Looking globally, automation has always been one of the keys to economic development. By increasing productivity, efficiency and efficacy, companies are able to remain competitive within the global marketplace, ensure sustainability and, most importantly, grow their business

That said, speaking about automation in South Africa is a sticky point as common perception is that jobs will be lost, and, in a country rife with unemployment, and apparent cheap labour, this would be unacceptable. Looking holistically at the problem, it would seem that the gainsayers have merit to their argument.

The Baker spoke to Dave Brownhill, technical sales manager at Dale Spiral Systems, and robotics expert Terry Rosenberg, managing director as Yaskawa Motoman, to get the real story.

According to Brownhill, in terms of automation in the bread industry, South Africa is on par, and in some places, ahead of the curve. However, many corporates and big businesses try and keep production processes labour intensive in order to create employment and negate any negative sentiment that may be caused through automation. The reasons behind automation are very clear.

‘’As our population grows there is a need to produce more loaves per hour to feed everyone,’’ says Brownhill. ‘’It then follows that plants need to get bigger, throughput needs to increase, and prices need to be competitive. Additionally, as plants get bigger so does the equipment.

“Traditionally, all the operations in a bread-plant that were manual meant lifting and stacking bread tins. This was fine when the tin held four loaves and weighed in at eight kilograms. Now, however, it is a bread tin that holds 12 loaves and weighs in the region of 25kg’s. This can be done by a human, a few times, but not on a continuous, production line basis. Coupled to this, a bread-pan costs a fortune and if dropped and damaged it has to be scrapped – hence the need to bring automation into the factory.’’

Rosenberg echoes this sentiment and equates the idea that automation creates unemployment to sticking to an old wire switchboard, as opposed to installing a PABX.

‘’If we look at where those old switchboard operators went once PABX became the standard, they ended up in other industries,’’ says Rosenberg.

‘’You cannot put your head in the sand and ignore new technology, especially if you want to be competitive in a global market where the competing product is made automatically. Every component that is made is identical. This is humanly impossible.

“With robotics your product is consistently the same quality, production is easier to predict, waste is radically reduced and, most importantly, it does not really replace people. Essentially, robots are best suited to jobs that are hazardous to humans in some form or another. If we look at a bakery, the mixing process for the 1 000s of loaves produced every hour is not a manual operation due to the weight and volume  involved.

“Then, once the dough is mixed and kneaded by the machines, it comes out the other end in balls, which then go into baking pans. These baking pans are grouped in a steel frame, which means that there is an incredible weight involved that is hazardous for people to pick up and carry. Essentially, automation and robotics take over when tasks cannot be done effectively by humans. There is just no substitute for automation when it comes to handling weight, speed considerations, and dealing with high temperatures.’’

Once automation becomes the core of a large manufacturing concern, production and sales increase, which create a need for more support staff. ‘’Now, instead of producing a hundred loaves an hour, a company could, for arguments sake,  produce a thousand, which means their business has increased ten fold,’’ says Brownhill. ‘’ They would now need more drivers, admin staff, and sales people, to name but a few. In fact, I am yet to automate a factory and see people losing jobs. They are always redeployed in other sectors of the business and, in most cases, it sees an increase in their living standards.’’

Expanding on Brownhills observations, Rosenberg agrees that, generally, there is no loss of jobs when automation comes into play. ‘’It allows the bakery to increase volumes to satisfy demand, and this means more people are required in support activities and are redeployed. Generally for the better, their working conditions improve, the company is allowed to grow and become more profitable, and there is a definite snowball effect.’’

Practically speaking, we cannot afford not to automate. There is a massive production shortfall of bread and the only solution is to increase production.

‘’This is not particularly evident in the urban areas as transport and logistics are well entrenched,’’ says Brownhill. ‘’If, however, you go deep into the rural areas, it is here that you understand the problem. They are the guys that suffer from lack of distribution. Some of the bigger corporates have depots in strategic cities where there is no bakery available and product is trucked in daily.

“But it is just not enough; it is not getting out to the people. And, while it may sound like a distribution problem, it all boils down to volumes. There are just not enough loaves to go around.’’

Continuing on this point, Rosenberg says there is no surplus of bread in South Africa.

‘’Simply put, if you don’t automate, you liquidate. If you don’t, you won’t be competitive and you will close your doors. And then 1 000 people will be unemployed, not just two or three.’’