While it is true robotics is replacing manual labor in the manufacturing sector, it is only taking jobs that exist today. In doing so, it is also creating new, more fulfilling roles that offer displaced workers the first step towards a much brighter career path.
To understand how, we must place manufacturing in its current context of a severe labour shortage, caused by a combination of factors, including: an aging workforce, particularly within engineering; the long-held view among young people that food processing is an unglamorous and unappealing career path compared to finance or oil & gas.
There is also another reason: many manufacturing roles involve mundane, repetitive tasks that are detrimental to mental and physical wellbeing. Nobody enjoys spending eight hours a day, five days a week placing raw chicken into a tray. Such tasks not only cause repetitive strain injury but are also surprisingly taxing on the brain, often leading to stress, fatigue and burnout. This in turn causes absenteeism, which only places further strain on the existing workforce, resulting in a high staff turnover. For the employer, productivity and efficiency are compromised, while the cost and inconvenience of recruiting and training new workers begins all over again.
Current labor practices are unsustainable
This is an unsustainable situation, but one that can be solved by implementing robotics. By replacing mundane, repetitive tasks such as picking and placing, or palletizing, with robots, companies can increase their overall efficiency and decrease production uncertainty – after all, a robot does not suffer from RSI or burnout and will never get sick.
For workers, robotics can open up a whole new career path. Progression opportunities for a production line worker are limited. But in being redeployed to the new role of robotics operator, not only can they add more value to the business, their self-worth is boosted, too – and staff retention rates improve. The employee can now envisage a bright future if they stay within the business: perhaps they could progress to becoming a maintenance engineer, then a design engineer, before moving into R&D or becoming an engineering manager. There are countless possibilities that would never have been available to them had they remained on the production line.
Of course, not every production line worker will become a robotics operator, but with staffing vacancies an issue at every department across food manufacturing plants, employees can be redeployed to numerous business-critical areas. Warehousing is an obvious example. Consumers have never been more demanding, with people wanting the highest quality, for the lowest price, in the soonest possible time. This pressure is felt by the retailer, who passes it down the distribution supply chain, where it ultimately reaches the manufacturer.
By redeploying production line staff to the warehouse, orders can be expedited, keeping consumers happy and improving cash flow. For the employee, a new, more exciting career path is once again revealed: from warehouse operative, they could become a manager, then perhaps a continuous improvement engineer, and so on. With robotics freeing staff from mundane production line roles, the possibilities for their alternative deployment are almost endless.