Published on

December 13, 2021


Nick Halliday

Automation, psychology and smarter design

We’ve spent the last quarter on the ground in the US visiting bar and chocolate manufacturers, from small, independent outfits to large-scale facilities owned by multi-national conglomerates. Despite their obvious differences in size, they’re all facing the same major issue: lots of demand, not enough staff to meet it.  

Across the board, US manufacturers are finding it nearly impossible to hire or retain staff and some are having to downscale production. That’s particularly painful, given that bar and chocolate sales are booming as people head back to school and work. Some companies are offering sign-on or referral bonuses and increasing wages to tempt workers back. Others are wondering if their equipment could hold the key to labour shortages.  

To that question, the answer is ‘yes’. But while automation and AI get the most press, our 30-year experience tells us they’re not the only factor.  

So, what should you be looking for? It’s about overall efficiency gains and minimising the need for people on the floor – so here’s where to start.    

  • Automate labour-intensive areas

Automation and AI in bar and chocolate manufacturing are nothing new. They don’t just increase efficiencies, but also let manufacturers avoid error and increase accuracy, hygiene levels and capacity. Even with so many upsides, the capital investment means most manufacturers haven’t been rushing to introduce this technology – until now.  

With labour becoming scarcer and increasingly more expensive, the financial equation is tipping. We’re picking it’s the push many manufacturers need to leap into more automation in their facilities.  

When looking for machinery, pay less attention to its use of breakthrough technologies, which can come with teething issues. Instead, prioritise equipment that automates areas that require the most hands-on time. For example, if product bunches in your slitter, sensors can predict it and automation resolves the issue before a worker needs to intervene. Coupled with a few other automation – like realigning the position or bars – this could eliminate one worker from a shift.  

  • Create easier work

Many companies tell us their staffing problems are being exacerbated by COVID relief funds – people are opting for the lower pay of a benefit rather than returning to the hard work of the factory floor. We’ve heard time and time again that those they do hire often don’t return after a first shift.  

Reducing the heaviest and most awkward tasks could help tip the scales back in favour of work. For example, rather than having staff heave around 20-liter pails to get product into the hopper, a conveyancing system can add it on-demand. That will come with efficiency gains too and means any new hires are more likely to stay longer.  

  • Use smart design features to minimise human intervention

In an ideal world, a factory could be almost entirely automatic – that’s the key word, though: almost. You would still need people there to set up, start and stop the machines, and jump in if things go wrong.

So, our focus has been not just on automation but on building–in smart design features that avoid or minimise the need for human intervention.  

For example, over thirty years, we’ve focussed on making our machinery fast and easy to clean – a traditionally labour-intensive area. One such feature is that our equipment can be disassembled , making it possible to sanitise in a fraction of the time compared with a traditional setup.

What machinery will solve things for you?

Of course, swapping out each machine on the floor is hardly practical – the key is to replace equipment that will net you the most gain. Here’s how to work out where to start.    

  • Identify areas where your workers spend most of their time

Talk to your floor managers or observe a shift. What inefficiencies can you see? Where do you see more than one person working on a single task? Those are the areas where automation or smart design features could improve your efficiency and reduce reliance on labour.  

  • Investigate your start–up and run–down procedures

Does it take several people to get the line up and running? Does it take a long time? If so, find out why – there may be one point of inefficiency that’s easily solved.  

  • Make a list of events that meant stopping the line

Do you see any patterns? If it’s always related to a similar error with the machine or inefficiency, it could be an area where new equipment could significantly improve productivity.  

  • Ask floor managers what the least popular jobs are

What do staff complain about most? What tasks do people avoid? They’ll tend to be the heavy, dirty or boring jobs – and they’re the tasks that put people off working in your facility. How could you eliminate those tasks?  

  • Talk to them about the quirks of the machinery

These are the people with the most intimate knowledge of your machinery. They’ll know about any quirks and irritating inefficiencies in their day–to–day – an error they need to resolve once a day or once a week, or a setup that adds more time and effort than it needs to.  

  • Quantify your losses  

How much is it costing you to reduce capacity or pay staff more? That will be a real dollar figure, but also a lost opportunity. Given that so many other bar manufacturers are struggling with capacity, what would it mean for your growth if you could solve inefficiencies and meet demand where your competitors can’t? For help calculating these numbers, click here to access our ROI calculator.  

Equipment is the key

Introducing bar and chocolate manufacturing equipment with smart design and automation was once hailed as a nice–to–have – something to invest in to aid growth. The issue now facing most manufacturers isn’t beating competitors – it’s simply surviving.

Our MD Nick is still in the States visiting manufacturers – book a time with him to see how PTL Equipment could help you overcome staff shortages.