As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink companies employ more of us than any other.
So why doesn’t the UK count itself among one of the ‘great food nations’? Last November, the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) pledged 2016 was the year the sector would finally reach out and grab this title.
Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss announced a flurry of initiatives to ‘revolutionise’ the British food industry, including plans to boost food and drink exports and treble the number of apprenticeships.
“The UK has emerged from a dark age in food where too often taste and quality were ignored,” she said at the campaign launch.
“I want to harness the talent of the UK’s food pioneers to banish outdated stereotypes and ensure that British produce is people’s first choice to eat here and abroad.”
If you think about the effect of environmental degradation on our ability to produce food in the future, it represents a significant challenge"
But there is far more than public image at stake, according to those in the thick of food production.
The sector has weathered years of ultra-thin profit margins and rising raw material prices, as it fields fickle consumer tastes and ever-tighter regulatory control.
All of this has pushed technical innovation far down the list of priorities. But with increasing government pressure to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content of products, food engineering and technology may be about to play a far bigger role.
“New product development (NPD) is essential to the success of the food and drink industry,” says Philip Richardson, head of food manufacturing technologies at Campden BRI.
“Innovation is vital to keep pace with changing consumer tastes and to ensure sales volume and profitability.
However, the challenge of reformulation and changes in legislation are also major drivers for NPD.
We work with many food and drink companies on their product development to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content of products, to reduce costs and improve efficiency.”
This means manufacturers will have to be efficient in order to keep costs down, innovative to evolve and keep up with consumers’ tastes and demands, and flexible enough to respond to unforeseen events, he says.
In order to meet these challenges, and stay abreast of the complex web of future threats and opportunities, Richardson says some food manufacturers have turned to horizon scanning tools.
“These can help companies to prioritise the importance of emerging trends and potential threats.”
Producing more with less, reducing waste and efficient use of resources will continue to be drivers across the food and drink industry, he adds.
The UK government has launched a range of incentives to boost innovation across many industries, but food and drink companies have been slow to take some of these up, says Steven Holmes, a business tax consultant for accountancy firm Armstrong Watson.
“A lot of companies don’t realise there is the opportunity to claim R&D tax relief, which has been around for over 10 years now. But HM Revenue struggles to market these things.”
The recently introduced Patent Box, created to promote local advances in science and technology, has also struggled to make an impact among Holmes’ food industry clients.
“Although the development of a new flavour might not qualify for this funding, there are many food science initiatives that might, especially around the advancement of nutritional content of common foods,” he says.
“It is an attractive innovation incentive but not something that is currently on the radar of the food industry.”
Government innovation incentives appear to be gaining substantially more traction under the Innovate UK scheme to promote cutting-edge research.
Sheffield Hallam University’s new National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering was recently granted Innovate UK funding worth £2.25 million to improve the efficiency of food production processes.
In one of these projects it is working with Nestlé UK to look at the carbon footprint of the 40m long ovens used to manufacture KitKats to see how waste heat recovery processes can be improved.
Key to the project is a novel heat recovery solution to recover the input energy in the roasting process, increase energy efficiency and reduce energy costs.
The goal is to save the company up to 15% off its energy bills.
Engineers will also be working with Nestlé UK, First Milk and Foss in a separate project that seeks to reduce raw milk supply chain wastage by 3% across its UK supply chain.
Energy and water are two of the areas that continue to be a challenge, says Martin Howarth, director of the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering.
Margins within the food sector can be challenging, so any cost input is a key element, he says.
Productivity is another key issue.
“This is challenging in a number of ways,” says Howarth.“Because of their close relationship with retailers, manufacturers are increasingly required to change their processes quickly and efficiently.”
Howarth says automation and robotics is another area of research at the centre, as it investigates systems that can interact with often fragile food and drink products to boost efficiency.
“Improving automation is a big opportunity for [manufacturers] and one of our goals is to support them in being able to deliver automated systems more effectively for food and drink manufacturing.”
The strong shift towards healthier products and waste minimisation has also required a change in mindset, he says.
“The sector has historically invested huge sums in product development, but this was often about changes in constituents to make it more desirable from a marketing perspective.
“Now this investment is increasingly being targeted at ways of improving portion control, shelf life, and the balance of nutrients within products for a healthy diet, which all require engineering solutions.”
One of the challenges the UK food and drink sector must confront is the fact that the global food system was built for an era that has passed, says Tim Fox, chairman of Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ (IMechE) Food and Drink Committee.
“It has been focused on delivering an increasing volume of food for a low price point through mass production,” he says.
However, demographic changes are impacting the food and drink industries, driven by the media and internet.
“These promote the desire for instant gratification by consumers, and manufacturers are having to look at how they can change their systems in order to meet that kind of order demand,” Fox says.
With this comes a pressing need for improved factory automation, which will require workers with very different skill sets than those currently required by the industry, he says.
Environmental degradation and resource depletion are also substantial threats.
“If you think about the effect of environmental degradation on our ability to produce food in the future, it represents a significant challenge,” Fox says.
“The industry needs to get more innovative in terms of working methods and how it runs its supply chain management and logistics.
Ultimately it is about smart use of data, and developing more flexibility into the supply chain.”
These ideas are being explored at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in Redcar.
The facility works on the idea of an automated factory that does everything from intelligent stock control to automated processing, all the way through to an on-demand order fulfilment service.
Then there is innovation within the product itself, says Fox. Lab grown meat and fish from stem cells is one example, and scientists are making steady progress towards this goal.
“At the moment this [process] is incredibly expensive… but it has the potential to halve energy consumption, and radically reduce land use and environmental degradation.”
The food and drink industry is also a heavy water user, so use of this valuable resource is also coming under increasing scrutiny.
This is especially relevant as food and drink companies begin to explore emerging markets where demographics are rapidly changing, giving rise to a new breed of wealthy consumers.
By 2030 we will require 40% more water than we do now, says Geoff Townsend, industry fellow and water stewardship expert at Ecolab, a water hygiene specialist.
“When you consider these large changes in terms of population growth and demographic changes, those same emerging markets are often in areas of water scarcity,” he says.
“These markets offer tremendous opportunities for food and drink companies, but they need to be aware of the risks, and put in place systems to handle these.”
Coca Cola learned this difficult lesson last year when a bottling line in northern India was mothballed following protests from local farmers over its use of groundwater.
In food processing, large volumes of water are also often used in heating and cooling, and the wastewater can be very challenging owing to the volume of nutrients, says Townsend.
“Several years ago we introduced a technology platform called 3D Trasar that has saved hundreds of billions of litres of cooling water,” he says.
The system can detect the conditions that precede scaling, corrosion and biofouling in cooling water, boilers, membranes and wastewater, and deliver an appropriate chemical response.
He says technologies such as these will become vital to controlling water use in manufacturing operations.
Rise of the machines
The use of robotics within food and drink processing has not been taken up as readily as other sectors, however Fanuc UK says this is changing.
Many of our system integrator partners are experiencing a dramatic rise in enquiries for food handling robots,” says John Rainer, regional sales manager for Fanuc UK.
According to Rainer, food manufacturers face a number of challenges in their production operations which robotics can help to solve.
“In a manual process, they must deal with ergonomic issues, labour availability and the uncertainty of increasing costs associated with legislation.”
Rainer says technology improvements including vision and the versatility of the robot hand have also improved, making them easier to integrate into food production.
The company recently announced a successful UK factory trial involving a FANUC M-10iA series robot and a novel vacuum gripper technology that proved it was possible to pick and place sweetcorn cobs at speeds of 180 packs per minute.
Besides proving the principle that robotics could be employed to handle this challenging product, the company says the trial demonstrates that on a line manned by two operators per shift, the robot could pay for itself within a year.
Another robotic developer targeting the food and drink sector is a small UK startup called Automata Technologies.
The company has developed a lightweight robotic arm called Eva that it aims to sell to manufacturers on a low-cost subscription basis.
With industrial robots costing upwards of tens of thousands of pounds and the bottom of the market offering only build-it yourself kits for the education market, Suryansh Chandra, co-founder of Automata, says there was nothing available in the middle.
“That is how we started. We think of Eva as a mass market robot – one that many people can use, with a lower barrier to entry.” To keep costs down for operators, the company will sell its products as “robotics as a service”.
“We will basically provide support and just like with an iPhone, every few years our users will be eligible for new hardware,” says Chandra.
The company is now seeking partners in the food and drink manufacturing sector to take part in trials of its equipment.
Wiping out waste
Waste management is an area where companies can save substantial costs, and make valuable income.
While many companies have focused on resource and process efficiency, there is now a shift in thinking to create more value out of waste flows or byproducts, says Peter Hopkinson, professor of innovation and environmental strategy at the University of Bradford’s School of Management.
“On one hand you have anaerobic digestion, and now there are third-generation biorefineries which promise the ability to extract higher value material from food waste,” he says.
“We’ve got people now applying a range of different technologies to unlock and recover target molecules.”
Celtic Renewables, for example, is turning grain and liquor waste from the Scottish whisky industry into feedstock for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
In a similar vein, the UK Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is working with ReBio Technologies and the University of Bath to investigate the scale-up potential of using modified strains of microorganisms from food waste to produce D-lactic acid for the manufacture of products such as high performance bioplastics.
The second growth area, says Hopkinson, is the reduction of packaging waste, using biodegradable materials and zero-to-waste landfill programmes.
“At the purest level, companies would stop producing waste in the first place but this is not always possible with process engineering activities. Instead you should try to extract some value,” he says.
Unilever is pioneering this circular approach, he says, by asking what it can do to improve the consumer experience, in a way that delivers economic advantage.
“An example is their Ben and Jerry’s packaging, which is a mix of fibre and polymer,” says Hopkinson.
Other recent packaging initiatives include:
• United Biscuits launched a recycling scheme in 2012 to save used McVitie’s biscuit wrappers from landfill and recycle them into new products. Almost 1.5million wrappers have so far been collected.
• Beer giant SABMiller has launched a bottlereturn scheme. In some regions the superreturnable bottles are refilled an average of 44 times.
• Tetra Pak has introduced a bio-based carton that is made solely from materials derived from plants, which has been adopted by Finnish dairy producer, Valio.