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AI and the Food Industry

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The Food and Beverage manufacturing sectors are the largest in the UK economy delivering in excess of £43.7 billion GVA and employing 450,000 people. It is a huge success story, but now faces major unsustainable economic pressures due to the increases in the National Living Wage and the additional challenges of labour availability in a post-Brexit Britain. Factory staff roles are becoming harder to fill and the stats suggest up to 50% of factory workers are from the EU with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) estimating the UK will need an additional 140,000 minimum wage workers by 2024 to fill this gap.


Our prediction at Focus is we will need to see a significant change in how we reduce food processing costs, increase quality, and ensure security. In addition, the current COVID-19 pandemic highlights another challenge, with numerous factories closing as a consequence of Covid outbreaks and in some instances workers refusing to work in production lines where they perceive a Covid threat.

So, how does the industry change to deliver cost effective, quality, and secure products?


By the introduction of automation and robotic systems with fully integrated digitised process control?


The UK only ranks 22nd worldwide for robotics in manufacturing with a density of 85 units per 10,000 employees. The introduction of robots in the UK fell by three percent in 2018, against a 12% uplift in the EU. The food industry is only 4% of this total.


Where robots are introduced into the factory environment they are mainly located at the later stages of packaging and end-of-line product casing and palletisation. This would suggest there is huge potential in primary and secondary processing stages of food manufacturing – the use of novel ground-breaking technologies such as sensor networks, Internet of Things and blockchains will have a massive and disruptive effect on food production.

robot making pizza


It is true that primary and secondary processing are much more complex and varied which will cause development challenges. (raw materials with variability of size, texture etc.) We believe the food industry needs to embrace it and there is a huge opportunity to develop ‘food-ready’ robots with advance features such as self-cleaning and hygiene enforcement. The digital revolution for the food sector offers the opportunity to collect and use the vast amount of production data and analytics. Using sensor networks (monitors the process), Internet of Things (facilitates data sharing across all parts of the factory/plant) and blockchains (securely stores all data in the cloud). All with help make a step change in food consistency and quality. The data can drive AI to develop preventive maintenance strategies. Also, the data would improve traceability of ingredients beyond recognition.

Can the industry afford it?


There is clearly initial CAPEX cost which will not be passed on to retailers, so we need to be confident of a clear ROI. Good news is robotic technology is getting cheaper with Ark Investment Management suggesting a 65% reduction in costs by 2025.


But is it realistic to expect expenditure, with 97% of UK Food Plc being SME’s employing 28% of the total and delivering 19% of £turnover (UK gov) and having far tighter cash restrictions, brought even tighter by the ongoing Covid challenge?


The positive sign is we see providers offering productivity improving tech systems on a rental basis with full integration and maintenance support. Many of our European clients will be able to continue benefiting from the EU funded COTEMACO programme, aimed at insuring cost competitiveness against large-scale production facilities in low-wage economies. The food manufacturing revolution is just at the start and there is still plenty of work for us to do. But we need to get closer to end-users, technology providers and innovators. The reality is we will need robotics/AI and tech everywhere by 2030, when the global population to be fed is predicted to be 8.5 billion people.