M&S backs EU PicknPack project for promoting robot use in food factories

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A multi-million pound scheme to introduce super robots to the factory floor - and reduce “human intervention to a minimum” - has come under fire from Unite.

Launched this week, the £9.5m ‘PicknPack, project to develop three robots with enhanced capabilities is being funded by the EU, Marks & Spencer, the University of Manchester and a number of European retailers and manufacturers.

PicknPack’s “unique” advantage over existing automated systems was that each robot was flexible and could be modified to carry out different functions, giving the system the “ability to adapt to the product and batch size at hand,” said project coordinator, Erik Toussaint.

“PicknPack will give the European food industry a vital competitive advantage in the rapidly changing marketplace of the future, where customers demand more quality, more choice and more safety for lower prices,” he added.

The first robot will use a scanner to assess the quality of individual items or small batches of products. A second will select products that have passed through the quality check and add them to a carton or container, while a third will handle the packaging and sealing of the products.

M&S food technologist Simon Lushey said: “PicknPack is an innovative manufacturing research project that has the potential to drive more efficiency into the food industry. We’re offering our retail and sourcing expertise and hope to offer as much support as possible.”

But Unite national officer for food and drink, Jennie Formby, said: “Unite does not adopt a Luddite approach to technology, although we remain to be convinced about how far it is possible to remove people from food production processes with quality and integrity so vitally important.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • The rest of my quote: With food manufacturing comprising the largest manufacturing sector in the UK economy we would of course be concerned about any innovation that led to significant reduction in employment although we remain to be convinced about how far it is possible to remove people from food production processes with quality and integrity of the product so vitally important.

    With the sector still proving much more resilient in the current economic climate than other parts of the economy, we would also expect the introduction of technology such as this which could only increase profitability, to go hand in hand with a significant increase in the quality of the jobs that remained in the sector. Wages and conditions remain amongst the lowest in the UK with massive numbers of agency and migrant workers employed with little job security and far too many employees exploited and subject to abuse, both verbal and physical.

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