What labor in a produce processing plant might look like in the decades ahead

December 31, 2015

The world is moving fast and we are only at the beginning of a new era in technological progression, which is why the produce processing plants you know today may be completely different 10 or 20 years down the line.

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, feels there will be a number of technological advancements that will make things easier in the processing plants and require less of a workforce.

“The technology is going to reduce the number of people who are needed to run things,” he said. “With some of the automated systems coming in, one can do the work of many.”

Produce industry veteran Bruce Peterson, president of Peterson Insights, a consulting firm located in Bentonville, Arkansas, said in the future, fresh produce will become further processed, which speaks well in general for processing plants.

“Packaging technology will continue to evolve, retailers will continue to place food safety demands and product recall efforts squarely on the shoulders of their suppliers, and consumers will become less and less interested in elaborate preparation techniques for their meals,” he said. “So all of that suggests that produce departments will resemble more like packaged deli departments in those retailers that have any size and scale.”

Rise of the Robots

While the thought of robots doing the jobs of humans may seem like something out of the latest science fiction film, it is a reality that is happening more and more in businesses today. Robots can be found in hospitals, kitchens and numerous Silicon Valley companies doing the work once done by men and women.

Richard van der Linde, president of the Netherlands-based company Lacquey, has been experimenting with robots and recently saw success with a robot picking up cabbage. With the aid of five cameras, plus sensors in its wrist to monitor the resistance it encounters, the three-fingered gripper can carefully pick up a cabbage, reorient it, and place it into a machine that removes the core.

In an article in MIT Technology Review, van der Linde stressed that up until now, only humans could do that, but he’s working with FTNON, a manufacturer of food-processing equipment, to get the technology ready to go to work inside the giant chillers where today humans process cabbage, lettuce, and other produce for packaging.

The company is also testing versions for other sorts of jobs in processing plants, such as packaging tomatoes, peppers and mangoes.

With regards to robotics, Peterson believes it will absolutely be the case that produce processing plants will become more automated in the decades ahead.

“A few things will drive this: 1. The general lack of people coming into the labor market, and 2. Escalating minimum wage issues will force companies to reduce head count in areas that don’t require highly trained individuals,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter what business you are in. Technology will continue to displace people in entry-level types of jobs.”

Gasperini believes that there will continue to be a loss in numbers of the domestic workforce in the produce industry overall due to factors such as the 2 million domestic ag workers who are illegally documented. That issue will affect processing plants as well.

“There’s a lot of talk in Congress about people saying they want to enforce this more, and as the economy continues to expand, more jobs become available,” he said. “Without some way to bring in more workers and we see less bureaucracy, businesses are going to find another way and that means more automated processes. Ag is going to be hammered.”

On the processing side with fruits and vegetables, Gasperini said robotics will definitely be the way of the future because their ability to look at things through a camera and judge color and quality can be done better than with a human’s eye.

“Optical equipment can do it way faster and more efficient than people,” he said. “There will always be a need for some people to make sure things don’t fall off the line, but a lot of people will be doing hand labor. It’s not totally unskilled, just the training is different.”

Embrace the future

Processing plants that stay the course and don’t embrace the new technology may find themselves losing business and falling to their competitors before long.

Andrew LeVasseur, head of the creative technology track at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, said an important step in future proofing a business is to stay curious.

“If you keep hearing news about an app and wonder what it’s used for, find out. Do your research and learn what new things are coming,” he said. “Second, challenge convention. Always look to do things differently than your competitor. In a time when products and services are more easily available than ever, differentiation can drive brands forward.”

Taking an example from a different business, Gasperini said the dairy industry has been greatly impacted by technology of late as the need for workers dwindles every year.

“Some of the new dairy setups have automation that can watch the cow and hook up cups and a person is there just to watch it and make sure it runs smoothly—it replaces about three or four people in the process,” he said. “You can have just 10-12 people managing an entire large dairy.”

When it comes to the fields with people picking strawberries or different variety of apples, machines can reduce the number of people by use of moving platforms and automated pickers that can clear one side of a tree at a time.

“It’s a whole process of doing things smarter and looking for every efficiency with current technology you can use,” he said. “You can probably reduce a workforce 10-15 percent by planning more efficiently.”

While no one thinks robots will be taking over the world tomorrow, the advancements made in robotics will have an impact on produce processing plants going forward and the industry is only a decade or two away from them becoming more commonplace in the work environment.

— Kathy Gibbons, Contributing Writer