Deal or No Deal? As Process Engineering goes to print the main question over the future of EU-UK trading arrangements has been answered, if not that over the degree of impact on prices and availability.
One thing is pretty certain; the less attention to fine detail and its application, the greater the knock-on cost implications for British food manufacturers.
Last month, the Food Foundation and the SHEFS (Sustainable & Healthy Foods Systems) consortium analysis of departure on prices predicted an average rise of 4%, up to 9% in the case of tomatoes.
Report co-author Dr Soledad Cuevas, of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “This is the first time the newly published UK general tariffs are used to estimate the potential impact of Brexit on the cost of fruit and veg imports. Although it’s hard to know how much of these cost increases will be passed on to consumers, these preliminary results are worrying, both for consumers and for producers.”
Automating the secondary packaging operation is a logical solution, but it is not as simple as it might seem
David Jahn, director, Brillopak
Co-author, Dr Paraskevi Seferidi, of Imperial College London, cautioned meanwhile that the actual impact could be even larger on account of extra costs that had not been taken into account in the analysis, such as transaction costs due to border checks, which could further exacerbate the estimated effect.
Given that approximately two-thirds of the country’s fruit and vegetables are imports, the tariff implications of no deal would have been immense (and are still open to speculation). And in addition to the EU, there was also the question of the UK’s right to benefit from the 40 or so free trade agreements provided previously under the Brussels umbrella. Granted, there had been a flurry of UK-specific deals done in the last few years but this represented barely more than half of the above figure.
While manufacturers can at best seek to influence the politicians who determine the deals that frame export/import reality, they must look elsewhere to offset the certain price rises and logistical challenges.
Inevitably, the big wins will accrue from digitalisation but a glance around the industry reveals valuable and immediate gains being made thanks also to labour saving automation, better food chain safety and hygiene approaches.
Labour shortages were already a factor on the horizon before the foreign labour limitations imposed by Brexit occurred. Then the Covid-19 outbreak introduced social distancing measures that further depleted the amount of people deployed.
For meat, fish and poultry packers who were heavily reliant on foreign workers and lacked space to accommodate effective socially distanced lines, says Brillopak director David Jahn, automation loomed large.
The solution however is not so easy as it might seem, he cautions. “Automating the secondary packaging operation is a logical solution, but it is not as simple as it might seem. Any robotic system has to be extremely compact to fit into very tight spaces and must offer complete flexibility in terms of packing different pack formats and crate sizes.
“The solution must be able to pick and place consistently and accurately at high speed, without dropping any packs. Hygienic design is a given.”
With an eye for likely growing demand, Brillopak launched its award-winning UniPAKer robotic crate packer with enhancements designed to ensure it is affordable and efficient when dealing with tray-sealed meat applications.
Having previously proved itself in the packing of bagged fresh produce such as apples, sprouts and potatoes into crates, the reapplied system now includes development of a new generation end-effector with increased suction and control when handling trays and skin packs and a new dual-pick optimising the design of its UniPAKer robot to meet the specific demands.
End-effector redesign has improved the head’s vacuum capabilities through a combination of more consistent, faster airflow and larger independent vacuum generators. The stronger, uniform vacuum means the robot holds the packs squarely and tightly to move it from the conveyor to the crate at a faster speed, in a controlled manner.
In all, by optimising the cycle speed and developing a new range of end-effectors, a single robot with a dual-pick head, Brillopak has reduced the cost compared to a typical robotic crate packing system by a quarter. The robot can perform two picks, place packs in crates two at a time and is capable of packing tray sealed meat packs in excess of 70 per minute.
Choosing the right pasteurisation regime and equipment is therefore vital
Matt Hale, international sales and marketing director, HRS Heat Exchangers
Brillopak is seeking to develop the UniPAKer concept to pick an entire row at a time on the same compact footprint, which will dramatically bring down the capital cost.
Until the advent of the totally automated factory in the sector, workforce safety will be another factor that grows in importance because the implications of failure will be costly.
The processing of food ingredients creates serious issues regarding dust production. Apart from the explosive potential of flour and sugar products, there is also the matter of long-term health effects of inhalation.
Occupational asthma remains one of the most frequent work-related lung diseases, accounting for a staggering one in three European food industry compensation cases.
Luxme International is one of the firms seeking to offer solutions to this health and safety headache for manufacturers with its automated, food grade MiniLux Automatic Bag Slitter.
It is able to open six 25kg bags per minute and combines slitting, emptying, dust filtering and empty bag compaction.
Comments Luxme president Navam Jagan: “The prevalence of dust emissions at manual bag opening stations intensifies the health and safety risks in the area, as well as contamination and waste, so it is essential that bag slitter manufacturers work with upstream and downstream equipment suppliers to provide innovative new solutions to tackle these issues.”
In addition to safeguarding worker health and safety, it aims to reduce waste and the risk of cross contamination. The latter is a particular problem for smaller producers who may be less able to segregate the processes for raw ingredients.
Milton Keynes-based Dustcontrol UK has long specialised in extraction systems for the food industry with an emphasis on migratory risk, surface finish and antistatic properties.
Previously, the firm says, it has aimed mainly towards cleaning and extraction systems in what it dubs the ‘dirty’ side of food production, where hygiene standard requirements may be generally lower. This has included systems designed for zone 22, according to ATEX Directive 2014/34/EU.
In 2019, intended to coincide with the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association Total Show, the company unveiled its GFF ‘Good for Food’ range of vacuum equipment with materials approved for food contact.
The aim is to create systems capable of full integration into production processes including recycling – an increasingly strong selling point today.
When fully integrated with all GFF components, the system includes flap valves, suction brushes, flat nozzles, hose connectors, tubing system, joints, pre-separator, automatic shutter valves and filter units.
The GFF brushes are antistatic and ESD certified, with a material composition that makes them detectable via metal detector as well as being autoclavable up to 121°C, allowing for high-pressure saturated steam cleaning. Colour coding permits different applications.
While much recent food innovation has been prompted by threats to the transit of imports and exports, whether ingredients or finished product, demand for homeproduced eggs has been growing fairly substantially over the last decade, driven by concern over standards.
In the last 10 years it is estimated that UK egg production has leapt by between one quarter and one third. Not surprisingly, in a country where the average consumption is nearly 200 eggs per year, ‘shell on’ eggs remain the most popular form but processed products comprise around a fifth of the overall market.
Of this cohort, close to two thirds is comprised of liquid egg, a product whose shelf life can be extended by as much as four months through pasteurisation, says Matt Hale, international sales and marketing director at HRS Heat Exchangers.
However, the product’s sensitivity to heat is greater than either juice or milk, owing to the different behaviours of the egg whites and yolk. Both components are ‘denatured’ – ie, they suffer destruction of their characteristic biochemical properties – at relatively low temperatures.
“If not handled correctly, thermal pasteurisation can decrease protein content, change physical characteristics such as texture and colour, and increase product viscosity. Choosing the right pasteurisation regime and equipment is therefore vital to minimise and prevent such unwanted effects,” warns Hale.
Both plate and smooth tube heat exchangers have their limitations, he maintains: the former can allow product to coagulate, meaning extra cleaning-in-place (CIP) time and adding energy use and cost; the latter presents problems of less efficient transfer and the size of exchanger required.
“These issues can be overcome with the use of corrugated tube technology as employed by HRS, which uses turbulent flow to reduce fouling. Because a corrugated tube has an increased heat transfer rate compared to a smooth tube of the same length, the heat exchanger can be made smaller,” explains Hale.
“It is also important that the equipment chosen allows regular inspection and suitable CIP. Not only do HRS corrugated tube heat exchangers facilitate this, but because their design helps to prevent fouling in the first place, they also reduce downtime.”
While the main generator of greater process efficiency will be the advances offered increasingly by digitalisation and Industry 4.0, the benefits of current technology need not be underestimated.