Waking a sleeping giant

An interview with John Gray, Professor of Robotics and Systems Engineering

It’s been a slumbering giant of our economy for many years, but it looks like food manufacturing is beginning to wake up to the huge potential of automation and informatics technology.

Today, food and drink is the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector,

generating around £100bn in revenue a year and employing more than 400,000 people, but many of its production processes have barely changed since the 19th Century.

With labour costs on the rise and the cost of technology falling, I believe that’s all about to change.

The kind of technology that we’re helping to develop here in Manchester offers many benefits to food manufacturers and ultimately to consumers, including dramatic improvements in efficiency that would reduce costs, waste and environmental impacts; increased transparency and traceability throughout the production chain; and much greater levels of hygiene that could help lengthen the shelf life of many products.

The food industry needs small, adaptable and agile systems to perform the intricate and delicate tasks involved in product preparation and packaging

Automation has long been commonplace in many industries, such as car manufacturing, but automating food manufacturing processes represents a unique challenge.

Unlike the huge robots that dominate car assembly plants, the food industry needs small, adaptable and agile systems to perform the intricate and delicate tasks involved in product preparation and packaging.

This isn’t about robots taking the place of human workers - at least not in every instance - it’s about man and machine working together in harmony.

"Today’s technology can provide flexible machines to do the boring stuff faster and more safely than ever before"

For me, asking someone to spend eight hours a day on simple repetitive, manual tasks when a robot could do that job faster, more accurately and more hygienically and that employee’s true value to the company is left untapped seems a waste of human resources.

Today’s technology can provide flexible, agile machines to do the boring, repetitive stuff faster and more safely and hygienically than ever before, while well-trained, hi-tech people are on hand to make the process run smoother and smarter than ever before.

Food manufacturing is a dynamic, forward-thinking, vibrant industry, but although the benefits of a move towards greater automation are numerous, it has proved a bridge too far for many companies in the current economic climate with given the volatile nature of the retail market and the ongoing demand for product variety.

But as demographics and economics make change more likely, manufacturers will begin investing in small islands of automation and, in certain circumstances, entirely automated “dark” plants.

My job - and the job of my fellow researchers - is to make sure that when the sector is ready, we’re ready with the technology and facilities to revitalise this great industry and power it through the 21st Century and beyond.

John Gray is Professor of Robotics and Systems Engineering in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester. He has spent much of the past 15 years focusing on automation in food manufacturing, including setting up and chairing the Food Manufacturing Engineering Group, an industrial and academic forum sponsored by DEFRA that identifies key issues relating to the use of automation in the food sector.


What is your specific field of research?

Robotics and systems engineering. I’ve spent much of the last 15 years focused on the application of automation tools and processes to transform the food manufacturing sector.

Why is the University of Manchester the right place for your research?

Manchester has the potential to make a major contribution in the area of sensor technology, communication systems and informatics - we have some world-class people. That’s why we’ve embedded the Food Manufacturing Engineering Group (FMEG) here. With DEFRA’s support, FMEG has been raising awareness for the last 12 years in the UK, bringing together academia, food manufacturers, machine suppliers, systems integrators and supermarkets. It’s a real team effort.

How important is collaboration?

Collaboration is vital. This isn’t about someone beavering away on their own and discovering E=MC2, it’s about working closely with industry, identifying potential areas of development and targeting the specific expertise within academia. Working with food manufacturers and retailers is absolutely key - they know the market and they know what they want. They’re happy to work with us because at the end of the day, they know how important this could be for their bottom line.

Why is food such an important issue at this point in time?

Food manufacturing is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK, the biggest employer, the biggest user of energy and one of biggest users of water, feeding more than 60m people every day. Yet up until a few years ago, it wasn’t viewed as a vital manufacturing sector by government. The fuel strikes and their impact on our supermarkets changed all that and highlighted the need to review how food is produced and distributed. Today food is a major strategic priority.

How does your research help meet this challenge?

Our research has been focused on production processes, logistics, the traceability of products from farm to fork and the informatics at the point of sale that takes you all the way back to the start of the chain, which informs how, when and what you’re going to manufacture. When the information and production chains are fully integrated, it creates flexibility and improved efficiency, which in turn leads to better value, greater choice and more peace of mind for the customer. Our challenge is to identify the areas of potential - such as sandwich assembly - and develop technology solutions that are adaptable, agile and easy to use for the people on the factory frontline. One of the projects I’m involved with that’s doing exactly that is PickNPack, a pan-European initiative that’s focused on developing flexible robotic systems for the automated packaging of fresh and processed food products.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

Supermarkets provide 60m people with a wide range of affordable food that is safe to eat. It’s a remarkable feat of logistics and we’re the best in the world at it. What we need to do is modernise that chain and deliver more customer delight through better quality, longer-lasting, more hygienic products at lower costs. For example, going forward we’ll need to build smaller, more efficient manufacturing plants that could deliver massive savings on carbon emissions and water use. That doesn’t mean we also need large-scale redundancies - the sector is the UK’s biggest employer - but we will need to retrain people to do different jobs. It’s about getting the most out of your business - flexible, agile machines to do the boring, repetitive stuff better, faster than before and well-trained, hi-tech people to make the process run smoother and smarter than ever before.

And what are you most concerned about?

While things have moved on recent years, I’d still like to see more awareness from government of the importance of this sector. There’s a huge amount of waste in the supply chain currently and with more investment in informatics and a tighter control of the product all the way through the chain, you could reduce the cost of food for all parties. Companies need mechanisms to help them transfer from manual-intensive methods to a capital-intensive approach and I think this is where government could take the lead.

By Bill Bows in interview with John Gray