BY DAVID BROWN,
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR, BHR GROUP
A report published last year by the UKTI – the government department responsible for Trade and Investment – identifies the food and beverage industry as the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with a turnover of £76bn. Highlighted as a “major growth area” for the country, its market value is predicted to rise to £46.2bn by 2018. Businesses in this sector need to look at ways they can best capitalise on this upward trend and compete for the biggest slice of market share possible.
However, frequent changes in consumer preferences and lifestyle choices means that firms need to continue to innovate. New products must be developed, refined, tested and taken to market as quickly and as safely as possible to satisfy demand as it comes. In order to facilitate this, processes need to be streamlined and operations must be efficient.
Food and drink companies need to look further afield at how they can collaborate with cross-industry partners to create efficiencies, establish best practices and evolve as an industry.
Looking beyond food and drink
Development processes in the food and drink industry have traditionally and unnecessarily been inward-focused, an approach costing firms in this business significant time and money. It often takes several tries to get the combination for a food or beverage product exactly right – from making sure a drinks dispenser produces a coffee with a frothy head, to making sure fruit chunks sitting in jelly stay intact – food processing can be a tricky business, and that’s before the challenge of scaling up to produce large quantities has even been addressed.
While the challenges this sector faces seem unique, there is actually a significant overlap in process development methodologies, product characterisation approaches and even equipment used in other industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and even petrochemicals. It will be critical for those firms seeking to remain competitive to start thinking about how they can emulate best practice and innovation techniques from not only other food industry projects of a similar type, scale and cost – but vertically too, from projects in other industries. Whilst toothpaste, shampoo, paint and resins seem worlds apart from ice cream, beer and jelly, they do in fact deal with problems which the food and beverage industry runs into all the time. For example, complex or sticky fluids need heating or cooling while combining ingredients and developing structure. Dry solid ingredients such as thickeners and gelling agents, used in the manufacture of sauces, soups, dairy products and a wide range of other products may need to be wetted prior to dissolution.
Last year’s UKTI Food and Drink in the UK: Investment Opportunities report celebrated the sector’s use of new technologies in IT, engineering and life sciences. In fact, it claims that the UK was the first to introduce frozen food, ready meals and instant coffee. The industry is at the top of its game when it comes to the use of technology – and transferring that expertise to and from other sectors will help ensure it stays there.
The food and drink industry tackles complex product development problems to which the use of technology, and an ability to operate it effectively, is paramount. For example, mixers used in all stages of food manufacture come in a wide variety of different shapes and sizes in order to achieve a wide range of different products. But when a new product doesn’t seem to work with any of that existing plant, looking to how other industries mix their products can make the difference between investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in new equipment or finding a solution immediately.
Collaborating on research
Statistics from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), a representative body for the UK food and beverage industry, shows that the sector self-funds almost three quarters of its own research and development, resulting in about 10,000 new products being introduced to the market every year. Whilst investing in research is a highly valuable activity for any company developing new products, there are significant costs to be saved by capping research spend and looking to the expertise of other industry sectors instead.
Firstly, food and drink firms need to get better at reviewing what research is already available before investing in their own research. Admittedly, this requires additional time to be spent on data analysis in order to identify what insights can be applied, but firms will certainly see a long-term benefit.
Secondly, cross-sector relationship building in the form of independent bodies and open forums will help the manufacturing sectors make a move towards much more effective information sharing. The first steps have already been taken with the long-established consortia such as FMP (Fluid Mixing Processes, run by BHR Group), which counts PepsiCo, GSK, Procter & Gamble, Dow Chemical and Shell amongst its members.
Plugging the knowledge gap
The fast-paced nature of the industry means that it can be easy to operate with only a short term, one- to three-year vision in mind. In reality, there is a long-term change on the horizon on the manufacturing side of food and beverage which threatens to derail the progress of this sector.
The rate at which engineering veterans are retiring is worrying, and it’s well-reported that there is no pipeline of talent to replace them. These experienced professionals take with them core knowledge including an in-depth understanding of best practice and standards, processes and practices, much of which was learnt during the technology innovations and changes to operating environments during the 1980-90s. With the manufacturing element playing such a critical role in the food and beverage industry, the sector needs to prioritise filling the expertise gap so that important knowledge is not lost.
Core knowledge not only needs to be relearnt and fostered internally, but it must also be adapted for new and evolving industry challenges and applied across the supply chain. The value of technology in the engineering industry has proven to cut costs, save energy and speed up innovation.
While internal training and industry collaboration is crucial to establishing best practice and filling the knowledge gap, working with partner experts who have crafted knowledge of what does and doesn’t work across multiple sectors should also be used to address future challenges. At the heart of open innovation is technology transfer – the ability to seize on knowledge and technology built by other industries facing similar challenges. Discussing and exploring different approaches with companies in diverse sectors to understand where lessons can be applied to the food and beverage industry will be pivotal to the development of best practice.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020