Keeping food manufacturing and retail operations running smoothly requires strong communication, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasized that need.

It’s especially important for frontline workers who encounter greater risk while serving consumers, but they’re also more likely to be out of the loop than their corporate colleagues, says Daniel Sztutwojner, Beekeeper’s chief customer officer.

Sztutwojner recently spoke to Candy Industry about the Beekeeper platform and how technology can support frontline workers, improve operations and help develop a skilled workforce for the future.

CI: Can you provide a brief overview of Beekeeper and its platform?

DS: Beekeeper's mobile productivity and collaboration platform is the single point of contact for an organization’s frontline workforce. With all tools and communication features they need in one place, teams can improve business agility, productivity and safety. Teams can resolve issues faster and manage work more efficiently, with an intuitive employee experience and seamless integrations.

Food manufacturers that typically have a large share of frontline employees have a hard time keeping them in the loop with the rest of the organization. A lot of the processes are still manual or paper-based, creating friction and inefficiencies. Beekeeper solves this by connecting operational systems and communication channels within one secure platform that is accessible by mobile and desktop devices. 

CI: How would you describe Beekeeper’s experience within the food industry?

DS: Food manufacturers rely heavily on frontline workers. In turn, the world relies on them to ensure an uninterrupted food supply chain. Beekeeper’s mobile platform helps organizations reach frontline staff and ensure a well-connected workforce to reduce the chance for disruption which was extremely important this past year. 

Companies within the food industry can communicate critical information to all employees in real-time. In the past, frontline teams were often the last to receive messages and had to rely on bulletin boards or managers running messages between office staff and production workers. 

We have one food manufacturing customer, IRP Meat and Seafood, that has seen huge improvements in turnaround times and customer service. Before Beekeeper, sales reps would call in to the in-house sales teams with customer orders. Those folks would then have to relay that information to the workers in the processing room. Any change orders followed that same time-consuming procedure. Now, with Beekeeper, sales reps can directly message the processing team with customer orders and changes. They also have digital display screens in the processing room that supplement the mobile messaging so everyone is on the same page at the same time.

CI: What role does technology play in improving safety and efficiency in food manufacturing facilities?

DS: With a total recordable injury case rate of 4.2 percent in the food processing industry, leaders are always looking for ways to ensure they create a safe environment. Frontline employee health and safety will remain at the forefront of public conversations in 2021. So, companies are looking to smart technologies to further curb injury rates. In smart factories, robots handle more of the dangerous physical work, and the factory floor becomes a safer work environment for humans.

Technology offerings for employees will expand in the coming years. With real-time mobile digitization capabilities, employees will have the ability to communicate with everyone in the facility — like alerting workers of any hazards or dangerous equipment failures — which is critical in a fast-moving manufacturing environment.

The total cost of work injuries in 2018 was $170.8 billion and $41,000 per medically consulted injury. By digitally enabling the frontline workforce, you can reduce these safety costs just by making information accessible to everyone and giving frontline managers more time and support to train their teams.

That same mobile platform can also improve operational efficiency in a number of ways. The simple act of connecting previously unconnected teams (like sales and manufacturing) eliminates silos and increases the businesses agility and leads to greater productivity.

Another way companies are more efficient is by leveling the information playing field. Frontline workers usually don’t have access to documents and communication that their desk-based colleagues do. We found that the average frontline worker wastes three hours a week simply searching for information. With Beekeeper, everyone has equal access to the same information. 

CI: How does the Internet of Things (IoT) play into this? Have there been advances in communication technology (between both machines and personnel)?

DS: Machines, systems and devices are interconnected and communicating with one another for a 360-degree view of the entire manufacturing process, from production to distribution. By 2025 there will be over 75 billion devices communicating with one another. By one estimate, IoT will make manufacturing seven times more productive. 

But this factory of the future will still depend on production workers to supervise operations, monitor communication, analyze results and make the data-driven decisions that only humans can. Giving workers mobile technology allows them to be digitally integrated with a smart factory. 

Elon Musk just a few years ago admitted that automation has been holding back Tesla’s Model 3 production and that humans, rather than machines, were the answer.

CI: Will candy and food manufacturers continue to turn to automation in 2021? Why?

DS: Automation is allowing food manufacturers to become more efficient, continually improve processes and reduce costs while maintaining quality, hence increasing operational efficiency. So it will continue to play a role in the evolution of the candy and food manufacturing industry. 

For smaller candy companies, automation is allowing them to move their traditional hand-making process to machines for faster production, higher outputs and overall brand growth that allows them to compete in a greater number of markets. 

Instead of laying off production workers, companies are instead upskilling them over their mobile workplace platform and employing them in other areas. For instance, as food production speeds up there is suddenly space and time for new products. Companies can then use their workforce for product innovation and efficiency development. Also, with the new machines that automation brings, companies will need to reskill workers in IT to manage the new technology. 

In 2021 and beyond, we’ll see even more advanced technological offerings as companies move closer to achieving fully-automated smart factories. 

CI: How does machine learning factor into this?

DS: Machine learning technology is a big part of automating the food manufacturing industry and is also expected to ramp up in 2021. With robust machine learning capabilities, factories will have:

  • Enhanced foresight into upcoming machine maintenance needs
  • Better cost-efficient inventory management capabilities
  • Improved quality management as machines learn from control issues
  • More flexible operations that can quickly adapt to changing customer needs
  • More efficient energy and labor use based on the production schedule 

CI: In your work with food manufacturing clients, have they been experiencing a skills gap? What’s lacking in terms of finding and maintaining a qualified labor force? Can technology remedy this?

DS: As the industry around manufacturing employees changes rapidly, many of the physical roles are being phased out and new jobs are emerging, paving the way for new sectors of manufacturing.

By 2030, robots will take the place of 20 million manufacturing jobs — or 8.5 percent of the industry’s global workforce. But these technological advances aren’t just replacing human labor. They’re also creating more jobs.

However, there’s a growing gap between the skills the workforce has today and the skills they need for their future workplace. Nearly 90 percent (89 percent) of manufacturers are leaving jobs unfilled because of the skills that the new technology requires.

This is happening for three reasons:

  1. The world’s population is aging out of the workforce and leaving jobs in manufacturing.
  2. The new generation of workers do not have the skills to move into these new positions.
  3. Manufacturing has lost its appeal as a viable career, and younger generations are overlooking the industry.

The bright spot: 77 percent of employees say they are willing to learn new skills or retrain to best-position them for future jobs. 

This is where digital enablement comes in. A mobile productivity and collaboration platform can also serve as a portal for training and upskilling. Workers can learn skills for the changing nature of manufacturing work and stay with the company instead of having to go out and find a new job. So many companies struggle with retention, but giving workers opportunities for growth goes a long way in driving engagement and keeping them with a company. 

In 2021 we will definitely see more food companies digitizing their frontline teams to deliver a more agile business and an increased competitive advantage into their tech stack.

CI: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DS: 2020 has been a year like no other. One of the greatest takeaways for the food manufacturing industry is that the world finally recognized how essential frontline workers are to the world. As people stayed home they kept showing up, making sure the food supply chain kept moving. 

It’s important that we recognize and celebrate their contribution and support them by giving them the tools they need to maintain high quality standards while being as safe and engaged as possible.