By Mike Wilson of the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA), part of the PPMA Group
The food and beverage industry, the largest manufacturing sector in the UK in terms of the number of people employed, has long been regarded as a sector of great potential for the adoption of industrial robots, better suited than people to highly repetitive tasks that need to be carried out with precision and at speed, and to tasks that are a potential health risk.
Nevertheless, compared with the automotive industry, for example, the adoption of industrial robots by food and beverage companies has until recently been very limited for a number of reasons. Labour rates are lower than in many other manufacturing sectors. In the food and beverage manufacturing environments, there are additional challenges around hygiene, so robots that can be washed down are needed, which, while they are available, are more expensive.
Furthermore, the investment periods that food and beverage businesses tend to consider are short. They’re often looking for a return on any capital investment within 12-18 months, whereas in the automotive industry, companies will justify the purchase against the life of a particular production model, which is more likely to be over four to five years.
Finally, while there’s a substantial technical capability within the food and beverage industry, the focus of that capability is on product development. The engineering capability in the sector, in terms of specifying, conceptualising and buying pieces of advanced engineering equipment, is therefore considerably lower.
However, the reticence of companies in the sector to even consider the adoption of robotic systems is starting to diminish in the face of the growing skills shortage, which, for the whole manufacturing industry and for the food and beverage sector in particular, has been exacerbated by the impact of Brexit.
For some time, the sector has employed a high percentage of non-UK labour. In 2017, 31% of the workforce in food products manufacturing was born in the EU, but outside the UK.. Many of those people have always sent back a significant part of their wages, but as the pound has dropped in value against the euro and other currencies, the money they’ve been sending recently is worth less.
At the same time, the economies of their own countries – mainly in eastern Europe – are improving, so that labour rates there are increasing, making the journey to the UK to work a less appealing proposition.
Add to the mix the ongoing uncertainty around what may happen, assuming Brexit still goes ahead, and it’s unsurprising that the level of immigration to the UK has declined to the point that the flow of people is actually now in reverse, affecting the availability of labour across multiple sectors.
As a result, while manufacturing companies may not be keen on adopting robotic systems, the growing shortage of skilled labour is persuading them to investigate the technology, which, as a number of studies have demonstrated, improves productivity and competitiveness, enabling businesses to grow.
The common misconceptions around robots – that they are too expensive, too complex and risky, and not as adaptable as people – are invariably that, misconceptions. They often cost less than people think and, while some investment in training is required, it is not complex and existing staff can usually be trained to operate, maintain and even programme the systems. Once installed, industrial robots are also very reliable pieces of equipment.
As many manufacturers have limited experience of robot automation, we would always recommend that, as a best practice approach, they employ the services of an independent consultant in the first instance. This would be to provide assistance in identifying the most suitable opportunities and the development of appropriate specifications from which quotations can be obtained and a robot system purchased.