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Challenging times ahead for the food industry

Challenging times ahead for the food industry

It was a busy October for the food industry with PPMA 2014 taking place at the NEC in early October followed by The Appetite for Engineering (A4E) event. The one-day A4E is a very important gathering for those working for food and beverage manufacturers with responsibility for investing in automation, engineering, production and skills.

Across those two events there were several prevailing themes; skills shortage, the growth of machine vision with robotics and regulations. Here Andy Macpherson, Industry Sector Manager, Food & Beverage for worldwide leading supplier of pneumatic and electrical automation technology, Festo, reflects on the relevance of this year's PPMA Show and A4E event and looks forward to 2015.

Without a doubt it was the growing skills shortage that was the key talking point at both events, both from speakers and delegates. An increasing number of people are recognising that this is a major issue and that action needs to be taken. This feeling comes from all relevant stakeholders, government, trade associations and the food producers themselves.

It is not just the food industry that is feeling the squeeze but most engineering sectors. But the scale of the challenge within this sector demands that action is taken. In the food industry alone we need another 140,000 engineers by 2020; these are big figures and big challenges.

At the heart of the problem is the negative perception that many youngsters, and indeed some of their teachers, have of the food industry. Engineering has taken a big hit over the decades as it has shrunk in the face of tough competitions from low-cost economies. Companies have struggled and the parents of those looking for career paths have almost certainly either been affected themselves or know someone that has, which makes it hard for them to encourage children to consider engineering. It is the same with many school teachers, some still seem to think the food industry consists of people wearing wellies or putting cherries on cakes.

Changing that opinion will not be easy. It will take role models that can show them what the sector has to offer. At a recent Appetite for Skills event Sam Kelly, from Pepsico Walkers spoke about the high level of new technology that he gets involved with at the Skelmersdale facility. At the moment, if you were interested in pursuing a career in engineering you would probably look at aerospace, automotive, Formula One or even oil and gas over the food industry, but from a wide spread of technologies you get everything in the food industry. Kelly spoke about his journey from school all the way through to his current role at Pepsico Walkers; we try and use inspiring stories like his to show kids that there is a massive opportunity for them even if they don't want to go to university.

At PPMA their new CEO, Andrew Stark, spoke about the feedback from recent talks with members, who are machine builders supplying the food industry. He confirmed at the show that the biggest challenge they face is recruitment. The workforce is aging and if the UK is to continue to compete with strong overseas competition we need to replace those skills.

The industry's trade association, the Food and Drink Federation, are heavily involved in a strategy to make the industry more attractive for youngsters when they finish education whether it is school, college or university. Competition is fierce to attract the brightest and the best to the food and drink sector. So, from Slough to Skelmersdale, Belshill to Birmingham, a record number of pupils will go behind the scenes of some of the UK's best-known food and drink companies as part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)' See Inside Manufacturing programme. Manufacturers aim to encourage students who have an enthusiasm in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to apply that interest to careers such as food scientist or food engineer.

By highlighting the case studies of industry role models and providing examples of food and drink manufacturing careers during visits, they are hopeful of attracting the next generation of industry workers.

Universities are playing their part as well. At Sheffield Hallam University the MEng Food Engineering course has been developed by Graduate Excellence, a partnership between the Food and Drink Federation, the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink and Sheffield Hallam University. Students who take this course benefit from guaranteed competitively-paid work placements and have exclusive access to jobs that are only on offer to course graduates.

But it is not all gloom. At PPMA and A4E the advances in robotics and vision systems are driving greater innovation into the sector. There is European funding available to develop innovative pick and place solutions as part of the Factory of the Future initiative and there were discussions at A4E about exactly what the next generation of robotics will look like.

That was the theme at A4E, but at the PPMA show you also saw industrial vision being integrated with the robots to add even greater functionality.

Finally, and of great importance was the question of standards. For a while the UK food machine building sector has operated within the machinery directive 2006/42/EC. However the rest of Europe is already working to the European Hygiene Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) standards. Increasingly machines that are sold into the European market need to comply with these EHEDG standards, something that we at Festo are supporting strongly.

As usual the two events provided plenty of food for thought and although it is a challenging time for the industry there was a real desire to face these challenges and embrace the opportunities presented by new technology.


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