October 28, 2020

Beating the Brexit labour shortage through automation

Lesley Eaton, Business Development and Marketing Manager, SEEPEX UK, provides five reasons why automating their food transfer processes could pay dividends for companies following Brexit.

The food and drink industry employs the highest share of EU migrant workers compared with any other UK sector (30 per cent)[1]. In fact, with around one fifth of the two million EU nationals working in Britain employed in the food and drink chain, the industry is set to be impacted as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. But as the door begins to close on cheap manual labour, it paves the way for greater uptake of automation, increasing productivity levels among the UK’s food processors at the same time as filling the labour shortage…

Despite the fact that a new political relationship between the UK and the EU doesn’t officially begin until 31 December 2020, Brexit is already affecting European workers’ attitudes. A recent Food and Drink Federation (FDF) survey found that 47 per cent of companies in Britain’s food supply chain – which includes farms, food processors, supermarkets and restaurants – said their EU workers were considering their future as a direct result of the June 2016 referendum. Alongside labour, productivity is also an issue – food and drink producers’ revenue per worker fell by five per cent in 2016, due to an increase in labour costs that year to £8.6bn, up from £8.2bn in 2015[2].

Lesley Eaton, Business Development and Marketing Manager, SEEPEX UK,

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The government has earmarked £90m for a ‘Transforming Food Production’ programme, to harness AI and robotics in the agri-food industry. And with the future status of EU migrant workers still uncertain and the squeeze on labour costs set to worsen following the impending National Minimum Wage rise in 2020, many food and drink businesses are now turning to automation to fill the growing labour gap and increase their overall productivity.

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. Here, we look at the five key reasons for food companies to get ahead of Brexit and the productivity problem by automating their product transfer processes…

1          Efficient waste removal 

Most food operations generate by-products, particularly if engaged in primary processing. Traditional removal methods include: manual removal using tote bins; blown air systems and vacuum systems; flumes that use water as a transport medium; or a combination of all three. However, these methods can incur high running costs, particularly in the form of manual labour. Progressive cavity (PC) pumps offer an alternative via enclosed piped systems. They remove solid, semi-solid or liquid waste from both high care and low risk areas, without compromising hygiene standards. SEEPEX has designed a series of PC pump solutions for waste removal that can chop and pump in the same unit. Featuring an auger feed into fixed and rotating knives, or a grinder and pump combination, they can chop most products, producing a lower volume of waste which is easier to handle. 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 (ds) 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 anaerobic digestion (AD) plant, to be converted into biogas.

  • Quicker, simpler and more accurate product transfer

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. However, PC pumps can handle highly viscous products, or even those that don’t flow, with ease – SEEPEX pumps are used within food factories around the world to transfer everything from wet coleslaw, to sticky honey, to whole chicken breasts, and everything in between. And because PC pumps have a very low shear action, they maintain product integrity, making them ideal for very sensitive products such as whipped cream or foams, as well as very soft solids like soft fruits and vegetables in yogurts and sauces. 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. In addition, a pipeline is significantly easier to clean than a conveyor belt, helping to maintain standards of hygiene.

  • Greater adherence to food hygiene and safety standards

No matter what the pumping application – ingredient dosing, product transfer, or filling of finished products – it can be achieved using PC pumps with cleaning-in-place (CIP) as standard, reducing the need for manual cleaning labour. Not only do they comply with today’s strict hygiene standards, PC pumps can also be bespoke with auger feed for viscous products if needed. Hygienic design features ensure efficient pump cleaning whilst liquid divert ports enable efficient cleaning of downstream systems with turbulent flow.

  • More accurate dosing and metering

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 uneven distribution of ingredients. In contrast, SEEPEX’s PC pumps are virtually pulsation-free, providing a stable, accurate (+/-1%), linear flow to dispense the correct amount of ingredients every time, maintaining product quality and reducing wastage. And as an automated process, it saves on labour and provides traceability. SEEPEX’s range of PC dosing pumps includes a Smart Dosing Pump (SDP). By inputting only the required flow rate, the SDP ­automatically makes any necessary adjustments, providing all the benefits of a PC dosing pump with enhanced control options.

  • Greater flexibility and future-proofed systems

One of the most common barriers to automation is the fear of investing in a system that could become obsolete if your product or process changes. After all, it’s usually cheaper to retrain a person than to invest in a new automated line. However, PC pumps are not only easy to set-up and calibrate, they are also simple to adapt, enabling food processors to future-proof their operations with a flexible system that can respond to changing consumer demand. PC pumps are able to handle products with a range of viscosities, temperatures and consistency. This means that a single pump can be used even when products or processes change. The modular construction of SEEPEX PC pumps goes further than most, however, providing greater flexibility for food processors that need to adapt and develop their processes to access new markets.

[1] OC&C’s 29th annual Food and Drink 150 report

[2] OC&C’s 29th annual Food and Drink 150 report