Working Toward a More Interesting Plant Floor

By Pan Demetrakakes

Years ago, I visited one of the largest ketchup plants in the world. One of the lines was undergoing beta testing on a vision system that checked a fast-moving stream of ketchup bottles, kicking out any with skewed labels. Up to that point, this work had been done manually.

Let that sink in. There was a human being whose job it was to sit in front of a conveyor belt, looking at an unbroken stream of ketchup bottles, waiting for one to show up with a wrinkled or crooked label so he could pluck it from the line. Even if that had been a rotating duty (and I sure hope it was), I and probably 99% of the people who use this website would go stark raving mad after doing that for about 15 minutes.

I’ve thought about that guy repeatedly in the intervening years. Did the company put in that vision system? If so, what happened to him? Did they lay him off, or find something else for him to do? And if they did, was it at least a little more interesting?

This is an extreme example of what is to be found in any food plant, and indeed pretty much any manufacturing plant. Many jobs on the floor are repetitive and boring beyond words; some are saved from boredom only by their danger (like coworkers at either elbow wielding boning knives). One of the supposed benefits of automation is liberating workers from tasks like that.

But is that always good?

This goes beyond the question, vital though it is, of jobs being eliminated by automation. Of course most people who need a paycheck—which means most people—would do even the most mind-numbing job if there was no other way to get food and shelter. But when it comes to jobs, quality is a more subtle issue than quantity.

During my first stint with Food Processing, in the ’90s, automation was making jobs less numerous, but more challenging. A packaging operation that might have had one or two people on each line, standing by to take care of jams or backups, would now have one worker monitoring PLCs that controlled three or four lines, tending to them remotely. Plant managers would regularly tell me that they had trouble finding workers flexible and alert enough to do this. Some companies even instituted two pay tiers—one for workers who handled automated tasks, and a lower one for those in the declining number of completely rote jobs. Perhaps the loss of the latter type of job should be mourned, on the grounds that it takes chances away from people with very limited skills.

But most worthwhile philosophies and religions have, among their core values, human perfectibility. In particular, a younger, tech-raised generation will have far fewer problems with PLCs and operator interfaces. I like to think that making work more challenging will inevitably, over the long run and the greater number of cases, make a more interesting and positive experience out of a vital aspect of life.