Brillopak: outlook for 2019

In the final Q&A in our series, manufacturer of robotic packing and palletising systems Brillopak reviews the upcoming packaging trends in 2019 and the impact Brexit might have on their business

David Jahn, Director at Brillopak

Q: What’s set to influence your company in 2019?

A: Labour shortage! In 2016, the main staffing concern for packhouses was the introduction of the living wage and how businesses were going to accommodate it. Many began to look to automation as a solution, but still remained reliant on EU migrant workers.

In 2018, the decreasing value of the pound and the general anti-EU/post-Brexit feeling has seen fewer and less able workers come from the EU to work in the UK than in previous years, resulting in crops being left to rot in the fields.

The worry now for packhouses is not how they’re going to pay for their staff; because there won’t be any staff to worry about. In 2019, automation will be essential if these businesses are going to survive.

To meet this demand, we’ve developed a range of low cost, automated packers with a small footprint that are faster and more flexible than anything else out there. We will be rolling these out across the UK in early 2019 and then into Europe in Q3, and are expecting strong sales.

However, when you lose the human element on a packing line, you can also lose a human’s ability to see any problems that might occur, and quality control can suffer as a result. We are therefore integrating imaging systems into our machines, which can check not just the quality of the produce being packed, but also the colour, labels, positioning and packaging.

Flexibility. Supermarkets market more products than ever, putting a huge strain on manufacturers who are trying desperately to keep up. As not every product or packing format will have longevity, manufacturers are reluctant to invest large sums of money into new lines which may soon become obsolete; but they don’t want to turn away opportunities, either.

It will therefore become even more important in 2019 that machines offer flexibility, and can cope with rapid changeovers. The machines we’ve developed are designed for flexibility to handle multiple product and pack types and can effect a product changeover in just 5 minutes. With supermarkets applying constant price pressures to their suppliers, every efficiency matters and a speedy changeover can mean the difference between profit and loss.

Q: What packaging trends do you foresee for 2019?

A: In response to consumer pressure, supermarkets are pledging to cut the volume of single-use plastics throughout their supply chain. Suppliers are therefore nervous of investing in any new equipment that isn’t eco-friendly.

I’m expecting to see more plant, pulp and wood-based packaging for fresh produce, in place of plastic punnets. Currently, these are more expensive options, and there are questions over their reliability, so it will be interesting to see throughout 2019 who ultimately ends up paying for them and whether consumers will be persuaded to switch from plastic over the long-term.

Digital data will become increasingly important, as a way of measuring line efficiency, enhancing traceability, and ultimately improving products. For example, if you buy a potato, you can look at the pack and trace it back to the day and field it was picked. It will then be possible to forecast what kind of soil and climate creates the best potato and optimise yields.

I think there will be an increased focus on workers’ health and safety throughout 2019 and beyond. This is an area in which automation can play a big part. For example, palletising was historically a manual task, often involving someone packing 12 crates high and holding a considerable weight above their head.

For critics of automation who say it steals jobs away from those who need them, automating this task would not only increase the worker’s safety, it creates an opportunity for them to be retrained or upskilled and to then take ownership of the automated process.

Q: Finally, what impact do you think Brexit will have on your business in 2019?

A: There is still so much that we don’t know, so it’s impossible to make any firm plans. For the moment, therefore, it’s business as usual.

Looking further ahead, if we do leave the EU, then the drop in EU workers will make automation a necessity for our UK end-users, which is good for our business and the decreased value of the pound will make our machines more attractive overseas.

If we don’t end up leaving, then we will continue to service the latent demand for increased efficiency in a very competitive business market. We will therefore continue to invest in R&D and build the best packaging machines we can.