Automation and the skills gap

Mark McArdle, General Manager for Festo Ireland, examines how the Irish food industry can develop the skills 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 a road down which the Irish 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 and, perhaps more importantly, a large export market.

A BIG CHALLENGE 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 regarding 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. There are some notable examples of globally successful companies in Ireland, such as Dairymaster, providing equipment rich in up-to-date automation technology to the food industry: and many world- class food-processing companies based in Ireland are highly automated. A good example is GPS on tractors and software that enables fertiliser dosages to be carefully controlled. However, the

use of digitalisation and the benefits of Industry 4.0 thinking and design are not yet evident to any great degree. The Irish food sector cannot rely on

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. Migratory workers from other countries may have helped to mask this trend but 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 dairy sector is already facing a crisis, in that they cannot attract enough people to enter the sector.

AUTOMATION 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

The food industry is becoming increasingly automated, which requires new skills

out into other parts of the food production supply chain. However, it is likely that in the short

term the food sector may need to compete with the limited pool of skilled talent in the marketplace and other sectors to get these skills in. The food sector can also look to other sectors for successful evolution: for example the automotive industry in Germany, which has successfully upskilled its workforce. There are also some very quick wins like the Festo Smart maintenance app to help automate a human process. This is a powerful but simple tool that improves overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) with an intuitive mobile phone application.


The food sector needs to act now to develop the training that will help it retain its position as the largest manufacturing sector in Ireland

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 long term.

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 Ireland.


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