Factoring Humans Into Automation

June 28, 2021
In his monthly column, Senior Editor Pan Demetrakakes talks about how automation is not just a way to throw people out of work.

Food and beverage is arguably the least technically advanced of all major industrial sectors. That is changing, slowly but inevitably, as automation takes hold across all sectors of production, packaging and logistics. The pandemic, with its disruptions to the labor force, has made the advantages of automation clearer than ever.

There are, of course, many things that might hold automation back in an individual application: price, the initial difficulty of integrating it into an operation, lack of in-house technical knowhow. But a surprisingly big factor, according to what I keep hearing, is a fear of job loss.

Robots, and automation in general, have been demonized as a way for heartless corporations to throw people out of work. This is nothing new, of course; 19th-century Luddites smashed automated looms as a threat to home weavers. But what I find surprising is the extent to which this attitude has been internalized among management and even robotics suppliers.

As one of them explained it to me: Food plants are often the biggest employers in their towns. If systematic automation caused a lot of people to lose their jobs, it would create a local crisis that might fester into active resentment.

Now, I don’t think that this is a primary, or even principal, barrier to automation. But it’s a formidable one, which might tip the balance against a decision for large-scale automation. If Joe and Ed are doing a good job in the secondary packaging area putting together mixed pallet loads, why spend a lot of money on a robotic palletizer that will throw them out of work?

Putting it in those terms may sound childish. But multiply that kind of concern by dozens or even hundreds throughout a plant and you start to see the extent of the problem. It’s not a trivial concern; it goes to the heart of what we as a society consider rewarding work, or even tolerable working conditions.

I’ll never forget my visit to the Heinz ketchup plant in Massillon, Ohio, in the mid-aughts. 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 reading this would go stark raving mad after doing that for about 15 minutes.

That’s 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).

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One of the potential benefits of automation is liberating workers from tasks like that. It’s not just a matter of being “nice.” As the economy ramps up and competition for workers increases, work environment, and simply the nature of the work itself, will increasingly be a factor when it comes to finding labor.

A sympathetic approach will go a long way toward alleviating worker concerns when introducing automation. Of course, every situation is different, but one or both of two general principles should be applicable: 1) Automate the worst jobs – the most dangerous, strenuous or boring ones – first; 2) Use automation, as far as possible, to make work more interesting.

The latter often can be accomplished simply through the increased responsibility that automation brings. Which job sounds more interesting: one that makes you stand in one place all day looking for and clearing jams from a specific point in a line, or one where you monitor several lines at once and respond as needed to issues as they arise?

Automation won’t make anyone’s job truly fun. But if introduced judiciously, it can enhance work instead of just replacing workers. 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.

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