A recent headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer reading “Robots don’t get sick” succinctly summed up the current view of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies during the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to automation. Even before the coronavirus, CPGs were embracing the technology in increasing numbers, according to the “Robotics: Innovation 2 Implementation” report from PMMI Business Intelligence, a division of PMMI. Lean manufacturing, international trade tensions, an aging workforce and the demand for rapid e-commerce order fulfillment were driving adoption. With flexibility now inherent to most robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is enabling machine learning for automation to operate in dynamic environments with ever-changing products making robots ideal for situations where employees need to social distance or are not available to work.

The number one challenge facing the industry is access to enough human resources with the skills to design, program, commission, operate and service the robotics on the plant floor of the future. The report calls for companies to adopt an automation center of excellence (COE) outlook, which includes the people, processes and technology necessary to maximize the benefits of automation, including robotic process automation. Rather than piecemeal together automation solutions, it is crucial to find new automation opportunities, scale-up automation throughout an organization and devise a long-term vision to ensure streamlined operations.

The lack of skilled workers in manufacturing was already a dire situation, so finding operators ready to work with newly acquired automation is not an easy task to begin with, and particularly so during a pandemic. The technicians and designers of robotics are working toward simplifying robotic interfaces and programming to streamline installation and startup, but robotic skills go beyond the talents of most mechanical or electrical engineers and require a much broader cross-disciplinary skillset encompassing several engineering fields. Robot engineers tend to understand electrical, mechanical, systems control, software and firmware competencies.

According to companies surveyed in the aforementioned report, the best way to transfer the traits needed for an unskilled are best learned firsthand and preferably from an experienced operator. Technology experts recommend jumping right in with hands-on training to acclimate employees with the constantly evolving world of robotics throughout the manufacturing space. The newest generation of robots can be programmed with significantly less technical expertise than just five years ago, allowing for a relatively simple demonstration via a connected smart device. There is a paradigm shift occurring in the workplace as AI and machine learning transform the plant floor. CPGs need to kickstart employee retraining programs to close the skills gap now that end users are more aware of the operational advantages and troubleshooting abilities of automation.

As the industry continues to navigate through the challenges posed by COVID-19, manufacturers and suppliers can visit PMMI’s COVID-19 resource page for insights on ways to adapt and evolve. For more operational solutions, the new live, web-based PACK EXPO Connects 2020 (November 9-13) will provide the same opportunities and insights the industry has relied on through the PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows for more than 60 years. The event will serve as North America’s resource for the most advanced packaging and processing technologies across a wide range of industries and will facilitate exhibitor and attendee interaction through live chats, product and equipment demos, as well as engaging educational sessions. More information and updates on the event are available at packexpoconnects.com.

PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, represents more than 900 North American manufacturers and suppliers of equipment, components and materials as well as providers of related equipment and services to the packaging and processing industry. We work to advance a variety of industries by connecting consumer goods companies with manufacturing solutions through the world-class PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows, leading trade media and a wide range of resources to empower our members. The PACK EXPO trade shows unite the world of packaging and processing to advance the industries they serve: PACK EXPO International, PACK EXPO Las Vegas, Healthcare Packaging EXPO, PACK EXPO East, EXPO PACK México, EXPO PACK Guadalajara. Learn more at pmmi.org and packexpo.com.