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Meeting new technology challenges

22 February 2021

Professor Martin Howarth discusses the growing importance of well-educated engineers to ensure agile and efficient operation. 

Never before has the requirement of a well-educated workforce been so important in the food sector to meet the challenge of delivering new products to new markets utilising new processes. 

In 2021, Vegan January demonstrated the rise in consumer interest and availability of new meat-free products, a sector that continues to grow significantly, while new on-line retail outlets with letterbox delivery of food ‘kits’ with short shelf life requires agile organisations for the assembly of short run, high variety products, delivered directly to customers. 

Today everything from product development, new processing techniques and new real-time scheduling within a digital supply chain is driving the re-evaluation of skills, knowledge and availability of staff to deliver solutions to meet these challenges. Never before has education been so important – and this is before the other challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit are factored in.

How are these challenges going to be solved to ensure organisations are prepared for the next business opportunity? Education is key – it provides opportunities which all organisations can use to take the next step, build capacity and generate ideas throughout the organisation. Well educated staff build the intellectual capacity to generate new ideas and employees with initiative to solve process, production and supply chain problems, today and in the future.

But, where should the development of skills and knowledge be focussed? Food and drink production is a well-established industry, but the challenge of new consumer markets and on-demand supply is stretching the established processes. Staff knowledge and skills need to be built to match the new opportunities, enabling organisations to react and support new developments as well as maintaining customer satisfaction with existing and familiar products.

Two key elements consistently feature when reviewing these challenges – digital connectivity and agility. 

Digital connectivity within an organisation and within the whole supply chain is essential. It is therefore clear that all individuals who ‘touch’ the system should enhance their digital skills to ensure that all participants understand their contribution within the system and are able to innovate. Innovation in this context involves everything from solving small, local data collection challenges – hence helping to ensure improved data accuracy – all the way through to data scientists utilising data to better predict demand or points of weakness with the larger system or supply chain. 

Agility challenges us all, but is an essential attribute for successful organisations and the processes used by these organisations. One aspect of agility is typically associated with the digitally interconnected system, but it is also true and relevant for individual processes and equipment. As production demands change to lower volumes with higher product variety, new and existing systems need to have agility built into their design. This is technically difficult for new designs and it is very challenging to add to existing equipment and processes. 

A sound engineering education is a key element in building the technical competence for all those who design, plan and operate a process. The technical understanding of the interaction of mechanical, electrical, digital and food science systems is a fundamental requirement for all food and drink staff. Whether these staff are operators, maintenance engineers, planners, product developers or process innovators, they need the skills and education to recognise the challenges and to generate ideas and solutions to solve them.

These challenges have been recognised and have been part of the support which the Food and Drink Federation (FDF)and the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink (NSAFD) have provided over recent years. Supporting the development of a range of educational programmes which cover the digital and agility challenges identified above. These include:

Degree apprenticeships
BSc (Honours) Professional Practice in Food Technology
BA (Honours) Professional Practice in Management
BEng (Honours) Food Engineering
BSc (Honours) Digital and Technology Solutions
Level 3 Apprenticeship
Food and Drink Maintenance Engineer

Sheffield Hallam University and the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering provides a specialist environment where a wide ranging set of essential skills and knowledge can be developed. We deliver the Degree apprenticeship qualifications while working with other colleges to provide a wide spectrum of courses which build the pyramid of skills and knowledge for the food and drink sector.

Developing and educating a company’s staff will generate new capability in an organisation and drive business’ future agility in a demanding digitally interconnected food and drink manufacturing system. 

Professor Martin Howarth is director of the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering. 

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