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In a recent call with panelists for the Process Expo session on Automation & Robotics Ensuring Business Continuity Today and Tomorrow in the Food and Beverage Industry, my eyes were opened quite widely by our automation experts who will serve on this panel. No longer is the decision to automate primarily based on the ROI of greater production or increased efficiencies. No, according to these experts, this decision now has much more to do about simply ensuring production levels to meet demand, thanks to an unreliable workforce in the plant that, for a variety of reasons, is now looking at other employment options. What had been a challenging demographic trend for our industry to consider only 18 months ago, is now a splash of ice-cold water to the face. There’s no time left “to consider”. Solutions are needed now.

Of course, our panel is not the only group saying this. This need for increased automation is being seen in almost links of the supply chain, with many business owners reporting they would have to raise pay significantly to fill the many vacant positions they currently have. This would mean higher prices for you and me, which producers are hesitant to do. So they look to technology to help deliver their product to market. It isn’t about increasing margin, it’s simply about being able to get product out in a consistent manner.

On the worker’s side, I get it too. One recent summer, my son worked in an industrial scale bakery. This kid, who is tough as nails, swore he would never go back to that, given how tough the conditions in the plant were. Luckily, now with his degree in marketing he doesn’t need to, but the ones who remain, it’s not like they don’t have options. All industries are competing with each other for their workforce. At another job, maybe they’re not subject to difficult conditions like a hot bakery or a cold meat packing plant, where they are standing shoulder to shoulder with their co-workers. Maybe they get to actually sit down on the job. And maybe at that other business, they have a slightly wider margin and can provide that worker a few more bucks per hour. That’s what we’re up against.

Anyway, this session looks to be an excellent discussion of this topic that affects us all. I hope you’ll join us. This session takes place at Chicago’s Process Expo on November 4th as part of the Process Expo University program. Registration is now open.

Andy Drennan, FPSA SVP