Dr Martin Howarth

Interview: Dr Martin Howarth, National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering

Image credit: Nick Smith

The National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering (NCEFE) aims to educate the next generation of food engineers, while developing and promoting research in the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. Its director, Martin Howarth, explains.

By pure chance, on the day of my interview with the director of the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering (NCEFE), the food and drink industry was very much at the top of the rolling news cycle. One of the UK’s leading supermarket chains deadlocked with one of their top suppliers over price increases that, depending which reports you believe, may or may not have been caused by Britain’s intended withdrawal from the European Union.

While this gave tabloids an opportunity to flex their headline-writing muscles - ‘Marmite Wars’ seemed a particular favourite - it also provided an opportune moment for Dr Martin Howarth to reflect on the size, significance and seriousness of an area of engineering that so often gets taken for granted.

Food and drink is the largest sector within UK manufacturing, accounting for 16 per cent of total turnover. “It’s bigger than aerospace and automotive put together. It is a huge and important market in which engineering and technology will be key elements in maintaining competitiveness in the future,” he says. Specifically, “consistent but adaptable equipment” will be the requirement. The route to developing this equipment is to ensure there are sufficient people with the appropriate skills and knowledge to hand.

Howarth says that the sector provides “quality jobs across the country and creates wealth for the whole nation. In recent years, food and drink manufacturing has been a success story, far outstripping the wider economy.” In the period from 2009 to 2014, productivity in the sector grew by 11 per cent, compared with 0.5 per cent across the whole economy. Yet despite lines on the chart all pointing upward, the sector is not in a position of unalloyed optimism, and Howarth admits that frankly “there is a massive untapped opportunity.”

As with other sectors, food and drink is facing a skills shortage. The sector employs around 400,000 people, the vast majority of whom (96 per cent) work in small or medium-​sized enterprises. “It is predicted that 150,000 or more will need to be replaced in the next decade, due to retirement. We need people with knowledge and skills to come in and enhance manufacturing capability. It’s not just about replacing people - it’s about replacing those people with the right people with the right knowledge and experience to develop new systems.”

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has identified engineering skills and knowledge as one of the leading challenges the sector faces. There is strong competition, says Howarth, because “there are also careers outside engineering that pay high salaries, that are attractive to engineers because of their analytical skills.”

On the other hand “that’s the great thing about an education in engineering. It gives you transferrable skills. Yet there are a lot of opportunities in industry, and it’s the challenge of industry to provide interesting, satisfactory careers that have sufficient salary to warrant people wanting to stay and work in the sector, and to counteract some of the opportunities elsewhere.”

Based at Sheffield Hallam University, the NCEFE is dedicated to supporting the food and drink industry “by developing and implementing new and enhanced facilities, processes and equipment, keeping the UK at the forefront of capability and efficiency in this very competitive sector.” Howarth has been with the Centre since the word go, having moved into post from his job as departmental head of engineering and mathematics at Sheffield Hallam.

In his previous role, “we developed a very positive relationship with industry in terms of supporting their educational agenda for employees across a number of sectors, including aerospace and railway.” However, a sector-specific need emerged from the multinational food and drink giant Nestlé. It stated a requirement for the provision of an educational programme in the UK that could turn out engineers with the right knowledge and experience for the food and drink sector.

What came out of Sheffield Hallam’s response was the UK’s first undergraduate degree course in food engineering, which has recently recruited its third cohort of students. As the programme gained momentum and attracted more funding (in the form of a catalyst grant of £6.9m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)), Howarth relinquished his role as the head of engineering and mathematics in order to concentrate on the food engineering programme, eventually becoming its director.

The NCEFE has two broad remits; the first is “the educational agenda in terms of providing both facilities and food engineers. We have the MEng food engineering degree as well as an MSc in food process engineering, taking in students from a wide background of science and engineering.” Howarth also thinks that direct support for students studying food engineering “would be good. We are also engaged with the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink (NSAFD) and, with some further funding through HEFCE, are working to design, prepare and deliver a degree apprenticeship in food engineering.”

The centre’s second responsibility is “to provide collaborative R&D for the sector to develop and enhance its capability in systems, equipment and processes, in order to increase productivity and the capacity to deliver new products and ideas.”

Sheffield-based Howarth has “always been an engineer and I’ve always had a passion for engineering.” He read for his undergraduate degree in production engineering at what was then Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), “and I was always interested in manufacturing and equipment, how products were actually produced.”

His first foray into the world of work was a stint at Racal Marine Radar, where he quickly found he had an aptitude for engaging in productive dialogue with universities via what was then the Teaching Company Scheme (now the Knowledge Transfer Partnership). “I then went on to work with Nottingham Trent University, researching robotic techniques in automated manufacturing. Then I joined the university as a lecturer, while continuing my research into automated manufacturing systems.” With a career that appears to be equally divided between the worlds of manufacturing and education, 56-year-old Howarth regards himself today as “an engineer working in in academia.”

Howarth sees one of the key aspects of his role as outreach into industry to create support for food engineering. “This happens in a number of ways. We utilise the contacts and close collaboration we have with different bodies in the UK, such as the FDF and the NSAFD. We have a good relationship with both of them in terms of both sides of our work at the NCEFE. But just as important is the outreach through industry to work with bodies such as Innovate UK, the Research Councils UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering to bring in projects and funding, so that companies in the sector can achieve funding for projects that otherwise might not take place.”

As an aside, Howarth notes that there has always been good funding in the ‘agritech’ (agricultural technology) sector working in the farm-to-fork continuum. “But now, working with the FDF and the KTN, there is more of an emphasis - and we encourage this to be continued - on the manufacturing end of things.” This shift in emphasis is starting to work: “we’ve brought £4.4m of funding from those bodies over the past 18 months, but the proportion of funding in food manufacturing is still actually quite small relative to other industrial sectors.”

For Howarth, food manufacturing falls into three subdivisions: actual food production, the manufacture of the machines employed in that production and the control systems that go into the machinery. While it’s tempting to think of the industry as all about automated production of chocolate bars, there’s a lot more to the story than Kit-Kats falling off a conveyor. “There is a whole infrastructure of equipment and producers of that equipment enabling food manufacturers to be effective and deliver the product that we want. They are as important as the manufacturers themselves.”

Howarth goes on to say that one of the key buzzwords at the moment, the thing that everyone is getting behind, is “productivity, and the industrial strategy to support productivity in the UK.” What this means first and foremost is productivity in terms of manufacturing efficiency. “It is also about production of equipment that supports and improves that productivity.” What we are talking about here is “the development of new techniques. That’s what we are aiming for and are already engaged with.”

The range of technologies in the sector is mind-boggling. From fluid handling to packaging, instrumentation and control to waste reduction, energy management to 3D prototyping. Howarth agrees that just about every technology covered in the magazine you are reading will at some point slot into the food production mix. He cites an ever-​lengthening list of companies both large and small, actively engaged with the NCEFE: Nestlé, William Jackson Food Group, Greencore, Marlow Foods, Koolmill, Dext, DCI, Spirax Sarco, Foss, Process Technologies, KMF, East End Foods and Arla Milk.

Milk is an interesting challenge facing the industry and is representative of the portfolio of behind-the-scenes challenges that most consumers will be unaware of. At the point of consumption, your preferred brand - whether it has a red, green or blue top - will be pretty much exactly how it was yesterday and how it will be tomorrow. In other words, at the sharp end of the supply chain, the consumer has an expectation that the product delivered will be uniform. Yet incoming raw material - milk from cows - will vary depending on the breed of cattle, how they are fed, geographical region and seasonal climate changes. With so many variations feeding into the mix, milk composition is far from easy, with protein and fat levels fluctuating from producer to producer. “These variations in milk composition can be significant in terms of how the process might need to change.”

When I put it to Howarth that food engineers working with the nation’s milk supply are essentially trying to make order out of chaos, he agrees, saying: “there are many elements to that, including quality as well as providing a nutritious and safe product. These are all complexities that we don’t see in quite the same way within other manufacturing sectors.”

The variability of milk composition is just  one example of “many interesting and hidden aspects and applications of engineering in the food and drinks sector,” according to Howarth.

 “Yet there are other areas within the industry that are every bit as fascinating and challenging, that yield excellent solutions in comparison with other sectors.” He’s keen to communicate these to the world, which is why by his own estimate, “a quarter of my job is public-facing.” Some of the projects he mentions include working alongside Innovate UK on a heat recovery application at Nestlé, where the issues include energy efficiency in baking operations, understanding thermodynamics of ovens and the most cost-efficient means of heat recovery. A similar project involving William Jackson and DEXT is investigating increased efficiency and effective heat exchangers.

Speaking of the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the food engineering industry, Howarth notes “there is clear ambition within the sector to make significant improvements in efficiency and to develop new processes for the production of highly nutritious food. There is an element of short-term priorities challenging the investment, some of which comes from the commercial relationships between manufacturers and retailers. Yet this also provides opportunities for new, highly flexible and adaptable systems that can deliver the required product and mix of products to customers on demand.”

In other words, if leading supermarket chains continue to squeeze their suppliers in yet more ‘Marmite wars’, then the only option will be to do things cheaper and better, which means more efficient production.

This brings us back to the skills shortage. “Engineers with knowledge and experience of food processing are in short supply,” but it’s a timely market to get into because where there are personnel shortfalls, there are jobs. Good ones. “Engineers with experience in the sector may have further opportunities to progress into senior management in a wide range of roles within the sector.”

This is where organisations such as the NCEFE come in. Yet it’s worth remembering that they evolve as there is a requirement from industry for them to come into being. However, it is not simply enough for them to exist. They need to be successful, and Howarth is clear in thinking that the work of his centre is becoming “nationally and internationally recognised as a centre of expertise that the food and drink sector can come to in order to get answers and solutions to their challenges.”

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