Bridging the Skills Gap - Robots to the Rescue?

With the onset of Brexit, there has been a noticeable skills gap in the food and drink industry, which only seems to be growing. Coupled with the fact that UK productivity is in need of a significant boost, can technology help to bridge the personnel gap? We spoke to Automation Product Manager, James Bedford of Multivac, one of the leading providers of packaging solutions for food products. He told us more about the future of automation in the food and drink sector and where it proves to be most useful.

Can robotics and automation really help to fill the skills gap?
With the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit, our customers are finding it increasingly difficult to find competent and reliable staff. Automation is the answer to fill this gap.

Automation solutions should be a consideration for not only new lines but also for existing lines too as there are gains to be made through retrofitting existing lines.

Where is there most need in the industry?
At the moment, there is not a clear need for automation more from one sector compared to another. Customers are usually focused on the long-term goals when it comes to automation. This includes not only filling the skills gap but also in terms of hygiene and line efficiency so there is a need wherever customers are looking to improve upon all these points.

Which technology systems can help?
There are various automatic systems available in today’s market. The main fully automatic solutions available include; product loading into a pre-formed or thermoformed tray, converging packs at high speed, case packing and palletising. There are also systems available for semi-automatic operations, such as case erecting and pack stacking.

Both fully automatic and semi-automatic systems ensure that only ‘good’ packs continue down the line. Any empty or ‘bad’ packs are rejected as soon as possible with minimum impact on the rest of the line, maximising line efficiency and keeping operating costs low.

Is it a cost-effective approach?
When analysing the cost-effectiveness of an automatic solution, there are many factors to consider. This includes the complexity of the operation, the operational costs, the expected increase in efficiency and the reduction in reworks.

All of these factors are difficult to measure tangibly. Historically, cost-effectiveness has been calculated from payback; how many operators are saved vs. the cost of the system. In reality, the benefits of automation are more than just this.

What would the long-term effects be?
Long-term effects of automation include increased hygiene and line efficiency with lower operational costs. Automation solutions can be very flexible so various product lines and run times can still be accommodated by changing grippers.

With an increased level of hygiene, the level of food safety also increases. Automated lines will now also include labelling and sealing verification, vision systems and x-ray machines to ensure the highest level of safety, whilst minimising the risk of error.

Operations would become more reliable due to the higher efficiencies within the line, resulting in timely orders and less short orders.

Where would humans still be needed?
Human contact would still be needed to interact with the automation systems but in a different capacity than they would on traditional manual lines.

Less labour would be needed to operate fully automated lines. However, the operators expected to interact with the automated system would need to be trained to a higher skill level.

Automation is not solely about reducing overheads. Existing operators can be moved to other areas within an organisation. Automatic solutions can increase output and efficiency of production lines without the need to employ additional operators.

Continuing the discussion, visitors can attend Food Manufacture’s Forum at Foodex’s Centre Stage to hear the session entitled ‘Robotics and Automation: Stealing our jobs - can robots solve the skills crisis?’ Monday 16th April at 11:00am.

Meanwhile, come and marvel at an array of automation in action at Foodex where many exhibitors will be demonstrating their systems for processing, packaging, labelling, freezing, logistics and lots, lots more. You can find Multivac at Stand S250 and we’ve picked out just a small selection of companies who will be on hand to offer smart solutions for your business:

Adpak Machinery Systems Ltd (Stand W338)

GB Belting (Stand Z318)

Quality Systems Solutions Ltd (Stand K319)

WFM Systems of Windsor Food Machinery Ltd (Stand M309)

Fischbein Saxon Ltd (Stand M328)