Supply Chain Bottlenecks and Automation

Has your supply chain been impacted by bottlenecks during the pandemic in 2020?

APICS Milwaukee Chapter serves the supply chain community with education and information needed to compete in today’s world. We share below how one industry is combatting future bottlenecks with automation.

We remember how the reduction of meat processing capacity caused by plant closures and slowdowns due to the pandemic, some right here in Wisconsin, created a massive bottleneck in the nation’s meat supply chain earlier this year. Nearly two dozen plants that process beef and pork products closed in April due to the COVID-19 outbreak, while many others had to slow their production as a result of the pandemic.

Even with the federal government declaring food processing “critical infrastructure” citing the Defense Production Act of 1950, worker illnesses and deaths led to industry giants such as Cargill, Smithfield Foods, Tyson and JBS USA that dominate the supply chain sending less meat to supermarket chains. Images of empty shelves made the news.

The lack of meat processing became a critical bottleneck within the supply chain. One solution many meat companies are now turning to, that is common to manufacturers in general, is automation.  Per Supply Chain Dive and as shared below, Tyson Foods is one of many meat companies ramping up its automation strategy as the pandemic has emphasized safety concerns among its workforce. 

Although automating meat factories is costly, the pandemic accelerated many companies’ automation plans. Engineering Director, Marty Linn shared about Tyson’s Automation center, “Really one of the keys for us being successful at doing automation is being able to fully test, fully vet the automation in the environment, and the type of conditions that we're going to subject it to. . . We can bring product in here as we need to process it. It really gives us an advantage to be able to use some of the advanced technologies, try those out in the environment without having to take it to the plant."

Having a facility dedicated to automation also helped Tyson adjust to the needs during the pandemic. In one room at the robotics center is an infrared scanner that can be found at Tyson plants across the country. As meat companies raced to find ways to keep its workforce safe while the coronavirus spread, Tyson set up a testing facility at the automation center to evaluate what technology was needed and the best system to get accurate temperatures of workers. Afterward, Tyson installed infrared body temperature scanners at all of its plants.

Walking around the center are Tyson workers who are training and getting hands-on interaction with robotics. Employees can come to the automation center and learn about the developments and how to operate them. Doug Foreman, another Tyson engineering director stated, "There's a bit of a fear factor with robotics as you start to introduce those into facilities. And so anything we can do to try and get some familiarity to that comfort level with our team members, and dealing with robotics, and not being concerned about those things, and being confident in their ability to deal with those systems in our plant is a big part of getting started in this type of automation."

There are still limitations to automation. Foreman said it takes "a lot of trial and error" in developing robotics. But the engineers said they are looking to implement tools that help workers do their jobs more efficiently. "Let people do the more value-added type of activities in our process," Foreman said. "Use robotics to do those difficult, dull and highly repetitive tasks. The robot can do that all day long and without fatigue or get distracted or have trouble getting through that process."

Investing in automation can be expensive. Tyson for example has invested at least $500 million in technology and automation in the past three years and elevated leadership with experience in this area.  Likely this investment will payoff for them as our country continues to feel impacts from the pandemic.

Resolving bottlenecks in your supply chain is critical to remain competitive and deliver in uncertain times.  Looking for more ideas on how to improve your supply chain management? Join us on December 10th to hear from Dr. Charlene Yauch, the Associate Director for the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) and a Professor of Practice in Industrial & Systems Engineering at UW – Madison. Register today: