Why COVID-19 calls for more automation in the food industry

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Raf Peeters CEO & Founder at Qcify

COVID-19 has the world in its grip, creating chaos and uncertainty. The economy has been dealt a severe blow, and the food industry hasn’t been spared. But hard times call for scrappiness and creativity. Companies have to find innovative new ways to keep their business going. For the food industry, the answer just might be automation.

Time for more automation

The food industry is very people-intensive. Right now there’s huge demand, as you can see from people hoarding in the shops. We’re seeing a lot of empty shelves, especially for non-perishables like nuts and rice. This means we can keep producing, right? But the problem is, what about our staff?

There should be enough non-perishables in storage and production to last for months. Though with staff shortages it could be difficult to get those distributed quickly once distribution centers are cleaned out. When it comes to production, we also have a safety issue for employees. A company staffed by software engineers can easily ask their employees to work from home for a few weeks. For the food industry it’s a different story. Someone has to man the forklift or the assembly line, they can’t do it remotely. A factory needs people to keep it going. It’s a huge dilemma for food industry managers and it’s causing tremendous uncertainty: will my staff show up tomorrow? Not only are more people getting sick, schools are starting to close everywhere. A lot of people have no childcare options, so there are tough calls to be made.

Automation is the answer

Automation could play a big part in solving this dilemma. Imagine if you could run a factory that normally needs 50-100 staff with 20. If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19, it might be this: companies can take a critical look at how they function and find ways to run their businesses more efficiently. 

Take our machine: if it can help you do the same work with two people that you used to do with six, that’s a win. Fewer people means less risk. Especially because Qcify’s machine is easy to operate: if the person who operates it is out sick, they can even be replaced by pretty much anybody of the staff. While with manual quality control, someone from the quality control department can only be replaced by another quality control professional with the right training to do classifications. This makes it very tricky to replace a sick staffer: it could take weeks. Weeks where you have no way of providing consistent data and where you lose a lot of time and resources in training the replacement quality control staffer. So more automation is definitely something to consider. 

Short-term changes, long-term success

It’s hard to implement automation from one day to the next. Our machines are the easy part: we can install them in a day and train people in less than half an hour. Integrating our machines with sorting machines and other apparatus isn’t quite so simple. There are some actions that can be implemented in the very short term however. These also happen to be the measures that are an absolute must for food companies. I’m talking about changing the extent to which technology can help the company work remotely. Or improving efficiency to avoid various production and staffing problems. The goal is to run your factory as efficiently as possible. This means we can keep the whole industry running through any pandemic, and keep the flow of food to the world running more reliably.

I see this crisis situation mainly as a kind of nudge or incentive for companies to arm themselves better against problems like these. Hopefully we can take all the lessons learned and technology experiments we end up carrying out with us into the future. So we can play it safer, and create the security that is every company’s best weapon.


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