7 commentslast update:7 Aug 2012

Automation kills operator skills

Jared Froetschner
Early proponents claimed that automation would reduce manpower in the mill, and product consistency would improve. As our industry has aggressively adopted automation, I question the total value proposition.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time on my father’s farm in Western Kansas. As we were touring his wheat fields, we stopped and looked at his irrigation system.
Richard had recently installed a new irrigation system, and one of the options was to incorporate automation so that he could control essentially every function of the irrigation system from his computer at home.
Richard had passed on this option, as he could not justify the additional expense. In addition, he felt that automation would distance him from the daily management of his crops.
Driving home, a question formed in my mind: what exactly have we received from automation in the feed industry?

Reducing manpower

Early proponents claimed that automation would reduce manpower in the mill, and product consistency would improve. These were reasonable expectations, as many of us examined other industries and saw these same benefits.
As our industry has aggressively adopted automation, I question the total value proposition.
Automation has made our lives easier, and yes, the consistency of the process has improved. However, I question whether we have been able to reduce manpower in the mill, and I would also propose that product quality has been impacted in a negative fashion.

Operator exit

One of the downsides of automation has been the forced removal of the operator from the process.
Ten years ago, it was commonplace for operators to be intimately involved with equipment such as pellet mills. Operators would adjust roll gaps, visually inspect pellets coming off the machine, and manually adjust conditioning temperature and feed rate.
The net result was a group of people that understood the pelleting process and could visually observe the impact changes in the process imparted to the final product.

Desk bound

Today, most operators are desk bound behind a computer terminal, and control the process through a pre-defined set of criteria.
For example, line managers want a conditioning temperature of 180°F, and maximum production rate. As a result, the operator sets the system to achieve the desired conditioning temperature and pelleting rate, and they rarely leave the confines of the production office to visually inspect the process.
As a result, pellets are produced with minimal attention to durability, and the rolls are adjusted to achieve maximum production rate, regardless of the damage to the rolls and dies.

What does automation bring?

Is automation a good thing? I suppose that depends on your perspective. I personally don’t see the reduction in manpower in the mill; instead, I see the same number of employees, being removed from the intimacies of the process.
While process consistency has improved, I see accelerated wear on rolls and dies, arbitrary conditioning temperatures and a significant reduction in pellet quality industry wide.
Is automation a good thing? After ten years, I would suggest we need to rethink the value proposition.


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    I would strongly disagree - automation has improved not only consistency in the food and feed industries, but also overall employee safety and ergonomic concerns.

    Just because a rollstand is automated does not mean that an operator cannot interface with it and control adjustments. Remember, the automated device only does what a human tells it to do. It is up to the production managers to adequately train their operators on key performance indicators and insist on their operators to still conduct their periodic quality checks and be involved with the process. Given the amount of automation in our mills, they should have plenty of time for this, as well as other value-added activities instead of repetetive, mundane functions that the automation takes care of.

    Just like other advancements in this world, automation is what you make of it!

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    ir Hans van Wijk

    I absolutly disagree with you.
    Automation is a tool for operators to have more and better control in their processes.
    To get better efficiency and better and constant quality.
    Come and have a talk with one of our (Actemium) customers.
    They can explain why they have such highly aotomated plants.
    But maybe you just met some poorly trained aoperators !

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    Harrij Schmeitz

    Jared, I can't agree with you. See me BLG about Feeddesign. It's not about automate to reduce people but about let the people do the good things.

    Harrij Shmeitz
    Imtech Food & Feed Competence Center

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    Ali Ahmed

    Actually automation substatially increased the production efficiency (15-20%) and also increased the skill levels of operators alongwith their so called manually handling skills of machines. A process is always running in the mind of a "good" operator even he is not doing very much with the machins directly. Only those operators can handle and understand automation system very well who has been and are involved with direct operations of the mills.

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    Jay Teisberg


    automation in and of itself is suboptimal if not flat out negative to progress. But by combining automation with solid best in class processes driven by talented, competent and well trained people you will certainly deliver more value than any one of the components (people, process & technology) operating in a vaccuum alone.

    In fact, if the improvement is well balanced, it enables people to spend more time re-evaluating processes thus continually building value into the future.

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    I can agree that automation has been a great benefit to the organisation, but it hasn't reduced man-power as initially claimed. However, productivity has been improved and consistently and operators can be more flexible and multi-skilled/task.

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    i think automation will help a lot of thing's. Operator will not be change by this automation, automation and operator's will walk together.

    @Jared : can i have your private email?


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