It doesn’t require a degree in mathematics to do the sums: an industry dependent on foreign labour for a third of its workforce will be left massively short of people.
Labour costs simultaneously have risen in a sector previously characterised by low income and this has impacted upon productivity, notes leading pump company Seepex – revenue per worker dipped 5% in the period 2015-16. The impending rise in national minimum wage in 2020 will increase the downward pressure.
Shorn of easy access to manual labour at lower cost, food and drink manufacturers overall are inclining more readily perhaps to the cause of automation than previously.
More sophisticated kit is more expensive to purchase, by and large. The rate of digital technological development also raises the spectre of additional regular upgrades of all or a part of products and processes.
Many food processors still rely on manual labour to move their product. Part of the reason for this is a belief that only liquids can be easily transferred via a pump
Lesley Eaton, business development & marketing, Seepex
Yet, says Seepex’s business development and marketing manager Lesley Eaton, there are a range of process benefits from automation. “One area which is ideal for automation is product transfer. Using an automated pump in place of manual labour brings multiple benefits and can improve efficiencies in a number of ways.”
And, she reminds, the Government has made a significant commitment to this end in the form of the Transforming Food Production programme unveiled earlier this year with some £90 millions-worth of funding for core areas such Big Data, artificial intelligence and robotics.
Much transformation can be achieved by focusing on three aspects relating to pumps: process effectiveness, safety/hygiene and accountability, reckons Eaton.
“Many food processors still rely on manual labour to move their product from one location to another, often with the help of tote bins or conveyors. Part of the reason for this is a belief that only liquids can be easily transferred via a pump.”
Eaton continues: “However, PC pumps can handle highly viscous products, or even those that don’t flow, with ease – Seepex pumps are used within food factories to transfer everything from wet coleslaw, to sticky honey, to whole chicken breasts, and everything in between.
“They can transfer products over distance and can achieve high suction lifts of up to nine metres. The ability to pump against almost a full vacuum enables the efficient use of degassing equipment and enhances the quality of the final product.”
Additionally, a pipeline is significantly easier to clean than a conveyor belt, helping to maintain standards of hygiene.
Agility will be as important as overall speed of delivery, given that the modern factory must employ multiple production lines capable of adapting to many different products.
HRS Heat Exchangers’ international sales and marketing director Matt Hale says the company’s BP Series of piston pumps addresses the need to cope with a variety of liquids and solids and ensure pumps do not damage products or equipment or drive up energy costs.
And within the product series, there is further refinement: The BPM Series – a mobile version of the BP pump – is one example of adapting to changing industry demands. Increasingly the modern factory must employ multiple production lines capable of adapting to many different products.
Explains Hale: “[The pump] is mounted on a mobile skid unit for easy movement, allowing it to be used across multiple production lines and locations, something which is increasingly popular with food manufacturers producing short runs of specialist products.
“Companies can enjoy the benefits of a BP Series pump across multiple production lines without the need to invest in a dedicated pump for each line, resulting in considerable capital savings.”
Another series variation, aimed at tackling difficult foodstuffs is the BPH line, says Hale.
“When dealing with highly viscous materials, particularly at low temperatures such as hummus at 5°C, the product’s thickness can make it hard to prime the pump when starting production following cleaning.
“The BPH Series uses a gravity-fed hopper, together with a screw conveyor, to initially push product into the body of the pump. Once the cavity on the suction side has been filled, the pump is primed and will then operate as normal with a constant stream of product.”
Dosing is another area, says Eaton, in which automation promises a more effective and consistent approach than a labour-intensive operation provides.
“Whether you’re adding sauces to ice cream, botanicals to spirits, colourings or flavourings to food/dairy products, or even dispensing viscous fillings into pies, it’s essential that the ingredients are dispensed at a constant, proportionate rate to ensure even mixing and distribution.
“This guarantees a consistent, high-quality product and controls ingredient costs, but it’s difficult to achieve this level of accuracy when relying on manual labour. It’s also a challenge if using a traditional dosing pump, as the pulsating action causes a gap in the process, resulting in an uneven distribution of ingredients.”
Seepex’s Smart Dosing Pump, whose debut at the last ACHEMA show made a significant impact, inputs only the required flow rate. It automatically makes any necessary adjustments, providing the benefits of a PC dosing pump with enhanced control options, Eaton says. Not only might this save on labour costs, it can also ensure product quality and minimal wastage.
When dealing with highly viscous materials, the product’s thickness can make it hard to prime the pump when starting production following cleaning
Matt Hale, international sales and marketing director, HRS Heat Exchangers
Finally, companies are becoming wiser to the commercial benefits of the circular economy and extending the efficiency principle beyond their core processes. Realising the profits of food waste is one example.
Here again, greater automation ensures lower costs and greater income streams. While traditional removal methods such as tote bins, blown air systems and vacuum systems, plus flumes that use water as a transport medium, incur high-running costs from manual labour, PC pumps offer an alternative via enclosed piped systems, advises Eaton.
They remove solid, semi-solid or liquid waste from both high care and low risk areas, without compromising hygiene standards. Seepex’s waste removal solutions can chop and pump in the same unit, featuring an auger feed into fixed and rotating knives, or a grinder and pump combination, to produce a lower volume of waste.
“Discarded products, defective raw materials, trimmings and rejects – including overrun – can be handled in a single system, enabling pre-treatment and source segregation of waste and by-products, even when they vary greatly in dry solids content and viscosity.
“This helps to preserve the residual value of the by-product; particularly beneficial if the resultant ‘soup’ is sent for treatment at an AD plant, to be converted into biogas.”
Safety and hygiene contribute, meanwhile, to overall process efficiency and the lessening of downtime but also to the all-important matter of brand reputation in an era when consumers and regulators are better informed and more vigilant.
Again, it is an area where the reducing human intervention can be beneficial. For example, microbial threats which can create recall costs in millions are the target of Seepex’s new BCFH series.
These are the first newly developed progressive cavity pumps to be certified under the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group’s new testing regime that guarantees residue-free cleaning at a lower temperature, with lower chemical concentration and with a shorter cleaning time than usual for cleaning-in-place (CIP).
Equipped with corrosion free, low maintenance detachable titanium flexible rod rotating units they also have split suction casing designed by computational fluid dynamics (CFD) which allowed analysis of liquid flow patterns to create more efficient and less abrasive cleaning.
This first use of CFD helps enhance pump lifetime, environmental acceptability and adaptability for food products, asserts product range development team leader at Seepex, Norman Dicks.
Contaminants will remain an issue for years to come, though. Hence Loma’s X5 Pipeline X-Ray inspection unit which is designed for inspection of pumped food product during all stages of processing and packaging and boasts low lifetime cost of ownership and minimum downtime.
It’s adaptable to most foreign bodies and can be used with 2.5-inch or 3-inch pipes and ARU (2.5-inch) and ARL (2.5 or 3-inch) reject options. A removable pipe cassette can be employed when alternating sizes and incorporates Adaptive Array Technology for resolution, depth and scaling.
A 400mm pipe length devoid of reject or S-bends is required but it includes automated set-up, remote diagnostics and full colour touchscreen with multiple language options. Additionally, it has migrated to a Windows embedded standard operating system and includes a high-speed USB sensor and simple Ethernet connection.
One final aspect that contributes to process efficiency in the food and drink sector maybe requires a more holistic view of pumps’ role. As they become smarter and more automated they will be increasingly important sources of data capture and knowledge.
Those benefits are not limited to the obvious gains in terms of energy efficiency and predictive maintenance.
Digitalisation also enhances traceability; not only within the plant but also beyond it and potentially way down the supply chain.
When it comes to investing in pumps for the food sector then, the argument that total cost of ownership should override initial purchase considerations becomes all the stronger. To the list of known benefits, one can add greater supply chain accountability.