The humble baker: taking pride of place in Main Street, doling out daily bread to the masses. Keeping the lunch crowds fed with pies, cakes, rolls and the good old vanilla slice. Bakeries have long been a part of the weekly grocery shopping routine, and hold a fond place in the memories of many an iced bun fan. Already battling with supermarket giants to maintain their footprint in the high streets of this world, bakers have been working on slimmer margins than ever in recent decades. Now, a new opportunity in robotics looms. But is it a recipe for success or a threat to survival?
Bakeries already struggling
There are certain essential products whose demand only increases as our population rises and more mouths need to be fed: Carbohydrates is one of these. The baking industry is Australia’s second largest employer in the processed foods sector, and yet employment growth has been stagnant in recent years. According to a National Baking Industry Association inquiry conducted in 2011, baked goods have seen positive growth for several years (at least up until the report was published). It is clear, however, that small businesses are struggling to cope with downward pricing pressure from the major supermarkets, with their in-house bakeries becoming increasingly popular for shoppers. Furthermore, bakeries face skills shortages, as there are fewer trained and qualified bakers entering the workforce. As the niche artisan bakery movement gains ground in response to the supermarket bread battle, staffing becomes a real issue. In fact, bakers are listed on the national skills shortage list, and have been for years.
Robotics in Australian industry
Robotics, like computers were doing two decades ago, are beginning to appear in every industry, and in places we’d never imagined. Computers are so ubiquitous now, that we barely think twice about their presence. Robots are beating the same path, and are beginning their advance upon the human workforce from behind the scenes. Warehouses manned by driverless forklifts, routers run by CNC machines, car parts being assembled by robotic arms—the robotic labour force is slowly making menial labour redundant. Of course, the proponents of robotic technology will tell us that robots in unskilled positions free up the human talent to work in more dynamic, complex roles, and that robots make the workplace safer.
Its seems as though robotic technology is not confined to the ‘hard yakka’ of tedious and unskilled roles, however, as attendees to the ABB ‘Switch to Robots’ seminar in the U.K found last month. ABB, an industrial automation technology developer held the event in Milton Keynes on April 26th, with a focus on bakeries, to give industry players and insight into recent innovations for their businesses. According to the ABB event registration page:
“Multiple benefits such as improved productivity, increased competitiveness and enhanced flexibility can be gained from a switch to robots. A recent study indicated that matching the automation levels of the most automated countries could boost UK productivity by up to 22%.”
Robotics in bakeries
Apparently, what is holding many bakeries back from investing in these new automated technologies is a fear around cost of implementation, as well as return on investment. There is no doubt that robotic technology is expensive, and well beyond the means of many small, family-run bakeries. Operating on already slim margins, investing in large machinery is simply not a reality for many of these businesses.
ABB and other technology specialists claim robots built specifically for the baking industry bring with them a number of irrefutable benefits. These include decreased wastage, faster turnaround of product, enhanced ability to cater to emerging market trends, round-the-clock production and enhanced efficiency in general. These kinds of claims are hard to resist, and may certainly appeal to the larger players in the market, whose capacity to invest is greater. There is no doubt, however, that robotic bakers are signalling a decline in the human component of the equation and their adoption will result in job losses and even further reduction in the skilled bakery workforce.
The question remains
Are bakers soon to be resigned to the glue factory, much the way that switchboard operators and typists have been? Perhaps, like bank tellers and factory workers, a certain human constituency will still be required, yet will decrease substantially. Many large bakeries such as InterBanket are making good use of the technology to increase the capacity of their operations. This kind of solution, for bakeries such as these undoubtedly increases efficiency and helps to grow their business. On the other hand, smaller bakeries may soon be heading towards redundancy, as the war for productivity wages on and margins continue to shrink. It seems inevitable, in today’s Tomorrow Land of technology, that this advance of robotics will continue to negate the need for a human workforce, while some parties benefit from increased production volumes. The executive level positions seem safe for now, however robots are moving in on more of the actual production roles. The question is: what do we do with the bakers of the world, when they’re no longer baking bread?