Riding out the storm

Adam Baker asks market leaders in the cutting, slicing and dicing market how they are coping with the global hardships of 2009

It is refreshing to hear that a relatively young company in the meat industry has plenty of good news to announce – especially as it approaches one of its early milestones. Oxfordshire-based Interfood Technology finds itself precisely in that position, as it supplies its 200th slicer to a production facility in the UK, just short of celebrating its 10th birthday.

At a time when the world was fretting about something called the Millennium Bug and the 20th century was nearing its retirement, the then fledgling Interfood was selected by slicing systems manufacturer Weber as its sole UK and Ireland distributor. Ten years on, its 200th slicer delivery will be used in a high-speed bacon application – and its partnership with Weber is still going strong.


The Right Solution

“We have an excellent relationship with Weber, which has certainly been a prime reason for us reaching this milestone in such a relatively short space of time,” says company director Jim Sydenham. “We feel that part of our success is down to working with our customers, including using Weber’s excellent manufacturing and research facility in Germany, to ensure that exactly the right slicing solution is found for any given application.”

Available for small, low-volume producers right through to multi-line, high-volume manufacturing facilities, Weber can provide computer-controlled slicing on all ranges, with full technical assistance from conception to after-sales service. Sales director Rob Unwin adds: “The introduction of Weber’s scanning systems, in conjunction with its high-speed slicing technology, has certainly helped us to develop this market. Delivering fixed-weight portions at consistently high accept rates, with low end-of-line giveaways, has never been more important to our customers in these times of ever-increasing raw material costs.”

Other notable areas of development in slicing, says Interfood, include food robotics, which provide an individual adjustable technology, based on the specific advantages and benefits of robots. But despite all these new advances and innovations, with the economy as it is, customers might be a little more hesitant to reinvest in the latest and greatest machinery available on the market.

Interfood says it is well aware that the current economic climate, particularly the weakness of sterling against the euro and the dollar, has raised the costs of equipment coming into the UK. Sydenham has noticed that the time it takes to shake hands on a deal, from the initial enquiry through to the actual order being placed, has lengthened, as customers take a bit more time deciding which investment is the right one for them. “Many of our customers supply product to the major supermarket chains, which have their own cost pressures that get passed down the
line. That means we have to negotiate very hard with our machinery manufacturers, to ensure our customers get the best deal possible,” he adds.


Steering in a Recession

Interfood has always focused on ensuring its operation is streamlined, says Sydenham, but to steer through a recession comfortably, he reckons this focus becomes even more important than ever. “The business is run as economically as possible. That is not to say we won’t continue to invest: we will be adding another two, or possibly three engineers to our current team of 15 by the end of the year. It is all about controlling costs and investing in the areas of the business that will allow us to continue to meet our commitment to service, which we feel is so fundamental.”

Sydenham says that one of the benefits of working with a company such as Weber is that it is constantly introducing new developments across its range, particularly on the robotics and automated handling side of its portfolio.

As well as Weber, another major manufacturer Interfood represents, in the cutting, slicing and dicing category, is German firm TVI. He points out that TVI has also introduced a number of new developments in the fresh meat slicing side of its business, for both boneless and bone-in meat, which further reduces give-away on fixed weight slicing. “Many of the new developments will be on show in a few weeks’ time at Anuga FoodTec, which we will be attending to support the manufacturers,” he adds.


More Pain to Come?

Sydenham notes that he has already seen much restructuring in some of the major food and meat processing companies and thinks there will be a lot more. “For us, it is about recognising the market conditions we face and responding accordingly, negotiating hard so that the pain is spread across the equipment manufacturer, us and the customer.” For Interfood to happily continue for another decade and beyond, Sydenham believes the firm has to look at ways of adding value to what it does, such as putting together bespoke packages. These include the costs of the equipment, transportation, spare parts and servicing, to ensure the company can offer a cost-effective deal that is the best possible fit for a customer’s requirements. With a philosophy and business plan such as this, it looks well set to ride out the
rough times.


Only in America

At Formax, meanwhile, the rather impressive-sounding ‘Center for Innovation & Technology’ is a place of open-plan offices, flip-charts, board meeting rooms and coffee machines. Yet this very American-sounding establishment may just hold the answer to what every British and European machinery company needs during a recession – a place for new ideas and problem-solving that will impress a potential or existing customer enough to sign the deal.

Business development manager Brian Sandberg explains: “It’s fair to say we have never seen a more difficult time, as the industry is confronted with the prospect of shrinking profits. Formax has always had a strong emphasis on technology and collaboration with customers, as a means of helping processors take control of their productivity, product quality and costs. We know our slicing customers want to see more innovation for improving line efficiency, slice integrity, food safety and weight control. And we know they appreciate the benefits of our services from our Center for Innovation & Technology in helping to create and market higher-quality, more innovative products, while lowering total ownership costs.” Sandberg believes that by constantly innovating and developing new products for its customers, it can benefit them both now and in the future. Its PowerMax4000 Slicing System and FXplus Modular System, says Sandberg, show how a new line of thinking can be of advantage to customers, as their advanced technology features higher accuracy, reliability and hygienic designs. “The modular construction of the PowerMax4000 and FXplus slicing systems is a key innovation when it comes to lowering ownership costs,” explains Sandberg. “Formax’s modular designs eliminate the need to purchase components that aren’t immediately required. With the larger PowerMax4000, processors can select up to four independent drives and up to four individual classifiers. And with the new FXplus Modular System, processors have the choice of one or two independent drives and up to three scales and classifiers.”

Formax claims that, due to superior efficiency and performance, its exclusive independent drive technology is of major benefit to processors and says this is the main reason why both the PowerMax4000 or FXplus Modular Systems are unmatched in terms of weight control and yields for shingles, stacks, bunches or shaved product. The technology’s ability to exert complete control over the individual logs as they are delivered to the blade results in consistent slice thickness and precise portion weights, adds the firm. “Formax Blade Technology can improve line performance, slice integrity and yields. Benefits include up to 25% higher productivity, 2% higher yields, significantly reduced or eliminated crust freezing requirements and improved stack appearance,” says Sandberg.

Improved food safety and product presentation are also enhanced, notes the company, with the addition of an automated Formax Loading System, said to match the output of the PowerMax4000 and the FXplus Modular and making it easy to slice, convey, stage and load exact weight stacks, drafts or shaved bunches. Automation is also claimed to extend shelf-life, reduce labour, enhance food safety and protect the client’s brand.

Sandberg says the company is most successful when its engineering and development team helps its customers continue to produce innovative new products and address the economics pitfalls of today and tomorrow. “Even in this recession, the demand for sliced product is strong. So smart purchasing decisions are made based on the economies that can be achieved through production, as well as the quality and innovation of the products themselves,” he adds. “Sliced meat and poultry is unique in the value it brings to the customer. As a world leader in slicing technology, Formax is focused on food safety and machine hygiene. The PowerMax4000 features a revolutionary electronic guard system that creates a more open and hygienic environment by minimising the number of physical guards. And since there are fewer guards to impede cleaning and inspection, the time required for cleaning is kept to an absolute minimum.”


Hygiene at Formax

Hygiene is such a priority now for machinery firms and, at Formax, the technology of advanced automation speeds up the hygiene process and ensures thorough washdowns. With the touch of a button, the slicing system moves to the clean-up position providing complete and easy access to machine components and surfaces. The scale unit slides out 300mm from the cabinet, the blade cover opens to expose the blade and the loaf feed system lowers to a horizontal position. For the best in hygienic construction and sanitation simplicity, Sandberg adds that sloped machine surfaces and a cabinet top with minimal penetration eliminate water collection and further assure complete cleaning. A machine can now be sparkling merely through the touch of a button and this saves both time and money.


Part of the Union

Union Food Machinery (UFM) MD Malcolm Burgess reckons the current economic climate, along with the fall in sterling, has created many challenges for the whole industry, as margins become tighter than before and look likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

“It is essential for all businesses to be as lean and effective as possible,” he says. “Machinery companies must be able to interpret the customers’ wishes correctly, and offer the best value-for-money package available. This may mean offering creative payment plans and demonstration or exhibition equipment, instead of brand-new, while always maintaining the very highest standards of equipment and service.”

In the UK, UFM is a specialist in distributing machinery and parts from firms based in Central European countries, including Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. This year, one such client, Laska, has introduced its new Nano Cutter, a high-capacity emulsifier for volume producers of emulsified goods. The cutter also fits perfectly into the whole Laska Automation Programme. Burgess adds that not only does the industry have to overcome huge raw material increases, but must also compete within an increasingly difficult retail environment. “The change in focus to find best value for money from the buying public throws up both challenges and opportunities,” he says. “It is important that the industry is creative and continues to offer quality products – and this must be taken as a positive challenge by further processors.”

He adds that a choice of quality equipment will enable processors to benefit from the best technology available, which should help to drive costs down.


Rising to the challenge

New products in Reiser’s line-up this year include the Holac 28CT for high-speed slicing of boneless and bone-in fresh meat products. This new piece of kit is said to offer higher throughput capacity than previous models, as well as the advantage of being fully programmable to ensure maximum yield through precise cutting and eliminating giveaway when slicing pork or lamb loins, for example.

Managing director Peter Mellon says: “Over the past six months, there has been a notable difference in what customers are looking for and their decision-making processes, as a result of the current economic climate. The industry is looking more closely at projects involving capital expenditure, and companies are taking longer to make decisions – whereas before, businesses had the confidence to just go ahead and buy.

“Customers are also more likely to move ahead with projects offering a quick payback on investment – or automation allowing them to cut back on labour,” he adds. “All in all, cost savings must be more tangible when making equipment purchases in the current trading environment.”

Reiser says that, just like any other firm, it is adapting to the tough economic conditions by looking at costs and cutting where necessary, without having an impact on the level of service it offers to its customers. “The key issue for suppliers of equipment to the meat and wider food industry is to make sure you’re delivering to customers exactly what they want – and taking costs out of the business without a negative impact on customers. Maintaining a high standard of customer service at the lowest possible cost is the main aim right now,” Mellon adds.

Another addition to Reiser’s Holac dicing range, is the AUT30, which offers high-speed production of beef, lamb and pork cubes. The AUT30 is said to achieve a very clean and precise cut, resulting in uniform cubes, making it ideal for retail packs.

With elected politicians now saying this is the most serious recession for over 100 years – not to mention a slip of the tongue from the Prime Minister, saying depression rather than recession – machinery companies find themselves in uncharted waters. Many in the industry believe two crucial factors will keep them going: product innovation and customer satisfaction. As a result, equipment suppliers need to offer all sorts of deals and packages for potential clients, rather than just delivering a piece of equipment to the factory gates and leaving it there.

As most of the experts never saw the current financial conditions coming in the first place, many do not really know what lies ahead. However, if companies continue to pump money into research and development, those so far fabled green shoots of recovery will be springing up quicker than expected and the financial meltdown of 2008/2009 will just be another footnote in the history books.


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