Published: 14 Jan 2010
Men of many parts
With the increased reliance on automation, today’s food manufacturing
engineers have to be multi-skilled multi-taskers. John Dunn reports
one of the fallacies about the food manufacturing industry is that it has never been very engineering orientated. Well, in many ways, perhaps it still isn’t. But away from lines of operators popping cherries on top of buns or sorting sausage rolls into boxes, there is often a lot of ‘plant’. And here it is pure engineering – mechanical, chemical, and electrical – covering processing vessels, pumps, piping, valves and vats. All of these pieces of plant have to be programmed and controlled to deliver the right weight and the right mix at the right time. Again, pure engineering – electrical and control engineering. But engineering isn’t just about keeping plant and machines running. It is the unsung hero of many a good food factory story. All the major household food brands, for instance, have centres of excellence or research and development facilities, where they develop new products and processes. And when that product or process leaves the lab and is scaled up, that’s when engineers are needed. But food companies increasingly have to be innovative in their product development processes. They are increasingly having to look at ways in which they can do things more cost-effectively, more efficiently and more quickly. And that is, at heart, an engineering process.
Many roles in the
food industry are
Anyone who went to college to do an electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering degree will use most of what they learnt working in the food industry. Basically, the industry is maths, it is IT, it is electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering. But in the UK engineers have a choice, says Scott Hutchinson, md of recruitment consultancy Hutchinson Jonas group. “Dyson versus a custard machine. There is still a lot of manufacturing in the UK that is a lot sexier than working in a slaughterhouse in Somerset.” Nevertheless, he says, the complexities of today’s food factory means that there is a lot more reliance on technology and plant and equipment. “Plant and machinery breaks. And who fixes them? Engineers.” Today’s engineer in the food industry has to be multi-tasking, says Chris Newberry, md of pump supplier Pump Engineering. “Engineers have to be experts on food machines, experts on packaging machines. Unlike in the past where there would have been one engineer who perhaps looked after one or two machines, an engineer now has to look after the whole plant.” Justine Fosh, director of the National Skills Academy for food and drink manufacturing, agrees. The one consistent trend in the food industry is the increase in automation, she says. “Many jobs within the industry are increasingly about automation and that, in turn, is driving up the need for multi-skilled engineers. As we become a more automated sector, the engineering skills requirements are going to shift.” Increasingly, she says, food companies are not looking to recruit mechanical engineers or recruit electrical engineers. They want multi-skilled engineers who can be deployed as and where required.