A Fetch AMR transports boxes across a manufacturing facility
By John Wirthlin | September 27, 2022

Food and Beverage Production and Processing Can Only Move as Fast as People. Hence the Rush to Rollout Autonomous Mobile Robots.

Many manufacturers are blaming labor shortages for production delays or capacity reduction, and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies will probably be claiming the same shortfalls very soon, if they aren’t already. The food and beverage sector was one of the 15 manufacturing industries that reported growth in December, which isn’t surprising considering that everyone has to eat to live and the population is growing by over 200,000 people per day. However, the food and beverage manufacturing segment was also one of five that reported a decline in employment levels in December.

If there aren’t enough people on your payroll to meet production or fulfillment demand, what do you do? Logically, you try to hire more people. But when you fall short of headcount targets, then you must automate where you can to make up the difference in output capability.

Naturally, most manufacturers look to automate the production line first. In fact, that may be the only place they look to automate. That’s why too many operations managers and company leaders are still spending every waking hour – and losing sleep – combing through reports to understand why there’s a downturn in production output or inventory throughput (depending on their function).

The reality is that the answer isn’t in a report; it’s right in front of you, on the plant or warehouse floor.

Are You Automating in All the Right Places and In All the Right Ways? (Yes, Those Words are Plural.)

Production and processing line automation is necessary. But it’s not the end-all, be-all. Nor is it “the solution” to anything that plagues food and beverage manufacturers and distributors today. It’s just one component of the solution.

If you automate lines, but people are shouldering all the responsibility of your operation – if workers are the ones who must ensure raw materials make it to the production line on time, for example – then your return on investment (ROI) for automation technology is going to disappoint.

Your dock-to-stock metrics for raw materials, consumer packaged goods (CPG) or processed inventory matter as much to output capabilities as your production, picking, packing, and shipping metrics. Arguably, they matter more. Unless inbound logistics teams are working as fast – or faster – than manufacturing lines are moving, production or processing will stop until raw materials can be unloaded and moved to lines. Likewise, you could have a perfect production operation running with plenty of on-hand inventory to fill every order on time, in full. But if you have an imbalance between customer demand and maximum labor output, your stock levels will rise and customers’ shelf stock will shrink, even as production continues. Orders just won’t get out the door on time because fulfillment teams will constantly be playing catch up. If the tides are coming in but people aren’t getting taller (or, in this case, working faster), you’ll all be underwater quickly.

In other words, you’re going to have bottlenecks to contend with and shortcomings to explain if you’re only relying on fixed automation systems to “automate” your operations. Everything that happens up to the point of the production and after items come off the line is still going to be slow-going. People can only move so fast and so far each day.

In fact, that’s why I don’t like to lean on “labor shortages” as the business case for autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), or at least not the only business case.

Calls for Flexibility are Mounting. Where Do You Stand?

As a food and beverage manufacturer, your products are going to forever be in demand. You may have to diversify your product lineup as palates, price tolerances and other consumer preferences change, but people will always need to eat and drink. That means you will always need to rush to get food and beverage products out the door as fast as possible. There is no such thing as peak season. “Peak” is the norm, with order volumes remaining stable (i.e., constantly growing) as demand cycles for certain specialty products or seasonal flavors. The variables that will change are labor, required lead times, fulfillment models and shipping distances – all things that could be disruptive to your time-sensitive operations.

The key to combatting such disruption is agility, and that requires flexibility – specifically, flexibility in how and where you automate operations.

Whether you’re trying to get meat, marshmallows or margarita mixes out the door on time, you need to be smart about where you position people and what you have them doing. They should not be running inventory or work-in-process (WIP) from one place to the next for any reason. AMRs should be doing that. People should not be trying to navigate your warehouse aisles alone, either. AMRs can escort them, pointing out the shelf where an item needs to be picked or put away.

In fact, let’s do a little exercise.

Look around your facility right now (or picture it in your head if you’re reading this elsewhere). Better yet, take a lap tomorrow when you go in. Walk through every step in your process and every part of your factory, processing plant and/or warehouse. Put yourself in the shoes of every person you encounter along the way; literally go through the motions.

  • What felt good? What seemed easy?
  • What seemed like a lot of work? Or what would eventually become hard work if repeated hundreds of times a day?

Now, go through both lists and ask yourself, “Could an AMR have made this easier for that work? Or could an AMR have completely taken that responsibility off the worker’s plate so they could spend their time doing something more meaningful, memorable and/or rewarding?”

If you said yes to even a single task – if there’s even a slight possibility that an AMR could help make a person’s job easier, your processes run smoother, or inbound/production/fulfillment faster – then keep reading.

How to Test Your Theory about AMRs

There really isn’t a long-drawn-out process for deploying AMRs. That’s why they are the most flexible automation solution in the world (at least in my opinion, which is backed by many facts). So, I don’t necessarily need to walk you through the “steps to get started” other than to tell you to call your local Zebra representative to get more information about how our robot-as-a-service (RaaS) offerings are delivered, managed, and scaled.

If you want to see what one AMR can do for your food and beverage manufacturing operation, no problem. They’ll get you setup for a real-world pilot. If you want one robot in each area to move materials, WIP or picked orders, they can organize that too. Just know that the best way to confirm the value of AMRs to your organization – to see the power of flexible automation in sustaining and scaling your manufacturing operation – is to automate every task that you flagged as “potentially being easier with an AMR either helping or replacing a person.”

Concerned about costs, complexity, safety, security or anything else that would have you saying, “I’m going to hold off a bit”? Read this:

Food for Thought: 3 Things That Happen When Food and Beverage Manufacturers and Distributors Don’t (or Won’t) Consider Autonomous Mobile Robots a Priority Investment

You may also want to give these guides and expert insights a quick read, too:

They may not answer every question, but they’ll answer some and help ensure you ask your Zebra rep the right questions when you speak (very soon).

Hospitality, Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Warehouse and Distribution, Automation, Best Practices, Innovative Ideas,
John Wirthlin
John Wirthlin

John Wirthlin is the Principal Owner of Tip of the Spear Consulting, which provides supply chain technology consulting services that identify relevant solutions to meet corporate objectives.

He previously served as the Industry Principal for Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics at Zebra Technologies where he was responsible for providing forward-thinking, strategic-oriented, technology recommendations to clients and partners. 

John has nearly 30 years of experience in healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, and information technology where he has led multiple strategic initiatives. He is viewed as a trusted advisor to his clients and organizations in which he has served.  

Prior to Zebra, John served as a Solutions Architect with Lowry Solutions, where he provided consultative services to multiple manufacturing clients to help identify meaningful RFID and ECM-based solutions.

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