September/October 2021

Automation, company culture ways to help mitigate labor challenges
By Melanie Epp, contributing writer

Running a food business during a global pandemic is nothing short of challenging. It’s led to unprecedented change in terms of consumer demand, and forced many companies to rethink the way they do business.

Reliance on a potentially vulnerable labor force presents a whole new set of challenges in a human health crisis, though. John Koury, a consulting architect with A M King, offers a few solutions for resolving and addressing the most prevalent labor challenges today.

Invest in automation, think vertically

In the food processing plants, there are three main areas where automation can streamline production: processing, packaging and storage. Koury said most processors have invested in automation for cleaning, sorting, conveying, and even labeling and packaging.

John Koury, A M King

“But areas where you’re seeing people ask about it more are in storage, and in particular, higher density storage,” he said, pointing to storage that is beyond the reach of a simple lift truck.

Typical storage units have about 18-20 feet of clearance, but some units reach as high as 40 feet. This is about the maximum in terms of reachability with a lift truck, said Koury.

Implementing this type of storage system, called automatic storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), allow companies to exceed that 40-foot maximum. Because the system is automatic, it doesn’t rely on lift drivers and, as a result, helps processors reduce their reliance on staff.

Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) provide another option. AGVs are guided by laser, GPS or passive magnets set in the floor. Using AGVs and ASRS allows processors to maximize space, as aisles no longer need to be wide enough to accommodate forklifts.

“What’s different is it adds a vertical component,” said Koury. “These things will travel horizontally, but they also travel vertically.”

“And the result of that is your warehouse aisles get narrower,” he added.

While investing in automation can be expensive, it offers other benefits for processors, too. For example, as Koury pointed out, the cost of land is on the rise, not in decline. But building vertically means utilizing less land. He also pointed out that investing in automation could also reduce the risk of contamination by human hands, and thereby improve food safety.

Engage your equipment supplier early

Processors who wish to fully take advantage of vertical space and automation will need the structure to support it. And while automation can be retrofitted later, Koury recommends engaging equipment suppliers early.

“Because sometimes that could be one of the largest ticket items, if not the largest ticket item of the whole project,” he said. “Having that information and that coordination in place early with your design team is really important.”

Engaging suppliers early will help processors understand design needs, such as placement of electricity and water fixtures. As a consulting architect, this is exactly what Koury does for A M King’s clients. The process starts inside the factory Koury and the company in question evaluate processing capacity, and then move outwards. At this point, he said, it’s nice to have the equipment suppliers on board as well.

Choose user-friendly equipment

Where high staff turnover is a concern, which is in most food processing plants, processors look for solutions through equipment design.

More often now, equipment suppliers keep labor challenges in mind through the design of their equipment. Today’s manufacturers design equipment with usability and performance in mind. In California, tech-savvy vegetable processor George Chiala Farms uses TOMRA Sorting machines where they once relied on manual labor. TOMRA has put special focus on ease of use by simplifying its interface, especially through its data platform, TOMRA insight.

“As the industry moves toward ready-to-eat products, our customers’ quality expectations have gotten a lot higher,” said Charles Cutler, GC Farms’ director of operations.

“Quality used to mean assuring food safety,” he said. “Now it’s about achieving product perfection. That’s why we have made a big shift in the last couple of years from manual sorting to automated sorting. This has taken our product quality to a higher standard, allowed us to reduce and stabilize our labor force, and reduced our labor costs for sorting on our Hollister line by 75%.”

Additionally, investing in equipment designed with usability in mind makes it easy to train new staff, which is especially advantageous in factories where high staff turnover is the norm.

Cultivate company culture

High staff turnover in factories is pretty much a given, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the best ways to retain employees is by cultivating a positive company culture. This means taking care of employees through benefits and fair pay packages, but also the greater community and environment. Marketing a positive company culture can also impact sales, as more consumers wish to support businesses that treat their employees, farmers and the environment well.

California-headquartered Amy’s Kitchen, for example, has developed a company culture that focuses on quality, community and environmental conscientiousness. The company offers benefit programs that they say are a direct reflection of the family-focused culture they represent. Their website says they offer generous benefits packages that’s designed to keep their employees physically, emotionally and financially healthy. Benefits include affordable healthcare, retirement savings plans, paid time off, tuition reimbursement, scholarships and discounts on Amy’s products.

Focus on employee happiness and values that resonate with them is what keeps them from shopping for a new job. “It makes me happy that food and employee safety are important at Amy’s because it’s important to me,” said Thy Oun, Tofu Team Lead, who has worked at Amy’s for 13 years now.

While labor challenges are always front of mind, especially in current conditions, there are solutions to minimize risk: invest in automation, think vertically, work closely with equipment suppliers, and cultivate a company culture that retains employees.

Top photo: Robots in use in a food processing facility. Credit: A M King

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