Workforce Development

Workforce development, automation top of mind at Process Expo

Process manufacturers, especially those in the food and beverage industry, are facing a skills gap crunch due to the pandemic. While some companies are trying to get workers back and engaged, more are turning to automation to keep operations running.

By Chris Vavra November 3, 2021
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Workforce skills gap and automation are two challenges that need fixing, according to attendees at Process Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.

What to do about the workforce is a common refrain in many industries. The skills gap has been a major issue for engineers for years, as noted in Control Engineering salary survey and career research. That has been magnified due to the pandemic. Many older workers have retired or passed away, and they leave behind their vast wealth of knowledge. Companies are trying to solve this puzzle, but it isn’t easy.

Four steps of industrial pandemic perseverance

Nikola Vajda, Global Consulting, discussed this problem in his presentation “Pandemic Impact on the Workforce,” and discussed how companies he’s worked with are trying to do better.

“Each company is different,” he said. “Each workforce is different. Every company has its own DNA and requires its own solution.”

Nikola Vajda, Global Consulting, presented “Pandemic Impact on the Workforce,” at Process Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago and said each company is unique and needs its own solution to address the workforce gap. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Nikola Vajda, Global Consulting, presented “Pandemic Impact on the Workforce,” at Process Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago and said each company is unique and needs its own solution to address the workforce gap. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

He highlighted four steps on how companies recovered and persevered during the pandemic. Vajda said the successful ones 1) grasped the problem, 2) revamped their operations, 3) educated and developed their workforce and 4) built a hybrid business model that can support reality and future dynamics such as another pandemic.

“It’s about protecting the workforce with a hybrid model while protecting the customer while continuing to develop products,” Vajda said.

Increased automation a priority for process manufacturers

While manufacturers are trying to hire and recruit engineers, it has not been easy. The pandemic remains an issue, and safety is a major concern – especially in food processing. Even with vaccinations and stringent workplace protocols, the labor gap remains a problem. Manufacturers can’t shut down. Many are essential businesses and have been operating throughout the pandemic.

Many companies are turning to automation to help resolve these problems. This includes robots, smarter packaging production, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions and improved productivity. While the economy took a hit due to the pandemic, food and beverage companies have not seen less demand for products. If anything, it’s gone up.

“There have been some major labor struggles, and it has forced companies to automate their processes,” said Jordan Nyce, sales engineer at CHL Systems. “Companies are pushing their return on investments (ROIs) from 2 to 4 years and having to make all kinds of adjustments because people aren’t working.”

Flexibility on the production line is another important factor for automation companies. This can help many process manufacturers—not just food and beverage—stay nimble and deal with changes on the fly.

Cecily Pickering, marketing communication manager for Multivac, said manufacturing flexibility was a key priority for the company. “MULTIVAC Line Control was designed to enable faster changeovers with fewer workers on the line. To change products, a worker calls up the new recipe on the human-machine interface (HMI) or from a connected computer. Because the line is connected, the recipe is delivered across each piece of equipment without needing to change the individual machines.”

Multivac's automation system is designed to be flexible so food and beverage manufacturers have more options in their approach. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Multivac’s automation system is designed to be flexible so food and beverage manufacturers have more options in their approach. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Improve compressed air results

Air quality is critical for many food and beverage industries. Keeping dangerous particles away from the product is an absolute must. Compressed air systems have been getting more sophisticated, and they’re starting to merge with automation to achieve better results.

“We’re trying to show them how they can use our technology to protect and improve what they’ve been doing,” said Scott Grimes, technical training manager, at Donaldson.

Donaldson products at the show emphasized improving compressed air in food and beverage systems. Grimes said there’s been a lot of interest in improving air quality and managing product and system lifecyle so companies can get more air volume and better results. This is especially true in industries such as dairy, which has very strict standards, and the brewery business, which uses a lot of heat and takes up a lot of space to make beer.

Grimes said successful compressed air implementation comes down to the company. “Compressed air is the one utility the manufacturer and end user have complete control over.”

Grimes and Vajda both emphasized continuous improvement.

Vajda: “In the food and beverage industry, it’s innovate or evaporate.”

Chris Vavra is web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Chris Vavra
Author Bio: Chris Vavra is the web content manager for CFE Media.