our production lines, what do we mean by flexible production and will we have the necessary skills to support the changes?” he said.

So, is the food industry ready for change? Macpherson believes it is. He said: “While an entire smart food factory is still some way off, genuine improvements in efficiency and quality can be achieved right now by retrofitting Industry 4.0 technologies to existing production lines. For example, it is possible to upgrade existing plants to gain important operating or performance data or measure energy consumption and at the same time predict potential issues with the performance of a machine. Industry 4.0 is an evolution, not a revolution. You don’t have to have a brand-new plant to adopt some of the technology that will help improve the flexibility and productivity of machines. 

“With the addition of standard, currently available automation – ranging from robotics through to simple plug and work handling solutions – many automation process problems can, and are, already being solved today.”

So, how can the food industry ensure that engineers have the right competencies and skills to embark confidently on an Industry 4.0 journey? According to Macpherson, the skills required in food factories of the future fall into two areas – technical and soft skills. “It is unlikely that any one engineer would be a master of the all the emerging technologies, and this places a greater demand on soft skills to ensure that all the new opportunities are understood and realised,” he said. “New technology skills, such as the integration of traditional control hierarchies with IT networks and the cloud will require attention to ensure engineers are considering data architecture, analytics and addressing the cyber security that needs to go with this.” 

Macpherson goes on to explain that a good understanding of the capabilities of AI is needed to enable this data to be correctly interpreted to provide insights into areas such as energy management and predictive maintenance, leading to smart maintenance. “Covering such a wide range of technologies will require engineers to adopt soft skills to handle complex problem solving and managing multi-disciplinary teams with all the emotional intelligence that entails,” he said. 

In conclusion, Macpherson believes that food industry engineers of the future will need to hone their creativity and decision-making skills in order to allow them to maximise the benefits of digitalisation.

Technology adoption
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic food businesses have had to become more flexible and responsive to market changes. Nik Watson, learning and development manager at SMC, believes that the route to greater flexibility and responsiveness is through the adoption of technology. He says that the traditionally mono specialist engineer today needs to be able adapt to undertake digital tasks as well as mechanical and electrical tasks. “It is the ability to properly utilise the technology that I see as the greatest barrier,” said Watson. “This requires us to create a new breed of hybrid engineers who are able to work alongside, and fully utilise the abilities of all these technologies.” 

He goes on to highlight the importance of management remaining realistic in its expectations of digital technologies and integration into a company’s business profiles, otherwise there is a danger of ending up with an expensive cloud-based white elephant!

“Engineers need to be trained in new digital concepts, while younger engineers, who mostly come with a good understanding of digital technology, may but lack practical skills,” he said. “Hopefully, in the future, as younger engineers start to become the norm and retirements reduce the average age of engineering teams, expectations of automation will alter from why? to why not?”

Shock waves
There can be no doubt that Covid-19 has impacted the food and beverage industry in many ways. Despite being a resilient sector 2020 has brought with it some shock waves, both in terms of the food supply chain and the impact of consumer habits. 

“This year has really brought into focus the need for greater agility in the complete fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) supply chain as it reacts and responds to dramatic consumer habits change,” said Keith Thornhill, head of food & beverage industry UK at Siemens Digital Industries. While automation and digitalisation had already been identified by many in the industry as being the way forward, but Covid-19 and Brexit has brought the future forward, Thornhilll warns that companies will only be successful in this new normal if they mix people, skills and culture, alongside technology. “Technology on its own will not achieve the productivity, efficiency and agility required for future food production,” he said.

“The step change in business performance really becomes evident when processes and systems are connected, and real time data is flowing. We have seen a major shift from food manufacturers to connect production processes together and to analyse the data via IOT gateways, Industrial Edge algorithms and industrial cloud to be able to understand in real time, inefficiencies against demand and link this operational data into the IT infrastructure to show business intelligence. We are seeing new job titles arrive, Digital and Automation director, Data Scientists, Data Analytics specialists. IT/OT Integration working alongside continuous improvement to turn the data into performance improvement. This is a great sign because it is people that make the business successful not just technology. 

“It’s not just about new roles, it’s about the whole company embracing a constant progress culture and investing in training, skills to align the business vision aspirations with the workforce and equipping employees with both soft and hard-skills to remain job relevant,” concludes Thornhill. 

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