Investment in transformative digital technology offers potential for Northern Ireland food manufacturers to address major sector issues such as productivity, recruitment and health & safety.
Further benefits include ensuring the sector remains at the cutting edge of innovation, says the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), which has launched an Automated Food Manufacture network with support from Invest NI through its Collaborative Growth Programme.
The network is exploring how digital technologies can be integrated into production processes to boost growth for the local sector, with recommendations due to be published in September.
“Multiple factors have changed the employee marketplace in Northern Ireland in recent years, including the sheer growth of the industry, the trend of young people migrating from Northern Ireland and increased competition from the Republic of Ireland,” said Michael Bell, executive director, NIFDA.
“Facing these long-term challenges, coupled with the pressure caused by the pandemic, the time has come for the industry to explore the opportunities presented by digitisation including robotics and further automation.
“New manufacturing technologies have been gaining momentum in recent years. As well as addressing recruitment shortfalls, investing in this area has the potential to improve productivity, bring health and safety benefits, lower costs and ultimately grow our industry even further.
“Our universities and colleges have a role to play both in developing and raising awareness of digital manufacturing. The robotics and automation pilot project launched by Minister Poots this month is therefore a welcome move and will help to ensure Northern Ireland remains at the cutting edge of innovation in food manufacturing.
“At NIFDA we continue to work to address the skills and employment challenges facing the industry. Thorough our Automated Food Manufacture network, we have been working with partners to explore how industry can use digital technologies to grow for the future.”
Niall Casey, director of skills and competitiveness at Invest NI, said: “We welcome the work being undertaken by the Automated Food Manufacture Network to address the opportunities offered by digital transformation in the agri-food sector.
“Our continuous engagement with and support for companies across Northern Ireland reflects the increasing importance of investment in innovation and associated skills as a means to facilitate growth and improved competitiveness. These are key areas highlighted the ‘10X Economy’ strategy, to position Northern Ireland as one of the most competitive small economies in the world.”
The Collaborative Growth Programme supports SME-led networks, to scope out innovative collaborative projects with the potential to increase business competitiveness.