The Food and Drink Sector: ready for its own digital revolution?

The food and drink sector is not, on the face of it, an obvious candidate for the attentions of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network, thanks to its traditional reliance on manual labour and the large number of SMEs involved. But Ken Young, Technology Director at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), believes the sector is ripe for a digital revolution.

As well as its reliance on manual labour and a preponderance of small businesses, the other apparent obstacles to change for the food and drink sector are fast development cycles and short-term contracts.

And yet this is exactly where opportunities lie. Global manufacturing is under pressure to be more efficient and reduce waste, as well as reduce its reliance on manual labour.

CROP - Food and Drink Sector Table Meal - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The food and drink sector cannot be immune to the external forces that will bring this about, namely the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution such as automation and digitalisation.

But yes, it is a major challenge. Productivity in the sector is high, thanks to manual labour that can be easily trained and re-deployed.

This has made the sector resistant to adopt new technologies outside of its traditional supply chain and implement changes in processes and production methods.

It is also a very competitive sector with low margins and profits squeezed by the big supermarkets. This has resulted in short term thinking and aversion to risk, which compounds this reluctance to invest in new technology, skills and training.

This is where the knowledge, experience and capabilities of the HVM Catapult centres can be most effectively deployed.

This article first appeared in the October issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe


UK Food and Drink sector in numbers (care of FDF)

  • The UK’s largest sector – bigger than automotive and aerospace combined
  • Turnsover more than £97bn – 19% of total Uk manufacturing
  • Contributes almost £30bn to the UK economy and directly employs 400,000 people
  • Supply chain employs more than 4 million people and generates over £112bn of economic value each year.
  • 97% of the 7,000 food and drink businesses are small or medium-sized
  • Needs 140,000 new recruits by 2024 in order to fee an expected opulation of 70 million people

Cocoa, Cookies and Coventry

The good news is that the HVM Catapult centres are already taking on this challenge, across the globe.

Whether it’s cocoa producers in Colombia, farmers in Lincolnshire, or biscuit producers in Coventry, the centres are demonstrating that a 21st century approach to people and processes can increase productivity, reduce costs, improve efficiency and contribute to profits.

From seeds in the ground to stacking supermarket shelves, technology, automation and new ways of thinking can make a massive difference. There is now a recognition in many areas of the sector that innovation is vital in the way our food is produced.

'Farmbots' Tom and Dick - image courtesy of the Small Robot Company.

‘Farmbots’ Tom and Dick – image courtesy of the Small Robot Company.


It is significant that Jeremy Hadall, the chief engineer for intelligent automation at the MTC has been appointed chair of the Industrial Advisory Board for the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology at Lincoln University.

Jeremy and his team have been working with the Hampshire-based Small Robot Company to develop a new range of agricultural technology which will bring the power and precision of robots to farming, potentially replacing tractors for many jobs.

These small, digitally-controlled ‘farmbots’ can plant, feed and weed arable crops autonomously with minimal waste and great precision.

Trials are well-advanced on more than 20 farms across the UK and are demonstrating that robots have the potential to improve the way food is produced while minimising chemical use, ultimately making farms more profitable while increasing yield and efficiency.

Meanwhile other technology experts from the MTC and the Satellite Applications Catapult have been helping cocoa farmers in Colombia by assisting them with quality and productivity.

One cocoa pod on tree - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The project – funded by the UK Newton Fund, which supports sustainable development through science and innovation – is introducing modern methods to improve farm productivity, consistency and quality of the product and improve post-harvest processes.

Running workshops with smallholder farmers, they are ensuring the growers get a better deal from buyers, become more productive, produce a better-quality product and improve profitability.

Keeping your shape

The MTC’s expertise in advanced computer modelling and design for manufacturing has been helping Wymbs Engineering Limited solve a longstanding problem.

Wymbs Engineering manufactures bespoke machinery for the confectionery, bakery and dairy industries, enabling products to be deposited in moulds, onto biscuits, or directly onto moving conveyor belts.

But food products can change their shape and structure during the manufacturing process, so material waste, poor accuracy and slow speeds have been perennial issues.

The MTC has worked closely with Wymbs Engineering Limited to develop a highly improved depositing system for leading food manufacturers in the UK and overseas.

MTC engineers have used new ways to model the flow of the product through the depositing process, enabling improvements to established methods to be trialled on computer before committing to a physical prototype.

The results of this advanced modelling were a significant improvement in the flow of the product and overall system speed. The re-designed system is now undergoing advanced trials with an end-user, working with real product.

The results have exceeded expectations with significant gains in productivity and output. Meanwhile the company’s reputation with its clients as being a technology leader and innovator has been enhanced.

New support for food and drink sector

The newly-formed HVM Catapult Food and Drink group, led by Matt Rayment of the MTC, comprising the MTC, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), CPI and the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), means that we are able to support the whole of the UK food and drink sector from our advanced manufacturing sites located in Scotland, Wales and England.

With a coordinated approach and technology roadmap we are able to deliver manufacturing technologies across the UK.

The MTC has also teamed up with some of the UK’s leading food and drink research and technology organisations, and academia, to further support the sector.

These collaborations and close partnerships are developing novel solutions to move the sector forward throughout its supply chain. Projects in the pipeline include research into reducing food waste, improving production methods inside and outside of high-care, reducing plastic in packaging and improving recyclability.

This work is influencing and encouraging other parts of the food and drink sector in their research and development, to the benefit of the sector as a whole.

For more details, visit: www.the-mtc.org or email: enquiries@the-mtc.org


*All unattributed images courtesy of Depositphotos.