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Richard Clemens: "It is an erroneous belief that Africa needs just simple machines or used technical equipment."

Within the scope of preparing the 2nd German-Senegalese Economic Summit of 7th November 2014 in Düsseldorf, we will hold talks with professionals about the topics Food Processing and Renewable Energies in Germany and abroad. After the 1st Interview conducted with Mr. Werner M. Dornscheidt, Chairman of the Management Board of the trade fair 'Messe Düsseldorf' on 5th June 2014, we visited Mr. Richard Clemens, Managing Director of VDMA (Association of German Machinery and Equipment Constructors) dealing with food processing and packaging machines, on 16th July in Frankfurt am Main.


Mr. Clemens: At the trade fair Interpack 2014 in Düsseldorf, you told me: "If you want more cleanliness in the packaging industry, you should have less people in production."

Are you talking about the deserted factory without people?

Clemens: When I look at the food industry, the central issues we finally talk about are the hygiene or the contamination of foodstuffs or beverages, and a factor which is very important to me is the human being who is a carrier for bacteria, diseases or pollutants for food. It is crucial in this context to obey certain rules of hygiene. Nothing would be worse than foodstuffs arising in the supermarkets in contaminated condition. The fact is that humans take a key position here. But may we say: The fewer people, the better? However, man is an utmost critical factor in this entire process chain. 

Is this the reason why you also showed robots at the trade fair Interpack? 

Clemens: This is one of the reasons why we showed robots. Of course, the factory without people is not visible yet. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people are working in food processing plants, but we cannot do without them altogether. I deliberately say that it is not visible yet. Such circumstances are not desirable, but robots are somewhat more reliable and can especially in terms of hygiene act more easily. However, robots have a different purpose. For around 10 years now, we have experienced a situation in the packaging industry where we can produce a high quality with the control and design of robots. Work through people, including the employees, is not desirable in numerous areas.  

Are you referring to the monotony? 

Clemens: Robots help us to perform the monotonous business. Why shall I employ someone 24 hours a day in a three-shift operation, in order to fill bottles into a box. It makes absolutely no sense.

Are robots also helping with cleanliness?

Clemens: That is surely a subject we are strongly working on. A robot having a lot of joints and movable arms, is 100 percent able to manage the hygiene. The monotonous activity has less to do with the subject of rationalization. Robots can handle it much more precisely and reliable, with much more perseverance than humans.

At the trade fair you also showed how sensors can make sure that we know when a machine shall be cleaned.

Clemens: This technical ability is still in its infancy. First developments have been achieved in this field. After all, I always want to know when my cleaning was successful, and I have indeed no insight into a lot of areas of a machine. Take for example a dairy. There, I am cleaning pipes, pumps, valves and I do not open the equipment. This is called CIP (cleaning in place). Thus cleaning something, without taking it apart. Actually, I would need a sensor in the machine. I can of course examine rinse water for microbiology and other factors, but in fact I would need sensors everywhere, telling me that cleaning is necessary or not. There are different kinds of procedures, but the subject here is complex, since the question arises as to what was previously inside: milk, honey, marmalade. What kinds of liquids have been inside? We actually talk about organic substances, and there are different ways of cleaning things.

Where is this equipment used in Germany?

Clemens: The equipment will still have to be tested at universities. You have to understand that the food industry is in a positive sense very restrained, rather conservative. Nothing is worse than a technology which is not yet mature, and as a result of which products might be contaminated. In this way, entire batches go bust. And especially the image of the product and of the company can in one stroke be destroyed. But this is the future. We indeed want to exactly know whether the facility is clean or not. The relevant factor is the plant design. We therefore speak about the subject Hygienic Design. That is to say: How do I construct a plant as a whole? Is it a smooth pipe? But after all, who can tell what is smooth? If the seals are reasonably dimensioned, they can also expand. If I rinse in very hot water, the seal will expand. If a seal is expanding and contracting again, small edges will always develop, where stuffs can remain stuck. Really, around 1000 experts are engaged worldwide in this field.

In which countries?

Clemens: Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the USA are certainly leading in this area. We talk about how to polish, grind or electrobrighten a surface. In fact, we talk about single cells becoming jammed. Take, for instance, a yeast cell as a model. Where will it remain stuck? Just imagine that a surface examined under a microscope has jags, and these valleys are the place where for instance the yeast cells fall in. How can I manage to get it out from there?

Of course, you can always get it out by using extremely aggressive agents. But the application of extremely aggressive agents might cost one of these seals going bust. Something might be damaged, when extremely high temperatures are applied. This in turn is not good for the seals. You might get rid of the cell, if you clean very long or with very sharp agents, but then again you have the disposal problem, since you indeed want to clean quickly and very reliably.

When can the test phase take place in enterprises?

Clemens: In five up to ten years. But we will still not be relieved of our duty to carry out spot checks. What we now already know and can do, are the so-called sniffers for the bottles. They smell in the bottles whether something was left behind there. Sensors detect whether a glass bottle has a crack or not. This is done by image recognition, but on principle we cannot replace the human organ. And a plant is very complex. In such a big plant you have dozens of pumps, valves, corners and angles. In the end we often take our experience for construction, so that the people operating or building these plants gain certain experience and can say: "This is the thing you have to do. I have experience with this."

Ten years are a long time. That is a cost factor. Who promotes the whole thing?

Clemens: The industry specifically seeks to really find solutions in every single detail here. The universities are also strongly committed, but their research is done on behalf of the industry, since the whole thing is a cost factor for the industry or the operator, who wishes to clean quickly and effectively; after all, cleaning time means that no production is possible. Or that hazardous waste has to be disposed of, if you want to put it like this.

Is there a funding from the Federal State or Government, or from the EU?

Clemens: Yes, of course. The subject of Food Security always plays an important role in all research programs for the food industry. But there are no funding programs specifically targeted at this topic. Indirectly, there has been repeated funding of food security, all the more so when small details are concerned. A small detail can for example be a stirring unit. Please imagine what a stirring unit actually is supposed to be. A large container and something therein is stirring. How can I get the thing clean? That is what we showed at the Interpack fair. Because the basin is being cleaned with so to speak a bow running around, which is actually a delicate issue. The devil lies in the detail. As already mentioned, what sounds easy at first sight, turns out to be very complex on closer inspection. 

The VDMA Association of German Machinery and Equipment Constructors is a member of the German Initiative for Food Security, and the first conference took place on 8th November 2012. The first DIAE Africa Project Workshop took place under the patronage of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) from 23th up to 25th October 2012 in Lusaka, Zambia. Can you give us your comments on this issue?

Clemens: The conference in Lusaka was attended by my colleague, Mrs. Klaus. What do we actually intend to do there? The German Federal Government established the German Food Partnership, so as to be the first to display the entire value added chain. Agricultural issues shall not be viewed in isolation, but further processing is likewise to be considered, and this is what we stand up for. This was point one and point two here was to depict projects in the entire value added chain. Likewise, so-called business models were intended to be set up. These business models reflect the process of change that occurred in the German development aid policy, saying that it is much better to also give people the opportunity to locally earn money with the projects. The new Federal Development Minister Dr. Müller instituted 10 plus 1 green Innovation Centers, 10 plus 1 resulting from 10 centers in Africa and meanwhile one additional 11th center planned to be erected in India.

So far, India and nine African countries were named: Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Tunisia, that's almost for certain. Optional countries are Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Tanzania. The 10th Innovation Center could be built in Senegal.

Clemens: A so-called task force has acted in this area, with the aim to establish these 10 plus 1 special projects. Things like this are always a compromise. The Federal Government pursues its own ideas and the industry makes attempts to present such concepts as a compromise reached by utmost different industry representatives.

For example?

Clemens: The whole subject referring to fertilizers, seeds and agricultural machinery is also sitting at the table. In our capacity as Association of German Machinery and Equipment Constructors, we are likewise seated there. The last time around 30 representatives with different interests attended the meeting. This must be clearly said. Of course, we and the companies joining our association focus our attention on the question how big and how potent such markets are. We actually concentrated on one country, which is Kenya, thus one of the larger states. But capacity constraints are also relevant here. Meanwhile however, I have also submitted applications in India and, if appropriate partnerships can be found, I would indeed be interested in Ghana and Senegal as well. But to be quite honest, this is also a question of manpower. We try to avoid distraction, and not to do too many things at once. As far as the African markets are concerned, if I leave the Maghreb and South Africa out, the fact is that we are only at the start of a process.

You talked about partnerships. How should the partnership look like?

Clemens: We actually start out small; we look at certain countries. First of all we carry out market research in Germany, which is a little effort at the beginning. Thereafter we start in the countries concerned. We were present in Kenya and Nigeria. Only recently, we visited Nigeria and talked to company directors. We looked at the enterprise, making attempts to gain a small overview in a very short time. We always encounter the subject of education. This is true of Kenya and Nigeria; I assume the situation is similar in other countries. In management, most countries are very well positioned. But what is missing is the middle level we have in Germany; thus people who are very familiar with the technology and are able to offer service or carry out small repairs. We try to cooperate with a school or university, also to make technology available and to train teachers in Germany or locally.

Can you imagine the trade fair Made in Germany 2015 within the scope of the FIDAK fair in Dakar as a support for this German Initiative for Food Security? Is it conceivable for you to take that occasion as an opportunity for engaging in partnerships in Senegal?

Clemens: Sure, since we are ready to raise in that context this interesting packaging issue, stating that food waste can be significantly reduced by application of technology and adjusted techniques. And we have the technology to do so. Of course, the Europeans and Americans have the technology too, but we could simply show that our technology, which is sometimes pushed "into the corner" in Germany or is often demonized, can make a valuable contribution there.

You have been invited to attend the 2nd German-Senegalese Economic Summit in Düsseldorf on 7th November 2014. What will you talk about in your lecture?

Clemens: I already made a commitment and can tell you a lot about this value added chain. I can tell you which technologies are existent. I can strongly highlight the subject of hygiene; just like the problems arising in connection with educational issues up to the final selection of packaging materials. The same applies to the matter of training, which we desire. Another issue is the way we think about cooperating. And perhaps I may make one thing fully clear, when we speak about these markets. It is an erroneous belief that Africa needs just simple machines or used technical equipment. This is nonsense. We call it adjusted technology. It can be the best of the best, ultramodern technology, or a technology which is comparatively easy to handle, since technology is dependent upon the customer.

Mr. Clemens, many thanks for the Interview.

The Interview was held by Ibrahim Guèye.


The VDMA at a glance

The VDMA represents over 3,100 mainly small/medium size member companies in the engineering industry, making it one of the largest and most important industrial associations in Europe.

Mechanical engineering is a key technology and a powerful engine driving the economy.  Accounting for sales of € 205.8 billion (2013) and 986.000 employees (2013), mechanical engineering is one of the largest industrial sectors and employers in Germany. The products and services of the engineering industry are highly regarded worldwide. Roughly two thirds of German production is exported.

The VDMA covers the entire process chain - everything from components and plant manufacturers, system suppliers and system integrators through to service providers. We reflect the varied customer-supplier relations all along the value adding chain, permitting both industry-specific and intra-industry cooperation.