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Maximising the opportunities

Maximising the opportunities

Andrew MacPherson of Festo looks at trends and solutions for delivering better plant, productivity and people in the UK food and drink manufacturing sector.

The UK food and drink industry has a great deal to feel positive about. According to data from industry body the FDF (Food and Drink Federation), it is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, accounting for 16% of total manufacturing turnover. The sector employs over 400,000 people and has over 6,600 businesses – 96% of which are micro to medium-sized. It’s also one of the UK’s best performing manufacturing sectors: annual gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy is £22Bn, almost as much as automotive and aerospace combined. In the last decade, annual exports have doubled, to around £13bn – bucking a decline in total UK exports. Productivity too has increased by 11% over the last five years, compared to an overall UK productivity increase during the same period of just 0.5%.

At the same time, for all its apparent health, the sector still faces significant challenges. Skills shortages and an ageing workforce means it needs to attract around 120,000 new recruits over the next decade. In common with other UK manufacturing sectors, it is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the high calibre, skilled workforce it needs to drive innovation, particularly engineers and scientists. And while productivity growth is ahead of the average, it still lags behind manufacturing sectors with smaller workforces and greater levels of automation, such as automotive, aerospace and rail. GVA per employee is higher than many of its European counterparts, including Germany, Italy, Spain and France, but is still less than half of that in the US. Productivity growth has also experienced a slowdown since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009, as investment in automation has stalled and falling output has not been matched by reductions in labour hours worked.

As the economy recovers and the advances in intelligent connectivity and automation technologies offered by Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and smart machines and factories begin to be realised, the UK’s food and drink manufacturing industry faces an opportunity to make a major productivity step change. For engineering leaders in this vital, vibrant sector of the UK economy looking to remain competitive in the UK’s ever-challenging supply chain, understanding how to maximise this golden opportunity to grow and develop their business and organisation through better plant, productivity, process and people will be crucial. As a leading industrial automation provider with a strong focus on the food and drink industry, Festo is well positioned and committed to helping its customers improve all these areas through its industrial automation solutions, as well as its training, development and consulting services.

If the food and drink sector can successfully realise and unlock its potential, the collective opportunity that Industry 4.0 and the increased digitalisation of manufacturing offers is exciting and substantial. Connecting all the elements of the plant and supply chain together will deliver capabilities for faster, more diverse, more flexible and more intelligent production, together with increased energy efficiency, reduced wastage, closer links to logistics processes and an optimised value chain. Systems and components exchanging information to control and regulate themselves will also substantially increase the potential for leaner production, condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

Another trend industry observers have noted is that there is more and more collaboration taking place between industry players. Partners are combining their varied expertise to offer manufacturers and machine builders increased flexibility, improved connectivity and communications, and mass customisation capabilities. These partnerships are designed to deliver improved automation and reduced labour costs through better plant and production equipment.

One such example is a recent collaboration combining linear motor and mechanical guidance technology from Festo, with Siemens’ extensive controls expertise, to create an adaptable, modular transport solution, the Multi-Carrier-System (MCS). Easily incorporated into existing production and packaging environments, it addresses an acute need for flexibility in modern manufacturing environments, driven by increasingly complex product diversity, shorter product life cycles and growing levels of mass customisation. Its configurable linear transport rail can be integrated into existing intralogistics and standard conveyor systems, with precise synchronisation and seamless infeed and outfeed of transport carriers. Movement of carriers can be rapidly adapted to deal with different formats, sizes and types of product – down to batch sizes of one, or even to handle seasonal variations.

Incorporating decentralised sensors and intelligence, its flexible electromechanical design enables adaptable, reconfigurable and economic production, even for mixed requirements and small batch sizes. It also benefits from an OPC-UA interface, enabling easy integration into Industry 4.0 host environments. Validating the success of the collaboration, judges at 2016’s PPMA Industry Awards recognised MCS, Festo and Siemens with two awards, for Most Innovative Automation System and for Partnership of the Year, citing the innovation, flexibility and impact MCS provides for machine builders.

While we shouldn’t underestimate the benefits investing in Industry 4.0-ready better plant can deliver, it is also important to understand that in order to unlock and maximise the potential productivity gains and return on this investment, it is critical to focus too on people, helping them understand, prepare for and address the challenges they will face. This begins with leadership: success will depend on managing and leading the organisation through substantial and sustained change, where the accelerating pace and rate of change across both technology and process may contribute to increased levels of stress for employees. Business leaders must be mindful of this and begin by defining and articulating a compelling vision of the future for their teams that engages and galvanises the entire workforce – because the true value of Industry 4.0 can only be realised if it is fully embraced by shop-floor workers.

The role of people in the successful digitalisation of manufacturing will be absolutely critical. Human operators will remain the key element of modern production, but can expect to be assigned more and more new tasks. Employees on production lines will be required to step up and perform complex decision making, enact swift troubleshooting and oversee effective preventative maintenance strategies – and we might see traditional ‘maintenance engineers’ transition to ‘reliability engineers’, for instance, focused on maximising uptime, rather than resolving downtime. This will create an opportunity for traditional, higher labour cost regions to remain globally competitive, able to address high value manufacturing and increasing demand for ‘customisation’. That is an exciting possibility for countries such as the UK, which have traditionally struggled to compete with emerging nations on cost alone.

But, if Industry 4.0 is to deliver smarter machines and factories, it will require both this leadership and vision, as well as an army of knowledgeable staff – and this is not helped by either the skills gap or a looming leadership vacuum. As the workforce ages, a potentially cavernous gap is opening up behind experienced leaders and skilled workers, exacerbated by industry growth and change, as well as skills shortages. Potential solutions might include re-training and upskilling existing staff, as automation impacts processes, or helping others migrate and re-train from other sectors.

Food and drink manufacturers and processors should also ensure they make the most of the forthcoming apprenticeship levy, which aims to fund three million apprenticeships in the UK by 2020. Coming into force in 2017 for employers with an annual payroll in excess of £3M, it will require these employers to pay 0.5% of their wages bill into the levy each month, with additional government funding also topping up the amounts. However, in return, firms will be able to access funds from the levy to help them plan and deliver their own apprenticeship training schemes.

Meanwhile, Festo has been quick to identify and address the industry’s training needs, with its ‘Qualification 4.0’ approach. As the role of employees within the modern production environment transitions from that of simple machinery operator to highly skilled and quick-thinking problem-solver, new levels of training and knowledge will be fundamental. Education will become a key success factor in delivering smarter industrial environments. For workforces to fully embrace the opportunities offered by increased digitalisation, performing new and different tasks, such as working alongside collaborative robots, they have to understand what it means and know how to make best use of it. As well as offering training curriculum designed to help organisations and their workers successfully make this transition, Festo can also offer a comprehensive, modular training system for Industry 4.0 and smart factories, its Cyber-Physical Factory.

It will be essential, too, for successful business leaders to continuously improve and develop their own leadership and change management competencies, creating an ongoing long term plan to proactively manage the change programme within their organisation. This transition will be critical in fully realising the value and productivity gains promised by Industry 4.0-enabled better plant, but will also help enhance and transform tomorrow’s production roles and environments for its people.

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