Addressing the people and productivity conundrum

25 March 2019

Laurence Wood discusses how the food industry’s reliance upon manual labour is likely to change in the near future requiring a greater uptake of robotics and automation to help the food industry increase productivity, quality and yield. 

In recent years, many UK food manufacturers have relied heavily on EU nationals to bolster their workforce. Now, however we a decline in the number of EU nationals working in this sector. Furthermore, statistics from the Food & Drink Federation predict that food and drink manufacturing businesses will need to recruit an additional 140,000 individuals by 2024 to meet the demands of a growing population.

Often there is also a high turnover of food production staff, which demands ongoing recruitment and training. Many of these low-paid roles are often repetitive and boring and there is usually little opportunity for ongoing skills or career development and this ‘human factor’ can influence manufacturing processes in many ways, both positively and negatively. 

Food safety
Where any unpackaged or fresh product needs to be handled, and where humans are involved, there will be a greater opportunity for contamination. Typical methods used to control and manage bacterial contamination include the use of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) for which there is  a cost for the provision and cleaning of equipment. In addition, management of changing areas and locker rooms can be significant and adds further to the overall impact of the control of potential contamination from human sources.

Where product handling and placement tasks are performed manually, there will be an element of difference between products. The fact that the product is probably on a moving line adds to the potential for variation. There will be instances where this variation is too great and the product will need to be removed, either for re-work or scrapped and this can have a negative impact on yield.

Productivity is one of the key drivers in manufacturing and in areas where the manufacturing process is automated, save for unexpected breakdowns, productivity levels will be both high and predictable. As there are still also so many different areas within the food and drink sector where operators are involved, they then become the limiting factor in productivity levels. 

Of course, if additional manual resource is available, then it is possible to quickly raise production output and productivity levels – assuming that upstream processes, which may be automated, are able to meet the increased demand. This is one of the benefits of manual labour.

In normal day-to-day production, fluctuations in availability of trained operators will have an adverse affect on productivity. This can even change between shifts, for example all operators may be available for one particular shift but for different reasons, a reduced number turn up or are available for the next shift, making for a potential shortfall in overall output.

Statistics from the EEF’s Productivity Report 2018 show that UK manufacturing productivity levels were catching up with international competitors in the run up to the 2008 recession. However after this, and the collapse in productivity growth, this trend went into reverse. There are of course many influences, which determine the levels of productivity in any manufacturing organisation, however if we contrast the differences between other sectors with those of the food sector there is a definite disparity.

Although the current high levels of employment in the UK can be seen as a good thing, growth will be restricted if there are no more people to fill future roles in manufacturing. The dilemma then is how to continue to grow the economy and improve productivity with a somewhat static labour force. This is where robots and automation can play a crucial role.

There are a number of theories relating to the factors that affect productivity growth. One of the most dominant is under-investment in capital equipment. There is perhaps a synergy between this theory and the UK’s ethos of ‘make do and mend’ which tends to keep old equipment running despite poor OEE figures and high levels of maintenance.

This, coupled with high levels of manual labour restricts the potential for improving productivity.  The solution therefore, in a declining labour market must be both a change of emphasis by management – this is not an HR issue but an Engineering opportunity – and a significant investment in technologies such as robots and automation. There are however still a few perceived barriers to automation.
There is little doubt that robots and automation have suffered from bad press, largely due to inaccurate perceptions of the technology and how it is reconciled with jobs for humans.

There are few who would argue that robots and automation have been the key drivers behind the success of the UK’s automotive sector, and yet these plants still employ many thousands of human workers who benefit from job security and good wages. The high levels of consistency and productivity that robots and automation bring to manufacturing processes of all types, help companies in many ways, often allowing the company to grow more quickly and, in turn, create more jobs. 

The introduction of robots also opens up the opportunity for manual operators to be re-deployed to areas where additional resource is still required, or to gain new technical or quality related skills. 

Today’s robot systems are ultra reliable, and with each new generation have become more flexible, simpler to programme and operate. Robots are no more complicated to operate than any other item of automated production equipment, however they offer much greater levels of flexibility.

There are also variants of robot arms available today that are designed specifically for operation in high care areas, which demand the highest levels of cleanliness. Robots have been working with the medical device and life sciences sectors for years, so their credentials for cleanliness are now well-proven. 

Investment inhibitors 
Food and beverage manufacturers work hard to secure supply contracts. In addition to manufacturing the product they must constantly consider factors such as price, shelf space, exclusivity, and continuity of supply. In certain cases, these factors may have an influence on the duration or security of the contract. 

This, together with a traditional short-term view on payback on capital projects, is often cited as a reason to avoid capital investment in new equipment or technology such as robotics or automation. Instead, the company will continue to rely on manual labour to perform tasks, which could, in many cases, easily be automated.

Taking an alternative view, either on the duration of the payback period and/or considering flexible financing options such as hire or leasing, may open the door to the introduction of the technology that could transform productivity levels. Improvements as a result of this investment may contribute to the security of the contract. The flexibility of robots, for example, allows them to be used for new products or new contracts and their inherent reliability means that they will provide years of service. Having technology in place when bidding for new contracts can also differentiate suppliers and provide a competitive advantage.

As a relative newcomer to robotics, the food and beverage sector is currently unable to draw upon the decades of expertise that is available to other highly automated sectors. For some manufacturers, the absence of these automation skills in-house and the limited number of system integrators with the track record and experience of introducing robot systems within the sector is seen as a potential barrier. 

Help is available however from a number of sources including the European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) which offers a wide range of guideline documents which cover many different topics relating to design criteria, best practice and standards for the production of food manufacturing systems, including the use of robots and automation in this sector. 

It is important to understand that robots have evolved tremendously since they were first introduced into UK manufacturing. We now have an enormous range of robot types, including six-axis articulated versions and very high-speed SCARA types, not to mention the latest collaborative robots.

Combine these robots with state of the art machine vision systems, sensors and intelligent gripping systems and there are now very few applications where robots might not be a suitable option. 

The issues surrounding the potential shortfall in the availability of manual labour should be the key driver for contingency planning. As a priority it is important to begin to evaluate which areas of production, currently reliant on significant numbers of people, could be the prime candidates for automation.

Laurence Wood is divisional manager of Staubli Robotics UK.

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