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The patchy case of maintenance in the food & drink industry

19 April 2018

In the UK, the food and drink sector employs approximately 900,000 people and has a manufacturing turnover of £20bn a year. However, the penetration of advanced maintenance engineering practices within the sector is patchy, as Andy Pye, contributing editor, explains

In September 2015, UKCES commissioned a consortium of research organisations led by the Institute for Employment Studies and SQW to prepare a series of strategic labour market intelligence reports on the challenges and opportunities for increasing productivity in four sectors including manufacturing and food and drink.

The poor productivity performance of the UK economy, especially since the end of the recession of 2008-09, has become a major concern for economists and policy-makers. Productivity growth has been modest: as a consequence, the UK, which was already some way behind many other major developed economies, has fallen back further. The overall level of productivity in the United States’ economy is now 31% higher than that of the UK, while Germany’s is 28% higher.

The study complemented the work of the Business Leadership Group for food and drink manufacturing through an assessment of the factors driving productivity growth in the sector. In particular, it identified the skills that the sector would need to acquire if the UK were to match productivity levels and growth in countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands.

An additional difficulty faced by food and drink manufacturing is the skills it needs to drive productivity growth – typically science, engineering, and technology related ones - which are in high demand in other sectors too, and therefore it needs to identify how it can develop talent pipelines if it is to match performance levels in competitor countries.

From reactive to proactive

Much of the food and drink industry still operates a breakdown maintenance system and the available technologies are not being used effectively. Most larger companies take advantage of modern maintenance practices and technologies to improve their production responsiveness and flexibility. However, SMEs have been largely unable to implement such strategies. 

But the price of downtime due to malfunction can be much higher than a good maintenance regime. In many cases, preventative maintenance is the smart economic choice – even small improvements should result in significant benefits. This approach is less time-intensive than a regular inspection regime and can significantly improve the use of maintenance resources. As plants become more automated, monitoring technologies will be ever more integrated into the manufacturing process.

Traditionally, many SMEs are unaware of advances in engineering and maintenance methods and are reluctant to embrace them. Any novel technology or process tends to be well proven before becoming adopted by food companies.

Technologies such as vibration analysis and ultrasound have made it easier to measure the condition of equipment, giving an insight into the probability of failure during any given period. Thermographic imaging – which shows up 'hot-spots' in electrical installations – are also more widely available.

The move away from reactive maintenance to more proactive systems is not without its challenges. Careful consideration needs to be given to scheduling activities strategically and tactically, to ensure maintenance is both effective and efficient.

Good record keeping is essential, so regular record audits are needed to check on quality. Maintenance workers tend to be hands-on people, so they are not always enthusiastic about completing piles of paperwork. 

Preventive maintenance requires advance planning of the ordering of component parts, to ensure they are in place ready for the scheduled work. Delay can be costly and delivery before work can start can have storage costs – getting the balance right is crucial. Though often neglected, the maintenance perspective can also be informative in determining the best choices for new equipment.

Maintenance and cleaning are two areas where there is a great risk of serious injury or fatality. Frequently, it will not be the company’s own staff carrying out maintenance. Contractors often do higher-risk work. A risk assessment method statement (RAMS) is essential, and should be asked for by the food manufacturer where the contractor is working. 

In this context, planned maintenance is better than the unplanned variety. The most obvious reason for this is that it can be scheduled in ‘down’ periods.