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Investment in transformative digital technologies will ensure the food industry in Northern Ireland remains at the ‘cutting edge of innovation’, the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association has said.

The potential of digital technologies to tackle recruitment shortfalls, improve health and safety standards and overall productivity is the focus of the industry-led Automated Food Manufacture network, recently established by NIFDA.

Supported by Invest Northern Ireland through its Collaborative Growth Programme, the Automated Food Manufacture network is exploring how digital technologies can be integrated into production processes to boost growth for the industry in Northern Ireland, with recommendations due to be published in September.

NIFDA Executive Director Michael Bell said:

“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. 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 week 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.