The reasons why are pretty straightforward: automation and digitalisation have long been seen as crucial for keeping up with consumer demands. With this comes job creation, with increased automation and digitisation enhancing the productivity and safety of the workforce. Indeed, research shows that every year close to half a million manufacturing jobs will be created in the UK – almost a 20% increase on the 2.4 million that already exist.
Big data and robots
What is attracting all this investment? Many of the new developments that the industry is focusing on are primarily driven by high throughput automation. This is what allows companies to bring a greater number of products to market at a faster rate. In general, automation in food manufacturing is focused on improving processes that affect product quality.
This usually requires the introduction of technologies that help to improve the processing of a greater number of products. The new robotic technology that is being developed includes a host of different elements. One of these is the development of robots that are more resilient to highly corrosive liquids. What this means is that these robots can be used to better distribute the vapours within a process where the robots need to work.
This could prove particularly useful in food manufacturing, where the strength of the liquid can damage the robot itself, particularly as a food product moves between production lines. It’s also worth noting that robots are now able to lift up to a tonne of weight. This means that they are suitable for handling bulk products that are difficult to handle by hand. Robotic arms are also being developed that can perform extremely delicate, repetitive actions such as cutting tomatoes or slicing cheese.
Ultimately, all these developments are designed to improve working conditions in food manufacturing – which is something that’s becoming more and more important as manufacturing continues to shift towards manufacturing in areas of the world where wages are cheaper. These new robotic technologies mean that work is being done that simply wasn’t possible in the past, or certainly wouldn’t be appropriate.
There are, however, a number of implications that come from the use of robots in the food industry. For example, in the short term, many jobs within the industry are at risk of being lost. However, it’s important to consider that these jobs would be replaced by other jobs. For example, some jobs in processing and packaging could also be affected. These jobs include the automation of a large amount of manual, clerical tasks. In other words, instead of putting a worker on the production line, you’d put a computer.
More generally, automation is changing the nature of employment – and some jobs that were previously seen as “routine” are now increasingly difficult to replace. Many labour-intensive jobs in the food manufacturing industry are about highly repetitive tasks – for example, sorting or cutting tomatoes and tracking product changes in warehouses. It’s the repetitive nature of these tasks that makes them such good examples of areas that can be automated, and which might lose their appeal over time.
The future of jobs
We need to remember that, while automation has the potential to replace many “routine” tasks in the food industry, it also has the potential to increase the demand for certain jobs. It’s not just about repetitive labour, but also about highly skilled workers, including scientists and engineers. – Click to tweet
It’s true that the demand for these workers is likely to decline in the near term, but the industry needs to be flexible enough to support more complex tasks as automation replaces routine tasks. Ultimately, the implication of automation on the way the industry operates and the jobs that are created will be influenced by a number of different factors. Many of these will be influenced by the needs and demands of the consumers. What’s interesting is that, as automation develops and becomes more advanced, what was once thought to be a barrier to employment could now turn out to be an opportunity for people to have new, more fulfilling jobs.