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The food processing industry is the largest industry in the world. As the food supply chain grows in complexity along with consumer and retailer demands, processors are under more pressure than ever to stay competitive and remain profitable.
With food processors balancing varying pressures and regulations and competing on many fronts, investments in digital infrastructure and automation can make a difference and here’s how:
The U.S. continues to report a widening gap in availability of skilled labor, and nowhere is that more apparent than today’s food processing environment. Competition for skilled labor is high, and processors are now experiencing disproportionately high levels of employee turnover, in some places higher than 100%. Workforce volatility leads to a staggering amount of money, time and resources spent on replacing and training new employees, making the skilled labor gap a critical concern.
Lack of available or properly trained labor often leads to production disruptions, scheduling challenges and puts food quality and safety at risk. This is where investments in digital infrastructure and automation make the most sense.
For example, if a poultry processor fully automates the process for packaging their products, a relatively small capital investment can pay for itself quickly in terms of cost savings. Automation not only helps food processors address the skilled labor gap, it also helps reduce the risk of employee injury from repetitive motion stress, and increases food safety by reducing the risk of cross contamination.
Even while the skilled labor gap continues, food processors must do what they can to inspire, retain and motivate the workforce they have.
Many studies have found that employee motivation and satisfaction are linked directly to their own perception of success and productivity at work. Technology can also be put to work here, by using new, digital platforms to help provide immediate feedback to employees about how well they’re performing.
For example, Butterball recently adopted a vision inspection and performance analysis technology that has since increased yield as well as employee engagement and motivation. The system alerts line workers of their success rate in real-time by use of a stack light connected to a feedback loop. The workers are allowed to self-correct on the spot, for which they feel empowered. Programs rooted in supporting this type of technology help keep employees motivated, productive and even inspired.
In addition to skilled labor concerns, operational efficiency remains a top concern for food processors, because when product, time and resources are wasted, profits are quickly lost.
During the production process, there are many opportunities to improve operational efficiency by using technology to focus on issues in real time. By capturing real-time data and leveraging the power of digital analytics, food processors can better target problems and more proactively make changes to improve their productivity or even yield. And, by preventing the loss of valuable resources like energy and water, companies can also reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment.
The challenges of the global food supply chain will continue to present numerous opportunities for food processors. When calculating the cost related to inefficiencies, waste and employee recruitment, training and retention, an investment in digital solutions and automation will provide the type of return that can deliver long term results.
Not only does this make sense for staying ahead of the industry curve, but advancements in technology make automation easier to do than ever before. This year won’t be without its trials, but when companies invest in resources to help their workforce operate at peak performance, everyone wins.
Karl Deily is SVP, Chief Commercial Officer for Sealed Air. He leads the commercial organization, which includes the Food Care and Product Care businesses, and is responsible for the company’s Corporate Innovation and Sustainability strategy.