PICKNPACK is a large collaborative project funded by the EU under the 7th Frame program, which will end in October this year 2016. The aim is boosting the development and implementation of innovative automatic systems in food industry. In order to find strategic approaches for facilitating greater deployment of new flexible and autonomous robots, sensors and packaging modules in the food industry of today, an acceptance study was done within this sector, which consisted of a survey to different directors and responsible form different European food and postharvest companies. This survey aimed to know the current level of automation of the European food industry; problems and needs sorting and packaging of its products; the willingness to invest in innovative equipment; and perceptions of those responsible for the companies, in reference to factors that could influence when investing in new equipment.
The study concludes that the postharvest sector is more sensitive than the food processing sector to automation investment in the coming years. This is evidenced by a more favourable perception, from the post-harvest companies, of the impact of potential improvements in their businesses resulting from the purchase of new automated systems. Anyway, both postharvest and food processing sectors base their investing intention on economic reasons more than on technical aspects. Both sectors consider, among the main economical drivers, to improve the profit margin of the product and the production efficiency. However, some differentiating details in the reasons outlined give insight to the key needs in each sector in which to concentrate efforts when designing automated solutions:
- For postharvest companies the motivation for investing is related to the improvement of the profit margin of the product, which the new automated solutions allows, by reducing labour cost and by differentiating from competitors. This needs the development of accurate systems for a more effective quality assessment. The added value provided by sensor systems that examines accurately the 100% of the produced units should facilitate the differentiation and the reduction in labour costs that the sector desires.
- For food processing companies, the improvement of profit margin of the product is focused on increasing the productive capacity. Their product is characterised by the use of ingredients of different weight, morphology and consistency that are assembled in a packaging of quite different formats (e.g. ready meals). Rapid and flexible solutions for handling and packing the product responding to changes in product or packaging specifications should solve the critical point of the process of food companies.
Food processing and postharvest industries are aware of the need and benefits of R&D for improving automation and production lines but the risks associated in implementation generate reluctance to invest. In general, SMEs are more reluctant to automate than cooperatives and large companies. Therefore, the prevailing reasons reported for not investing in automation are associated to the structure, and to the limited production volume and economical capacity of such small and medium companies. In particular, the main barriers for investing are economical. It appears that the major barrier is the perception that the high cost of the purchase and maintenance (repair, updating and technical service) of a new automated system is not going to be translated into economic benefits comparable to the investment made. This, forces the equipment suppliers to better know the manufacturers business and it highlights the need to anticipate these economic factors and to estimate the benefits that an automated solution could bring to a particular company. SMEs are the main type of company in food sector, it is thus necessary to stress this aspect and be knowledgeable when approaching any SME in order to reach a greater uptake of the technology in this vital European economic sector.
In conclusion, the present study investigated the factors affecting the acceptance of innovative automatic systems by the food processing and postharvest industry. It has analysed the investment intention of companies in both sectors and the factors that press them to declare a positive or negative intention. The study also provided a context to these factors. Thus, the knowledge of the particular and common characteristics of both sectors can orient the approaching strategies for generating effective marketing and dissemination plans, in order to facilitate the uptake of the technology within the sector in the food industry of today.
This study was published in the journal of New Food Magazine. The article summarizes the main conclusions reached in this study and can be downloaded for free at the following link: http://www.newfoodmagazine.com/23993/new-food-magazine/past-issues/issue-2-2016/issue-2-2016-digital-version/
The demostration workshop with guided tour and demonstrations of the research outputs of the Project will be held in Wageningen (Netherlands) on 26 and 27st may. Further information