Have you walked through a food or beverage plant lately? If not, you would be in for a big surprise by the amount of automation and sortation in use throughout the plants.
As a distributor of MRO (maintenance, repair and operation) supplies, we have seen the product mix that we sell to food and beverage plants change over the years to more automation components, and we certainly expect this trend to continue. Automation in food and beverage is here to stay. Why? Global competition!
Let’s look at available labor. Over the years, food and beverage plants have migrated away from certain labor-intensive applications such as sorting, labeling, dispensing, material handling, etc., to automated equipment. This will continue to be the case. Our job market has been robust in the past couple of years, and finding enough workers has been a challenge.
Demographics in the USA are changing rapidly. Baby boomers are retiring at a very fast pace. For many young people entering the workforce, working in a food or beverage plant is not in the mindset. So companies are faced with a human resource challenge, and knowledge of automation is a must!
There is a need to produce more for less. Or, maybe a more positive way to say this is: the need for productivity improvements. Have you ever wondered how a restaurant can make money selling a hamburger from their “value menu”?
Think about it: You have to raise the cattle, deliver them to the processing plant, process the meat, form and package the patty, deliver it to the wholesaler or to the restaurant chain, cook it, add a bun and serve it. How do you do that for less than $1? Don’t forget, they have to make a little money at it as well. Automation is the answer to productivity improvements and process cost reductions.
Global competition has changed the game. If you haven’t done so lately, take a look at the country of origin for the processed or packaged food you buy in the grocery store today. I recently tried to find apple juice made in the USA. I sorted through a half dozen different brands and was surprised that none of the apple juice was made in or packaged in the USA. Global competition is driving change faster than anything else I can think of in the food and beverage industry. Thus to stay competitive, plants continue to automate.
So as I stated in a previous column related to automation in this industry, automation will not completely replace the human element in the food and beverage processing plants, but it will certainly augment the labor content in the years to come. The types of jobs in these plants will move toward a more highly skilled individual who is no longer loading a conveyor belt, sorting parts and pieces, packaging finished products into shipping boxes, etc.
The new jobs will be more technically skilled, understanding process automation and the programming of automated equipment and robots. The technician will utilize IIoT and artificial intelligence to keep the new equipment operating at optimum performance, increasing throughput, reducing downtime and improving the overall profitability of the plant.
My suggestion is not to shy away from automation, but embrace it. Find a good automation partner and invite them into your facilities to identify the opportunities. Automation is here to stay in the food and beverage industries – be a part of the change.