Reduced workforce driving innovation in food processing tech

Published on Thursday 14 December 2017 (10:03am)

As Brexit moves ever nearer – and the ‘divorce bill’ looks as if it may be close to being agreed – the need to understand the effects of a reduced labour market on food processing becomes increasingly important. And, as the economic effects of a reduced labour force begin to bite in the food processing industry, so will the repercussions be felt for machinery suppliers as their customers begin to tighten their belts. The whole supply chain feels the hit.

According to the latest data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), net migration has fallen. Net migration, the difference between the number of people coming to live in the UK and the number of people leaving to live elsewhere, fell to 230,000 in the year ending June 2017. This was down from the recent peak seen in the year ending June 2016 and is now at a similar level to 2014.

It’s clear that the UK’s decision to leave the EU is raising many questions and concerns for employees, employers and policymakers about the impact of Brexit on working life. This is particularly relevant in industries and regions that traditionally rely on a fluid migrant workforce, such as agriculture and food processing.

Greater Lincolnshire is one of the largest food producing regions in the UK. In total, the food chain provides 24 per cent of Greater Lincolnshire’s jobs versus 13 per cent nationally and 21 per cent of its economic output against seven per cent nationally. The region supplies 70 per cent of the UK processed fish market, produces over 25 per cent of the potatoes and vegetables and is a major producer of processed food. A fall in the numbers of people coming to work in the UK will reduce the capacity of food processors to produce; it is inevitable. 

However, does it all have to be doom and gloom? Could Brexit be an opportunity for innovation, throughout the production process?

There is a feeling of confidence that, with the right policies, the industry can continue to grow and increase food production. One of the keys to mitigating the effects of Brexit on employment lies in innovation and innovative technology. The future of farming and food processing must be less labour-intensive.

The development of the internet of things (IoT) and robotics in packaging could be innovations that will help to mitigate reduced availability of labour.

IoT is a system of interrelated devices, mechanical and digital machines such as automatic multihead weighers and checkweighers, each with a unique identifier and the ability to transfer data over a network without the need for human interaction. A ‘thing’ within this system can be anything that has been assigned an IP (internet protocol) address and can transfer data.

In the IoT, computers will gather data, interpret data and track and count everything without human input; reducing waste, loss, cost and – of course – the labour force.

Increased use of robots in packaging is also reducing the need for this declining human labour force. Thanks to these industrial robots’ abilities – such as easy installation, maintenance and the reduction of labour costs – the food packaging industry is seeing a growth in packaging robots. As these robots can work autonomously, without any human intervention, the incorporation of packaging robots for various applications is on the rise.

Addressing concerns about reduced labour availability caused by reduced migration and the need to drive value throughout the production process is influencing the uptake of increasingly sophisticated automatic weighing solutions at the other end of the value chain.

Yamato is one such company that is embracing Industry 4.0 principles in technology development – including improvements in automation technology and the IoT. By adopting enhanced automation, Yamato customers can experience the benefits of the latest developments in the speed and accuracy of their automatic weighing, and reduce the labour force required to run their processes.

The development of improved accuracy of Yamato automatic weighing machines enables a saving on materials. Producers can, therefore, sell more packs using the same amount of materials, which has a direct influence on return on investment and profit margins.

Innovative machinery manufacturers, like Yamato can take heart. There is a real opportunity to innovate. Where there’s a gap left from the decreasing workforce, automation will be required to maintain production levels. Manufacturers, like Yamato, already have many of the solutions to automation in food processing and wider adoption of solutions like theirs could have a positive affect on the supply chain and help to mitigate some of the problems brought on by Brexit.  

For more on how we can help with innovative automated weighing and checkweighing solutions call us on 0113 322 1546.