Andy MacPherson, Food & Beverage Industry manager at Festo, examines how the UK food industry can develop the skill set required for a more automated future


aking the transition from a largely manual way of working to an

automation-based future is no easy task. However, it is road down which the UK food industry must travel if it is to continue developing the agility and resilience it needs to meet the demands of a growing – and increasingly discerning – population. Defining what skills are likely to be

required is a big challenge. The food sector is particularly diverse and different parts of the supply chain are at very different stages with regard to the adoption of digitalisation and Industry 4.0 ways of working. Within the agricultural community, for instance, manual working continues to be the norm because people are still quicker and more adaptable than machines in many scenarios. Automated tasks are evident, but limited: GPS on tractors and software that enables fertiliser dosages to be carefully controlled are examples. However, even this sector cannot rely on

Automation is more prominent once

food enters the processing phase. Indeed, minimising human contact during food processing is positively beneficial from a hygiene perspective. Packing, picking and warehousing are also highly automated processes, supporting the growing customer trend for online grocery shopping. It follows that the skills set to develop and maintain automated equipment is also more prevalent in food processing and packaging, so there may be some opportunities to attract these people out into other parts of the food production supply chain. However, it is likely that in the short

the availability of manual labour in the future. The seasonality, the long hours and the physical nature of many agricultural tasks mean that working on the land is simply no longer an attractive proposition for many young people in Britain. It is several decades since hop picking in Kent was perceived as a viable holiday option! Migratory workers from other countries may have helped to mask this trend, but with Brexit making economic migration more uncertain, it is likely that increased automation may be the only answer for agriculture. This will lead to a need for differently skilled people to operate and maintain automation equipment.

The food sector needs to act now to identify automation opportunities, and develop the

subsequent training that will be necessary

term the food sector may need to look to other industries to bring in the skills it needs. For example, the automotive sector is highly automated and has successfully upskilled its workforce. As this sector is cyclic, the food sector could look at attracting people who already possess the required automation skills and help them to acquire the additional food industry- specific skills. While ‘sharing’ skilled workers with other

Andy MacPherson, Food & Beverage Industry Manager at Festo


Machine vision inspections using visual cameras can occasionally cause recognition problems if the product and background have too little colour contrast. In such cases, thermal imaging cameras can be a practical solution - especially if the product has a different temperature than the transport medium. In many cases such temperature differences are caused by the production process. Injection moulding applications are ideal candidates as manufactured parts come out of the machine at a relatively high temperature. The injection moulding machine manufacturer, MAPLAN, provides a good example of how thermal

imaging can be applied. The company decided to make customisable, rubber luggage tags as giveaways on an extrusion line at a trade fair; they would then be re-positioned by a robot and labelled using an inkjet printer. However, the weak colour contrast between the conveyor belt and product was a challenge. The conventional approach would have been for a visual camera to guide the robot to remove the luggage

tags from the conveyor belt and position them for personalising with inkjet printing. However, the light grey luggage tags on a light grey conveyor belt provided insufficient colour contrast for the vision system to work effectively so the visual camera was replaced by a FLIR A615, fixed mounted thermal imaging camera. This way heat radiation from the extrusion process could be used for reliable product detection. The FLIR A615 is used for thermal monitoring and quality assurance of production processes. The

compact thermal imaging camera can be fully controlled from a PC and is suitable as a plug-and-play device with software for machine vision applications from third party manufacturers such as National Instruments, Cognex, and Halcon. It is also compatible with the GigE Vision standard and supports the GenICam protocol. The thermal camera’s high-resolution detector with 640 x 480 pixels enables high-speed IR windowing.

With its high thermal sensitivity of 50 mK, it captures and visualizes the smallest image details and the slightest temperature differences. “The solution was very simple and worked right from the start," explained MAPLAN's technical manager

Rudolf Eisenhuber. "The high thermal imaging resolution of the FLIR A615 also enables quality analysis, which we would like to demonstrate with more complex injection moulded parts in the future.” FLIR Systems


sectors may provide a stop-gap, it is clear that there is a real and urgent need for the food sector to grasp the implications of increasing automation and identify what skills it will require in the medium- to longer-term. To do so, it needs to combine with academia and lobby hard for Government funding, as well as taking full advantage of existing training facilities, such as the Cyber Factory training facility at Middlesex University. Equipped with automation equipment from Festo and Siemens, the Cyber Factory aims to ensure that the key skills necessary to deliver the full potential of industrial automation are being developed alongside advances in the technology. In conclusion, a skilled workforce is the

key ingredient for the long-term success of any industry and the food sector is no exception. The increase in automation and the need to be more agile and flexible in meeting customer expectations is exacerbating the challenges of training and retaining employees with relevant skills – so the food sector needs to act now to identify the opportunities and develop the training that will help to retain its position as the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. For further guidance on putting Industry

4.0 into practice download Festo’s whitepaper Practical Tips for Industry 4.0 implementation from:



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