The uncertainties surrounding Brexit have made many suppliers of fresh produce wary of investing until they know exactly what sort of deal will be struck between the UK and European Union before 29 March.
However, David Jahn, director at automation specialist Brillopak, believes that now is precisely the time that suppliers should consider investing to mitigate the challenges created by Brexit.
With the healthy eating trend, popularity of home-grown produce and concern about food miles set to underpin the growth of the UK fresh produce industry over the coming years, Jahn argues that suppliers should seize every opportunity to move to the forefront of automation and robotics.
“If and when we do leave the EU, the strongest food manufacturing plants and packhouses will survive,” he says. “If the recession that some economists are foretelling happens, or if Brexit turns out to be a disaster, food costs will inevitably rise.
"Those with the foresight to invest in automation will be more able to absorb production and wage increases, potentially opening their company up to new contract opportunities. Equally, if Brexit is a success, then these companies will be optimised for future use.”
Jahn believes that UK agriculture is in dire need of innovation, investment and a productivity boost and points out that while fresh produce crop farming is ahead of overall agriculture in terms of productivity, there is still room for improvement – and investment in automation can deliver significant returns on investment, something that is critical during times of uncertainty.
The labour crunch has hit the fresh produce sector particularly, and this has focused the whole industry on what technology can currently deliver, and what it may be capable of in the future.
While labour has been an issue for a number of years, shortages on UK fresh produce farms have generally intensified since the EU referendum in June 2016, largely due the devaluation of the pound, making the UK a less attractive destination for seasonal workers.
Jahn insists that there are compelling economic gains to invest in automation in order to achieve UK productivity gains, improve grower returns and enhance routes to market.
He says Brillopak has developed a range of solutions for the fresh produce sector, including its PPMA semi-automated Packstation, the P160 three or four axis robotic duel cell single pick automated case loading system, which applies a combination of robotics, encoders, vision and mechanics to lad 100 packs per minute into retail containers, plus its newest addition, the mechanical-style BR Punnet Packer, which can handle 180 top-seal punnets and top-seal trays per minute.
“Brexit is presenting UK food businesses with an exciting opportunity to get back to the basics and do what we do best,” he concludes.
“The migrant labour argument looks set to rattle on for months to come. Yet, if food packhouses don’t act now and examine how automation can make them more cost competitive and productive, they may not have a sustainability business when we leave the EU. By that stage, lack of labour effectively becomes a moot point.”