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Automation best practices can help protein suppliers add a little meat to their distribution operations.

Navigating the food and beverage industry has never been easy. From pricing volatility and demand uncertainty to quality and perishability issues, food and beverage companies and manufacturers face a unique set of supply chain challenges. And while previous technologies have been developed to tackle piecemeal aspects of these issues, companies have rarely applied holistic solutions to optimize logistics.

The protein market is a prime example and it is ripe for technology innovation to alleviate challenges with storage and delivery.

Part of the problem is increasing volume and demand. According to a report from the Food Marketing Institute, The Power of Meat 2018, almost 98 percent of U.S. households have some sort of protein source and red meat and poultry consumption has reached an all-time high. From the retail side, freshness and variety of options – from discounted store brands to premium and grass-fed – are among the biggest drivers for consumer loyalty.

The reality is, however, that status quo manual operations no longer meet modern market and consumer demand. To keep pace and remain competitive, protein manufacturers need to rethink how they are managing the supply chain to get product from processing to store shelves faster, more efficiently and cost-effectively while providing a safer work environment for employees.

Overcoming Talent Shortages

It’s no secret that the aging American workforce is presenting a major challenge across industry, especially when it comes to warehouse and manufacturing jobs. A ManpowerGroup survey showed 67 percent of employers reported talent shortages in 2018. The problem is particularly acute in the protein industry where meatpacking and assembly line jobs have limited appeal to younger workers. Protein processing companies could face very real consequences if they don’t make significant adjustments to their supply chain strategies, including the technology that powers their plants.

A solution? Companies must reduce their dependency on manual labor by investing in tools that automate the picking, distribution and shipping of product, redeploying labor resources to safer jobs that require a human touch. Automation can provide accurate, safe and cost-effective order assembly and shipping for the protein industry, benefitting an industry where freshness is critical.

Creating a Better Environment

Facilities for handling and processing protein products are generally not the most pleasant places to work. They are cold – ranging from merely cooled to well below frozen – which is essential for the products but not so great for workers. This contributes to high attrition and increased difficulty attracting a steady workforce.

In addition, the product itself is significantly heavier than other supply chain jobs, with cartons sometimes weighing more than 70 pounds. There are a limited number of workers physically capable of handling these tasks, especially for an eight- to 10-hour shift. This leads not only to high attrition for the work itself but also difficulty in retaining experienced workers for mentorship positions.

Automation technology can eliminate potential OSHA hazards associated with the manual handling of heavy cartons and minimizes errors associated with incorrect picking. As a further benefit, software-driven automation solutions provide full track-and-trace capabilities, ensuring accuracy and traceability.

Adding Efficiency Through Automation

According to the most recent Warehouse Employee Turnover Survey from the International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses (IARW), North America’s logistics industry had a 32.9 percent turnover rate in 2018.

The net result: a huge cost to attract, train and retain workers. Automating the supply chain in the protein industry is critical to reducing those costs and improving efficiencies, ultimately getting the product to the end-consumer faster and fresher. Companies must decide whether to consider the clear advantages of automation for the supply chain or risk falling behind.

Tom Swovick is a market development director at Dematic, an intralogistics company that designs, builds and supports intelligent, automated solutions for manufacturing, warehouse and distribution environments.

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