Looking for qualified and interested labor, but can't find it? Is turning to robots the answer? Our award-winning columnist, Jeff Dearduff, suggests that robots can be as high maintenance as their human counterparts.


A silly new National Lampoon movie that’s being released this summer called RoboDoc has inspired me to make yet another comparison to the challenges that we face in the baking industry.     It’s a comedy about a futuristic medical machine that looks human but the robotic doctor gets its wires crossed throughout the story.

    Like most Lampoon flicks, it’s easy to find something in the movie to identify with. For me, it’s the image of Clark Griswold putting a piece of chewing gum in the crack of the Hoover Dam that reminds me of people who put duct tape on a flour line leak.

    These movies always seem to show us our own faults.

    Today, the baking industry is stretched to find qualified labor, forcing management to fill up the production floor with robotics while proclaiming reduction in headcount. However, as is too often the case, the wires always tend to get crossed.

    So far, I have not seen a single one of these robotic creations work solely without the need of some human interaction to keep it performing at the levels expected in a production line. Every one of these machines has bearings, fittings, wiring and other components that still require lubrication or constant adjustments, usually preempted by routine inspections. And we must never forget that these new mechanical operators have a brain that can forget or flip out just like their human predecessors.

    How do we prepare for this current and future reality where articulating arms replace biceps and backs? This is not an easy task. As I have noted in the past, it’s extremely difficult to find and retain hard-working, trustworthy employees. Now we are faced with a different set of hiring blunders, and that’s finding and keeping people who understand how robotics work.

    Maybe another solution is to select current employees who may express the aptitude and a desire to learn new things and have them attend serious training sessions. Either way, the business of robot repair is gaining momentum and becoming an ultra competitive arena.

    When creating RoboTechs, you will end up with a staff of technicians that are different from your other mechanics. The trick is to get everyone to respect each other’s discipline and find a way to work in harmony. While you build this army of RoboTechs, you still will need to have the people who will climb through a proof box, change the seals on a dough mixer and blow down the boiler. Getting these two groups together will be quite the test.

    Education is key in developing these technicians regardless if they come from the inside or not. Required skills range from having an in-depth knowledge of PLC programming, to understanding the movements of the machine, to having the ability to integrate these robots’ brains with their arms and hands. As a result, mechanics-turned-technicians will demand more pay and expect additional benefits.

    From the past 20 years, we know it’s taxing enough to integrate individual bakery machines into a coordinated system that works in sync from one end to the other. The same growing pains from the mid-‘80s may rear their ugly heads as we try to merge robots with bakery equipment and get them working together on a smooth-running production line. As tools and processes have become more advanced, that same technology requires the workforce to ramp up their skills to a totally different level.

    Where do you go to get these RoboTechs ready for battle? Check out the training opportunities in other bakeries to get a scope of how it’s being currently handled, and put together a sales pitch outlining the training needs and skill requirements for your operation. Then set up a meeting with management to discuss your plans and be prepared to provide them with information on everything from general theory training to machine specific classes that can bring your technicians up to speed.

    When the time comes to purchase a robot to take over a function in the bakery, plan to hold a system-specific training course at the robot’s manufacturer before the shipment arrives. At your supplier’s factory, your technicians will be able to get a good feel of what the design is supposed to deliver. They also will gain valuable information both in technical terms and from face-to-face contact with those who may be able to help them work through a problem in the future.

    Once again, we are faced with a challenge caused by advances in technology, but that is what life is all about. Don’t worry what this challenge does to you. Rather it’s how you handle that challenge that sets you apart from others.

    Be strategic in your RoboTech training plan and execution. Your RoboTechs will be like surgeons on the front lines in the great big operating room we call a baking plant.

    And if you do it right, the only laughing you will be doing will be all the way to the bank.

By Jeff Dearduff