Ask food processors, system integrators and automation suppliers about fulfilling skilled tech positions and holding on to talent, and they’ll explain it’s a difficult challenge.  

A 2023 article in The Future Business Journal suggested that the U.S. would fall short of about 3.4 million tech workers by 2022. And in 2023, the country is still making efforts to fill available tech positions.

“Keeping skilled workers is a real challenge for manufacturers today,” says Gregory Powers, VP of cool stuff, Gray Solutions. “As we automate systems, facilities do get more complex to support. Manufacturing companies can improve employee retention of these skilled workers by providing the training and the appropriate tools to do their jobs more efficiently. With some advancements in tools like digital twin and AI/machine learning, we are making smarter systems that can be supported more easily and efficiently.”

Gray Solutions
Engineers who built an automation system can provide in-person training or remote on-line training for the times when food processor personnel can’t get away. System integrators like Gray Solutions can help processors upgrade their automation systems on a planned basis and supply custom-tailored training for operators and maintenance staffs. Photo courtesy of Gray Solutions

Retaining and recruiting skilled workers is a huge issue for manufacturers in the U.S. and continues to impact companies’ ability to meet customer demands, says Mark Hungerford, L2L SVP of manufacturing solutions. “Two key areas that are most critical are an employee’s ability to capture key technical knowledge and then their ability to transfer it to new technicians more efficiently.”

Hungerford notes that technology – software, in particular – enhances this challenge and gives companies a competitive edge when onboarding and retaining top talent, including:

  • Knowledge capture: Manufacturers’ ability to capture best practices and implement AI to introduce the appropriate best practices in a meaningful way is transforming how technicians can leverage decades of experience and software, making them nearly as effective in a much shorter time.
  • Knowledge transfer: Employees are raising expectations for what solutions and systems they have access to for onboarding and transferal of technical knowledge. The days of having a new technician shadow a veteran are over, and manufacturers are leveraging real-time work instruction and procedures alongside digital asset information such as manuals, videos and specifications to empower the new technicians. This new wave of workers is used to a “just YouTube it” mentality and are choosing to stay at companies that adopt similar self-help solutions.

“By integrating digital tools that provide real-time operational insights, we can significantly lessen the reliance on skilled labor for complex data interpretation,” says Chris Spray, LineView Solutions operational success director. This enables employees to make informed decisions quickly, reducing the need for deep technical knowledge and extensive training.

Furthermore, enhancing efficiency through the automation of routine data capture and reporting tasks allows skilled workers to focus on more critical, value-added activities. This not only optimizes their contributions but also boosts job satisfaction by reducing mundane tasks, Spray adds.

“Investing in continuous training and development is also crucial,” Spray says. Such initiatives help retain skilled labor by enhancing their capabilities and keeping them engaged and motivated. Robotics are ideal for automating repetitive tasks that do not require the nuanced skills of human workers, allowing them to concentrate on more skilled, value-added tasks.

Robotics solutions are now finding their way into “high-mix” tasks, where traditional automation has had problems coming up with solutions, says Rajat Bhageria, founder and CEO of Chef Robotics. “This is where flexible robotics solutions come into play—with the power of modern AI. For example, many of Chef Robotics’ customers now have robots that are flexible enough to automate manual processes in high-mix environments where food companies must accommodate hundreds of SKUs and create custom meals. As it becomes more and more difficult to recruit and retain workers, implementing new technologies is crucial for companies that wish to stay afloat. Companies who embrace flexible automation will have strategic advantages and be able to overcome the labor shortage.”

Chef Bombay automated tray filling
Chef Bombay, a maker of prepared foods, employed flexible robotics to reduce food giveaway by 88%, increase throughput by 9% and up labor productivity by 33%. Chef Robotics, an automation supplier, deployed a novel AI-enabled system at Chef Bombay that can pick and place many different kinds of ingredients with varied portion sizes into many kinds of trays, while occupying no more line space than a human doing the same job. Photo courtesy of Chef Robotics

Automation Suppliers and System Integrators Provide Education and Training

“Immigration is approximately two million per year and there are currently just under nine million open jobs in the U.S.,” says Karolyn Ellingson, Festo head of industrial workforce development. Unfortunately, this huge influx of people is not going to fix the skills gap, Ellingson notes. “It is going to have to include upskilling and automation together to help ease the burden.”

Festo has made a major effort to focus on education and training by adapting its corporate structure. “Fundamental to Festo’s DNA is the belief that our customers’ business results are best served by the right combination of cutting-edge technology and skilled workers, hence the twin business units of Festo Automation and Festo Didactic,” Ellingson says. “The vast knowledge that Festo’s engineers have developed over decades of leadership within the food and packaging industry is reflected in the advanced training courses that we offer directly to our customers, at their site, on their schedule or utilizing our training facility in Mason, Ohio. Festo Didactic offers skills-based training and development for employers and their employees. As for some of the barriers, Festo Didactic also offers its training in many languages and has resources to help individuals with overcoming those barriers.”

Festo Didactic SkillsConveyor system
The SkillsConveyor learning system from Festo Didactic, shown here, supports basic training for mechatronics and for electronics technicians. Photo courtesy of Festo

“One solution to the labor shortage is the implementation of solutions that include skills tracking and training,” says Caroline McDonald, Plex product manager, edge solutions. “For example, Plex’s MES includes these tracking and training solutions and work instructions with additional components such as computer-aided design (CAD) drawings that can be manipulated in real-time at the workstation. This enables workers to see how the different components come together through animated instructions. For example, imagine making a cake mix. In this situation, pictures and images would show in real time what ingredients are required for assembling the cake mix. This reduces the chances of human error and creates higher quality outputs.”

“Additionally, within Plex, many of our solutions cater to a diverse workforce, offering 13 different languages,” McDonald adds. “Our solutions also simplify additional time-consuming processes by automating data entry, eliminating operator error.”

“Given the multi-lingual capabilities of most of the popular HMI platforms there should never be a language barrier issue with operation of equipment,” says Laurie Cavanaugh, VP of business development for E Tech Group, a Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) member. “Language labels on graphics and screens can be a selectable option or even programmed based on login preferences. This not only facilitates better engagement, use, and decision-making, it also demonstrates an organization’s commitment to the employees. In turn, employees will engage more readily and offer that commitment back to the company.”

Robotics Solve Labor Problems in Two Ways

Robotics can do jobs nobody wants to do and attract skilled workers at the same time. “Robotics, at their core, are effective at handling dull, dangerous, and dirty jobs that rely on human labor capacity,” says Evan Gonnerman, portfolio manager for Concept Systems Inc., a CSIA member. “Many automation upgrades that are manual in nature, rely on aspects of human labor to account for dynamic processing and operation. As such, selecting a robot solution that is enabled with machine vision, dynamic path generation and additive recipe integration allows for a scalable solution to existing manual processes.”

Given the cold room nature of much of food manufacturing, the industry is facing a crushing labor shortage—skilled and unskilled, Bhageria says. Addressing the labor problem the food industry faces starts with overcoming the shortage of unskilled workers. “At Chef Robotics, we believe that if AI-enabled robots can do the jobs that require redundant motions, two things happen: first of all, we free up employees’ time to do other higher-value tasks and, second, we train them on how to become robot operators and they become skilled.”

“Robotics, yes!” Not to replace—but attract employees, says E Tech’s Derrick Colyer, senior business development manager. “The key is to keep your employees happy and engaged and we believe that the younger workforce, and those looking to achieve higher wages, want to be challenged and grow their skillsets. Bringing automated solutions into a facility allows for that higher level growth for labor, and offering tuition reimbursement or courses within robotics and automation content are more available than ever (remote learning being a product of COVID that has remained). Learning how to troubleshoot a robot and keep it running effectively is a skill that many of your existing employees can grow into. And, this allows them [to] grow with the industry trends.”

“Unfortunately, this growth doesn’t happen 100% naturally or organically for a variety of reasons,” Colyer says. “Maybe the knowledge isn’t currently in your organization, the resources that have the knowledge are too overwhelmed with their current workloads because of the labor shortages we are trying to solve, or someone is not designated to worry about retention.”

New automation solutions should include training for both operations and maintenance, Colyer says. While processors may want to cut training from their budget, it’s important to remember that the cost of ongoing hiring and retention is much more expensive. “Additional training can be held by the SI partners as new employees enter the organization,” Colyer says.

Choose Automation to Support Long-Term Goals and People

Standardizing automation technologies can indeed simplify the process of upgrading and maintaining systems within an organization.

  1. The first step is to assess current automation technologies and systems within the organization. It is vital to understand functionalities, strengths, weaknesses and compatibility between the various systems. Engineering must look outward to identify the automation vendors who are commonly used within their industry. Identify vendors that offer a wide range of products, solutions and services. The goal is to find suppliers that have an excellent track record of reliability and support. 
  2. Choose automation technologies that can seamlessly integrate with existing systems. Find vendors that place a priority on seamless migration as technology evolves. Compatibility and interoperability are crucial factors to consider when standardizing automation technologies. An important part of the process is to develop standards and best practices for implementing and managing automation technologies across the organization – standardized protocols, communication interfaces and coding practices. 
  3. Plan for incremental upgrades and focus on small, manageable projects. Prioritize upgrades based on factors such as criticality, impact on operations and return on investment. Start with systems that are outdated or inefficient. 
  4. Considering long-term scalability. It is important to choose automation technologies that can scale with the growth of the organization. Consider future expansion plans and ensure that the chosen technologies can accommodate increasing workload and complexity. Involve stakeholders from different departments and levels of the organization in the decision-making process. Gather feedback and insights to ensure that the chosen automation technologies align with the needs and objectives of the organization. 
  5. Continuously monitor the performance of standardized automation technologies and gather feedback from users. Evaluate the effectiveness of the upgrades and adjust as needed to optimize efficiency and productivity. Machine learning and AI systems can play an important role in continuous improvement. 
  6. Investing in training and support for employees to familiarize them with the standardized automation technologies. Ensure that there are resources available for troubleshooting and addressing issues that may arise during the upgrade process and during ongoing operations. Embrace training that goes beyond “how to operate and maintain this or that machine.” Look for learning solutions that build mechatronics skills. Community colleges with mechatronics labs can be an excellent resource for this. 

John Vosper, Festo Automation Technical Engineer – Controls, Food and Packaging