While the world rests in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, maintaining an efficient food supply chain has become progressively more difficult. Given that social distancing and other health and safety measures are likely to be with us for the next while, many companies in the industry have begun to accelerate their investment in automation and AI technologies. From the crop fields through to the supermarkets, the common thread is the need to improve the reliability of food production and distribution, while managing costs and conserving resources like energy, water and fertiliser.
When one thinks about businesses that must be considered essential during the time of this pandemic, few can be deemed more essential than the food and beverage producers. The problem however, is that infectious microbes don’t care much about boundaries, and labels like ‘essential’ will not stop them from closing down a manufacturing facility when too many workers become infected.
On the consumer front, lockdown restrictions have resulted in increased demand for processed and packaged food, as well as for cleaning materials. While on the producer side, these same restrictions have caused gaps in the production and supply chains thanks to social distancing and quarantine restrictions. The net result is that a traditionally labour intensive industry has had to adapt to a situation where a larger percentage of its workers are now required to work from locations outside the immediate factory area. In response, manufacturers have been left with few choices other than to move towards higher levels of automation in their process, and to deploy platforms that allow the remote workforce to monitor and control proceedings from a distance.
The problem with considering an automation strategy in isolation though is the number of workers that it potentially displaces. After all, highly automated factories, by design, operate with fewer workers. And while fewer workers mean less exposure to the virus, it also compounds the burgeoning unemployment problem we have in South Africa. One answer is to reskill the displaced workers to a level where they are capable of providing the support functions key to installing and maintaining the machines that replaced them.
Looking at the food supply chain holistically, the transformation strategy is not limited purely to the production-related aspects associated with agriculture and food processing, but must also cover the areas of warehousing, logistics and distribution, and even the final sale to consumers.
So, while automation in SA’s food and beverage industry may not yet be as widely adopted as it is in fully industrialised economies, it is likely heading in that direction. This means that companies associated with the industry will need to implement tailor-made digital transformation strategies that modernise along their entire supply chain, and also make provision for retraining those employees who may find themselves displaced during the process. As an optimist, I believe that if we get it right, we will find that the pandemic leaves us with a more agile and efficient food processing industry.
See this month’s feature on the food and beverage sector for some of the latest new product releases and application stories.
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