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I just finished reading a September 20th piece in the Washington Post titled “The robots are here. And they are making you fries.” regarding robotic automation being implemented in the fast-food industry. While our Association focuses much more on the CPG-side of the food industry, I still find this topic extremely interesting as it addresses an issue that many food processors are also facing. In short, what technological advances are out there to help me deal with the workforce shortage which only seems to be getting worse?

In recent years, increased automation in the plant was focused on the end of the line – secondary packaging and palletizing and attempts to introduce robotic solutions further up the line were a challenge. Nevertheless, suppliers of these solutions continued to break into the processing side with a sales pitch that centered on increased throughput. While totally valid, that pitch was so “pre-COVID”!

Soon, we would see plant workers falling ill due to conditions that didn’t allow for sufficient social distancing; workers quitting to take advantage of government aid during the pandemic or simply choosing to move on to other industries where the conditions might be somewhat better. In response, our Association has tried to support the industry with recruitment efforts of existing workers and graduating college seniors, as well as with our affordable online training platform for manufacturers, and yet this is just a drop in the demographic bucket. With an older workforce continuing to retire, and this industry not exactly on the younger generation’s radar, other solutions would be needed.  Cue the FPSA members stepping up with the solutions!

Whether its protein, dairy, bakery, or RTE, robotics manufacturers have stepped up with a variety of processing solutions that not only help to fill this workforce gap but do so with technology that assures the highest levels of food safety. In addition, it has been my pleasure to watch how some FPSA members come up with new ways to make this transition to robotics as painless ($$$) as possible.

Unlike just a few short years ago, I think the food processing industry is ready for this. Today, Jack-in-the-Box is serving fries, tacos and drinks with robotics. In a few short years, I can’t wait to see what how CPG firms will be putting this technology (and what is to come) to use.

Andy Drennan, FPSA SVP