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How labour shortages are driving the adoption of robotics in the food industry

05 May 2023

The food industry has been experiencing labour shortages in recent years owing to several factors, such as demographic changes, low wages, and a depleted interest in working in the industry. As a result, food manufacturers are turning to automation and robotics to mitigate the impacts of worker shortages. But, to what extent are labour shortages in the food industry encouraging the use of robotics?

One major influencing factor behind the labour shortages in the food industry is an aging workforce. Many skilled workers in the food industry are nearing retirement age, and there are insufficient numbers of young workers to replace them. This demographic shift is leading to a shortage of workers in many areas of the industry.

Another reason labour volumes are compromised is the low wages offered in the industry. Many workers find it difficult to make a living on the low wages offered by food companies, leading them to look for jobs in other industries. Additionally, the working conditions in the food industry are often challenging - physically demanding work, which may deter many workers from choosing this sector in which to carve a career path.

Worker shortages in the food industry is having a significant impact on the industry's ability to meet rising demand. For example, in the agriculture sector, the lack of workers available to harvest crops is leading to food waste, as crops are left out in the fields. In the manufacturing sector, the shortage of workers is leading to longer production times and delays in getting products to market. These delays can have a ripple effect throughout the supply chain, leading to higher costs and lower profits for food companies.

To address the labour shortage, many food companies are turning to automation and robotics. Robots can perform many of the tasks that were previously done by human workers, such as harvesting crops, packing food products, and even cooking meals. By using robots, food companies can increase efficiencies and reduce the need for human workers, thereby reducing labour costs and improving both productivity and quality. Additionally, robots can work around the clock, allowing companies to increase their output without the need for overtime or additional staffing.

As extreme as it may sound, just some of the niche applications in which food manufacturers are using robotics, include cooking food in commercial kitchens. Robots are using artificial intelligence to monitor cooking processes and ensure that the food is cooked to perfection. By using robotics and Ai, incorporating machine learning, food companies can reduce the need for human chefs, allowing them to focus on other tasks such as food preparation and customer service – tasks within the process chain that add the most value, leaving the robots to deal with the more mundane, manual aspects.

Robotic farms that use machine learning to grow crops is another niche area of food production that is benefitting from robotics and automation. Robots can plant, water, and harvest crops, reducing the need for human workers. Additionally, the robots can monitor the growth of the crops, adjusting the ambient conditions that are needed to ensure optimal growth and ultimately harvest. By using robotic farms, food companies can increase their crop yields and reduce their labour costs.

While the use of robotics in the food industry offers many benefits, it can also present manufacturers with some challenges – such as ‘how can we implement robotics’ or ‘how much will it cost’. While robots will reduce labour costs in the long run, the initial investment can be seen to be significant. But, there are ways and means through which automating food production processes can be achieved, efficiently and cost effectively, such as through asset leasing models. 

While robotics has been increasingly adopted in manufacturing sectors like automotive and electronics, the food industry has been slower to adopt this technology. But manufacturers must consider the long term implications of not automating. Domestic and international competition from manufacturers who do utilise robotic technology to improve productivity and drive down costs to their customers, will have the upper hand. The quality of products manufactured using robots and automation has proven to be higher – better quality products are less likely to be the subject of costly product recalls, which can have long lasting implications. 

Labour shortages in the food industry are encouraging the use of robotics and the use of robotics is driving some areas of the sector forward. By using robots, food companies can increase efficiency, reduce labour costs, and improve productivity. Additionally, robots can work around the clock, allowing companies to increase their output without the need for additional staffing.

As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, can food manufacturers really afford not to automate? 

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