Allison’s company is based in Essex, UK and designs and manufactures automatic bagging, robotic palletising and pick and place equipment; it is also a systems integrator for suppliers including FANUC Robotics and Festo.
Speaking to FoodProductionDaily.com at this week’s PPMA event in Birmingham, UK yesterday, CEO Dennis Allison said the UK had been slow to integrate robotics into food manufacturing.
“But in the last 12 months interest has rocketed in robots. In 2013 35% of all inquiries we received required a robotic solution – this year this figure has grown to 75%,” he said.
‘There’s a particular interest in the food industry’
Working in partnership with suppliers FANUC Robotics and Festo, Pacepacker can supply around 80 different robotic products depending on the application.
“There’s particular interest in the food industry – I imagine in beverages too, but because we’re in dry materials it tends to be the food industry for us,” Allison told this website.
“I think people are waking up to the fact that the food industry is well automated in terms of manufacturing processes, but when it comes to packing it’s not,” he added.
“It’s not been well automated – it’s very manual intensive labor. People are realizing now that they can take labor out of their costs and redeploy it somewhere else if they automate," Allison said.
“People like the supermarkets are seeing this now – Morrison’s for instance, in this price war with Aldi and Lidl are trying to drive their prices down through automation.”
“They’re trying to make themselves more efficient and effective to pass cost savings on to consumers.”
UK lags behind Germany in automation stakes...
But Allison said this automation upsurge didn’t necessarily extend to the supermarkets’ suppliers, since contractual uncertainty meant UK food manufacturers had traditionally been wary of investing in plant.
“Look at the league table of investment in automation and robotics, the UK is at the bottom. The supermarkets are so strong in this country and I think that drives it,” he said.
That said, Allison pointed out that robots can be re-programmed for different jobs whereas dedicated machinery could not – in the event that one, say, lost a large supermarket contract.
“I also think other countries are more comfortable with automation,” he added. “Take Germany, for example, it retained its manufacturing base. We didn’t. In my lifetime manufacturing’s been on a downwards trend.”
“Palletising is quite mature now – in the UK food industry it’s probably 60% automated now. But automation of packaging is around 10% in the UK.
“For every one robot sold in the UK, I think they say there are 10 sold in Germany – that’s how far behind we are.”
Allison agreed when asked if he thought this could jeopardize UK food and drink export potential vis-à-vis the rest of Europe.