A long list of concerns continues to keep businesses in the food processing industry on their toes. Inflation. Supply chain issues. Hiring challenges. The pandemic. However, a connective thread runs through these four: automation.
Let's take a closer look.
The Pandemic Brought Automation Front and Center
Over the past couple of years, COVID has created an unprecedented situation for food processing industry employers. When an outbreak of this highly contagious virus occurs in a processing facility, it can take out an entire department. These outbreaks cause them to struggle to find enough workers to keep productivity up.
But even pre-COVID, there were jobs in the industry that were difficult to fill. For example, some roles require working in an environment kept cold enough to preserve the products being handled. In addition, the repetitive nature of some of the work can be a deterrent.
However, when productivity drops, no matter the reason, supply chain interruptions can occur. When supply is down and demand is up, inflation can strike.
We can see that all four of these factors are in some ways related.
COVID exacerbated worker shortages. Productivity was impacted, affecting the supply chain, which in turn helped drive up prices.
So, what's the answer? What might help address these issues? Adopting automation is one solution.
While there's been increasing automation in the food processing industry for years, it has lagged to other industries and been inconsistent.
Now, with the onslaught of these factors impacting their ability to keep up with demand, food processors are taking a closer look at automation solutions, such as the implementation of food contact robotics.
Why The Time Is Right for Automation in the Food Processing Industry
- People are still required to run the equipment: Skilled labor won't be displaced by automation, as humans are still needed to ensure customized equipment runs properly. As long as we have to ensure the quality of the products we process, human workers will always be needed.
- But hiring is a challenge and older workers are leaving the workforce: Everywhere, in seemingly every industry, companies are facing labor challenges. Many seasoned workers are retiring, leaving no one to train and mentor younger workers.
- Some work is better off being automated: Some jobs – like assembling sandwiches in a 38-degree environment – would be handled better by automation. There aren't a lot of workers who want those jobs. Turnover can be very high. Automation can help fill those gaps.
- Technology is more accessible: As the price of technology continues to decline, it becomes more accessible to more food processors. Not only are the solutions more cost-effective, but they’re also better than ever before (e.g., vision system accuracy, end of arm tooling (EOAT) options, robots, and so on).
- Service is increasingly virtual: As service technicians were limited in physically visiting plants, service calls were conducted virtually for immediate support. As automation increases, more machines will need to be serviced.
Finding a Balance Between Automation and Humans
One of our most significant challenges is how do we as an industry keep up to best serve our customers amidst ongoing change? How can we factor in automation while keeping the human touch?
It's all about finding the balance between automation and the human touch.
How do we scale up to feed the world while balancing these challenges? As the food industry and processing continue to evolve, we should factor in automation. But humans will always play a role.
At Grote Company we manufacture automation equipment – but we still have a human answering the phone. We believe that humans aren't replaceable, but they can be offered positions in which they may be happier while helping our customers feel more satisfied with their experience.
This article was featured in Food Engineering.
Learn about our robotic automation solutions here.