January/February 2022

Addressing labor challenges through automation, robotics
By Sean Riley, senior director, Media and Industry Communications, PMMI

Almost from the moment robots first appeared in factories in the 1960s, the immediate reaction among factory workers was a fear that automation would replace humans in the manufacturing workforce. More than half a century later, not only has this assumption proved false, but many facilities in manufacturing cannot even find enough skilled labor to work its current automation, including produce processing.

Sean Riley, PMMI
Sean Riley

In September 2021, PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, brought together high-level packaging and processing executives from consumer- packaged goods companies (CPGs) and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for its Top to Top Summit. Labor was immediately identified as the top operational priority, as the U.S. currently faces an unprecedented labor shortage.

The number two operational priority was automation, particularly making automation more effortless to use in order to find labor skilled enough to hire. This aligns with PMMI’s Automation Timeline: The Drive Toward 4.0 Connectivity in Packaging and Processing white paper, which shone a spotlight on the general lack of skilled labor as the biggest hurdle to advancing and expanding automation. Stated another way, the average skill level amongst potential employees does not rise to the level required by automated processes.

Like the labor shortage, automation is a trend that was growing long before COVID-19 came along but, also in lockstep with the labor shortage, the pandemic gave automation a massive boost — causing many companies to accelerate their automation plans. For produce processing manufacturers, these labor struggles translate into difficulty when seeking to expand automation. While increasing automation generally tends to reduce the number of employees needed at a given facility, it paradoxically increases the level of skill required. As a result, expanding automated features and processes often creates new labor needs and requirements, even while simultaneously eliminating others.

A lack of skilled labor within existing operations means companies cannot easily devote internal resources to carrying out a new automation strategy without pulling from existing processes. This creates an either/or decision scenario for manufacturers, where they must determine which personnel to allocate to a given project without interrupting existing operations.

While OEMs cannot find the skilled employees needed for the automation, they are providing for produce processing, some design strategies are helping manufacturers with the labor challenges, such as simplifying equipment features as much as possible. Changes should be explored, such as streamlined machine interfaces featuring graphic-driven explanations and prompts that can help employees make correct selections without the need for a deep understanding of programming or digital skills. Adding these simplifications into the maintenance of the machine would benefit operators as well. Simpler interfaces can direct employees to perform maintenance or cleaning tasks with guided, demonstrated steps that mitigate much of the need for specialized knowledge or advanced degrees.

More than anything else, produce processing manufacturers need to partner with automation suppliers, so each can provide ongoing education and guidance. OEMs are a definitive source of automation knowledge and expertise, helping to facilitate the ongoing expansion of automation at manufacturers through continuous cooperation and mutual collaboration.

As the produce processing industry continues to advance, the technologies and solutions to keep up with these trends will be on display at PACK EXPO East (March 21-23, 2022; Pennsylvania Convention Center). No other East Coast event will offer such a wide range of state-of-the-art packaging and processing solutions as PACK EXPO East, produced by PMMI. With 400 exhibitors, PACK EXPO East provides a convenient and rewarding opportunity for CPG and life sciences professionals to explore packaging and processing technology, connect with suppliers and find the solutions needed to compete in a changing marketplace conveniently located just a drive or train-trip away for most of the east coast.

To register or learn more, visit packexpoeast.com. For information about the PACK Ready Health and Safety plan, visit packexpoeast.com/packready.

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