At the start of 2018, the BBC reported that the UK's manufacturing output was at its highest rate for ten years. This increase can largely be attributed to the UK's recovery from the global economic crisis and its uptake of automation technology. However, while the food and beverage industry has been slower than other sectors to embrace automation technology, this doesn't have to be the case. Here, Stephen Hayes, managing director of industrial PC provider Beckhoff Automation UK, explains how automation tools like PC-based control systems will help food manufacturers keep up with their competition.
The food and beverage industry is currently the UK's largest manufacturing sector, valued at approximately £28.8bn and employing more than 400,000 people. Despite this size, it's no secret that the industry is often seen to be a few steps behind other sectors in terms of the adoption of new technologies. While there is undoubtedly an appetite to invest, the sector's low margins and high regulatory requirements make adopting new systems a challenge.
You might consider this to be somewhat contradictory. After all, some of the key benefits of modern automation technology are that it can improve efficiency, maximise margins and support overall process management.
However, much of the apprehension from food plant managers comes from the concern that introducing automation that meets the needs of the plant will be costly or disruptive. Food and beverage manufacturing, whether it's the processing or packaging stage, is one of the more complex industries, with numerous elaborate systems and processes in place. Many managers believe this will require equally complex, and thereby expensive, automation and field systems.
This does not have to be the case. It is, in fact, a matter of choosing the right system to intelligently deliver the performance required in a flexible, adaptable way. The first step to achieving this is by having a communications architecture that is effective, scalable and fast.
In this regard, Beckhoff Automation's TwinCAT automation software and PC-based control systems are the perfect fit. These systems streamline the control of connected fieldbus devices by bringing everything, from HMIs and PLCs to motion control and even machine vision, into one standardised platform.
It's an easy fit for food and beverage plants and it's a valuable tool in simplifying the increasing complexity of modern factories. Whether it's in packaging or processing, the TwinCAT system is ideally suited to keeping systems running smoothly, and at a far faster rate than other field communication protocols.
With the right communications in place, adopting automation technologies becomes a matter of the food plant manager deciding what area they want to improve. For example, a food business might want to increase the flexibility of its packaging line to accommodate for product variations. In this case, Beckhoff's XTS Hygiene linear transport system could offer the versatility required to improve handling operations efficiently.
These are just a handful of the technologies available that will aid the food and beverage industry in maximising its margins and staying ahead of its competitors. With the UK's overall productivity showing signs of slowing, it will be the adoption of new automation technologies by food and beverage manufacturing businesses that will lead the way to a more productive future, for company and country alike.