Is the future of artisanal products semi-automated?

Posted on 6 Sep 2018 by Maddy White

Automation remains a core part of Industry 4.0 and how businesses are moving forward. But, for artisanal products which require a high level of quality and detail, can processes ever be fully automated?

British food & drink exports hit a record high for the first half of the year (£10.7bn), this figure up 5% for the same period last year – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

We know some of the perks of introducing robotics; improved operations, reduced costs, an upskilled workforce, a potentially more agile and flexible business model, the list goes on.

Robots however, struggle to notice certain more subjective issues, like for example a slight bruise on a piece of salmon, or the botanicals in gin being slightly unbalanced.

This problem may well be solved in the future, but at the moment some manufacturers are choosing not to automate their products, not because of cost issues or lack of understanding of technology, but because they believe automation could negatively impact the quality of their product.

This notion is particularly applicable to the food & drink industry. British food & drink exports hit a record high for the first half of the year (£10.7bn), this figure up 5% for the same period last year. Manufacturers producing these products are looking to continue to export to new markets and expand existing ones, but to do this they need a quality product that is in demand.

Semi-automatic proves better 

Gin is one of the top ten food & drink exports for the UK this year
Gin is one of the top ten food & drink exports for the UK this year.

Gin is one of the top ten food & drink exports for the UK this year, and one of the biggest UK producers of this spirit is G&J Distillers.

“We could fully automate the distillery if we wanted to, but actually, you can’t beat a distiller’s nose.” Kris Dickenson, group integration manager at G&J Distillers told The Manufacturer.

He continued: “Rather than take that human element out, and have the computer telling the distiller to cut the gin there and there, the distiller does it by nose.”

The Cheshire-based distillery has household brands Greenall’s Original Dry Gin, Opihr Spiced Gin and Bloom Gin to their name, and can produce one-quarter of a million bottles every day.

The facility has many automated processes, such as two high speed liquid filling machines, which according to Dickenson are world-leading and can fill up to 400 bottles a minute.

Dickenson said: “The purpose of this site was to be highly efficient, fast and low cost.” By choosing to not automate every process, this indicates that automation would not improve their efficiency, and that to retain the quality of their product they need to use certain human skills that robots cannot offer.

Oldest UK salmon curer chooses no automation

Another example of a business choosing not to automate processes is H. Forman & Son.

The company, located in London’s East End, is Britain’s oldest original salmon curer and one of the world’s oldest existing producers of smoked salmon.

CEO, Lance Forman (pictured), told TM how exactly they produce their PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) product, this status making London the first capital city in Europe with a company to acquire the certificate, which protects regional foods that have a specific quality and or reputation.

To create the smoked salmon the process needs to be done by hand, says fourth-generation smoked salmon producer, Forman.

He said: “The quality of the product is so much better when you have people physically handling the product and touching it, they can say ‘oh look it is a little soft,’ or if they are slicing through the fish, they notice a bruise for example, a machine can’t do that. I think we have been able to maintain quality by keeping it artisan.”

The business uses the same processes as it did 100 years.

The business uses the same processes as it did 100 years ago, this has enabled it to give transparency of operations to customers, with even a viewing gallery at the factory.

Forman explained how the industry has changed: “There was a lot of innovation in manufacturing technology, and a lot of conveyor belt driven processes in the 1970s and 80s. All of the traditional businesses in London tried to compete with this new industry and they have all gone out of business.”

He concluded:”We didn’t do that, we didn’t try and compete. We kept doing this in our own way, and actually it has worked really well for us, because we have found ourselves in a world where consumers are really interested in food provenance.”

These two businesses are choosing not to fully automate processes, and it is clearly working for them.

Both produce high quality products for the food & drink industry and export all over the world. Robots could become more advanced in the future and be able to detect these more subjective details both manufacturers have explained, but until that is an option businesses producing artisanal products like these will not be swayed by automation.