Published on

January 16, 2022


Nick Halliday

As with most bar and chocolate manufacturers, one of your biggest headaches right now is staff. Not just finding people, but finding reliable people and keeping them for longer than a few days or weeks.

There’s much you can do to improve recruitment and staff retention, but at the other end of the issue is the work itself. If you can minimise your need for FTE, staff shortages become less of an issue and by eliminating repetitive, unskilled work, you’re left with fewer jobs that can be higher skilled, better paid and easier to staff.

While some companies are implementing clever systems like staff sharing to bridge the gap, that’s only possible if your manufacturing plant is set up to be operated with minimal training. And an even better solution would be to have those plants set up to avoid the need for operators altogether.

While Industry 4.0 has been upon us for years now, few factories have made the switch, continuing to use systems that need manual tasks. The Gartner Group calls this the hype cycle, suggesting new technologies get a lot of press but take a while to be adopted. Now that the need for automation is becoming more urgent, we’re likely to see those hyped technologies properly integrated into the factory floor.

What you could be doing now  

Implement small automations that add up to boosted efficiency

While big technological advancements are the most attention-grabbing, the real gains are and have always been in the small, thoughtful automations that add up over time. For example, in our slitter, sensors predict belt/slab tracking and automatically align the slab with the slitter to eliminate or reduce edge trim.  

Invest in Internet of Things (IoT) – smart objects

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a catch-all term to describe everyday objects that are connected to the internet. It’s the same tech that lets you turn on your coffee machine from your mobile. With various components of your operation connected in this way, it could give you the next level of insight and control. One way this could minimise the need for FTEs is to build a digital twin. This is a virtual copy of your real-life factory floor and other assets that lets you more easily predict and identify issues, and optimise processes before they’re rolled out. An IoT plant also delivers crucial data which can help you optimise staff requirements and inventory.

Implement software for faster training and knowledge access

Along with manual processes come labour-intensive training and paper-based information. Automating training and digitising access to process and product information can make inducting new workers far simpler and reduce the impact of high staff turnover. At the simplest end of the spectrum is a range of software that uses digital workflows, QR codes, video and imagery to guide workers through new tasks and product information. This means new workers can be introduced to the app and then all but left to it.

For more complex tasks and systems, manufacturers are using virtual and augmented reality. For example, virtual reality technology lets workers learn and practise in a virtual environment using headsets and gloves. Augmented reality works by overlaying graphics onto live imagery of the real world. Fun face filters on social media are examples of augmented reality in action. On the factory floor, this technology delivers incredibly useful access to information. Workers could hold up a phone or tablet to see a piece of equipment on screen, overlayed with instructions or information. Our world-class partner, Rockwell Automation, offers proven technology for AR/VR and diagnostics.

Enable remote access and monitoring

While remote access and monitoring could be game-changing for all manufacturers, one study suggests it’s particularly important in batch manufacturing. It could let management analyse machine performance, perform scheduled upgrades and fix issues without having to be on-site – this allows you to spread your engineering expertise across more facilities.

Look into collaborative robots, aka “cobots”

A cobot is technology that works alongside people. These machines can be “trained” to amplify human workers’ speed, strength, accuracy, safety or knowledge to boost productivity and minimise FTEs without the need for rigid industrial robots. One example of a cobot in action is in DHL’s Miami facility. There, a cobot is boosting mail sorting capacity by 35% – AI enables a robotic arm to quickly sort packages into bins, each representing a courier route. While this and most other cobots already in operation are custom-designed, Mitsubishi’s cobot, Melfa Assista, makes this technology far more useful. Its purchase price is accessible, and the robot arms can be easily trained physically or on a Windows device to suit a variety of tasks and environments.  

Automating the right things

It’s easy to get lured by cutting-edge technology, but innovation is only useful if it’s fit for purpose.

That’s why any automation transformation has to start with how you operate and what would make the most material difference.

Our co-design process allows for that customisation. We call it Creating Together, where you get access to our top technicians to create bar and chocolate machinery that is tightly aligned to your needs. It means your technology will deliver an excellent return on investment and, perhaps most importantly, will future proof you against ongoing staff sourcing headaches.