Can the fresh produce industry lead the way in automating post-pandemic?

 

There is a growing realisation that all industries must embrace change after the pandemic. Covid-19 has exposed frailties in the way the modern economy operates, with our global supply chains vulnerable to shocks because of the outdated systems they are underpinned by.

Automation will be required to spark that much needed modernisation. A recent report by McKinsey called for the use of automation to help “reimagine” the jobs market and protect businesses. But for this to work, a truly bottom-up approach must be taken. The digital skills gap, especially apparent between younger and older workers, must be closed quickly for automation to be of real benefit.

Fresh produce is no different - if anything, automation is even more vital to safeguarding the future of the industry. This article will explore why the specific role fresh produce businesses fulfil and the way they adapted during the pandemic could mean this industry is one of the best-placed to achieve lasting change through automation. 

Why now?

Automation is a topic we have covered extensively on LINKFRESH University, including articles on:

But the pandemic has created a new economic environment that’s increased the need for automation and will likely accelerate mechanisation across the fresh produce industry. With millions of people worldwide facing unemployment, new approaches are needed.

Automation and robotics have long been portrayed as endangering the jobs of human workers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in 2020. As the previously mentioned McKinsey report sets out, automation could be the most effective way to save peoples’ jobs during the recession to come.

Automating certain tasks, such as aspects of harvesting and warehousing, can allow businesses to target specific areas in which they can increase productivity and speed. With fewer people required to maintain these vital but predominantly labour-intensive roles, staff can be retrained and reallocated to other areas of the organisation where their skills can be put to better use. In this sense, automation allows businesses the luxury of using their resources more effectively - something which will help them weather the economic storm while protecting jobs, and setting them on the path to future growth.

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More integrated systems

While a degree of automation of manual tasks is already commonplace in fresh produce, it is the next level of data automation where the industry can lead the way.

The pandemic showed us how fragile our current infrastructure is. When supply and demand is drastically changed and working conditions are thrown into turmoil, suddenly we can see the restrictive nature of:

  • Manual record-keeping
  • Siloed data
  • Systems that only allow access to information on-site

More integrated, cloud-based systems that work intuitively with existing hardware and human operators are surely the way forward. Enterprise Resource Management (ERP) is one such type of system, and can reach across an entire organisation.

ERP produces more powerful data flows bringing together information from all sources at its disposal. It can provide better insights allowing businesses to make smarter decisions, and gives all users easy access to a single point of truth, whether they are on or off-site.

Industries like fresh produce were forced to make huge changes to their operations overnight and did not have the luxury of remote working. These experiences could spur them on to adopt cloud-based technology in greater numbers than ever before.

How will the industry make the jump?

What’s more, the importance of fresh produce businesses to the public could lead to help from governments and food bodies.

A recent FT article on the role of automation post-pandemic raised the possibility of grants, tax breaks and training being sanctioned by policymakers to hasten automation. With the importance of the industry in the eyes of the public higher than ever, fresh produce is likely to be high up on the list of sectors for such initiatives to be rolled out.

Public health concerns are also likely to be a key driver of automation in fresh produce. In the US, federal body the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced their new blueprint for the nation’s food supply chain. The ‘New Era of Smarter Food Safety’ focuses heavily on the role technology can play in enabling better traceability. The benefits of this include eliminating foodborne diseases, anticipating imbalances likely to lead to shortages and cutting down on food waste.

Through a combination of necessity on the part of individual businesses and intervention from higher up, widespread introduction of smarter technologies in the fresh produce industry might not be far off. 

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