In many respects, what's happening at CMC Food today is already a thing of automation's past. When the Fanwood, New Jersey-based farm-fresh egg manufacturer built a new production facility, it made a big investment in automation, placing robotic egg workers on the line with humans.
Food industry experts say, in what is typically a low-margin business like food manufacturing, volume is everything and CMC Food's move isn't unique — it's the only way to keep up with competitors. "I've seen robots picking croissants off the line and imagine how delicate that is, but they do it without any need for humans," said Marc Wulfraat, president and founder MWPVL International, a specialized supply chain and logistics consulting firm.
Wulfraat isn't shy about explaining why what he calls the first wave of automation has been so successful in industries like food manufacturing. "You need sophisticated logistics to minimize head count. Everyone is trying to minimize head count. This is not evil." But he also thinks it's a wave of automation that's ending, and what's coming next will be much more complicated in terms of the jobs split between man and machine.
Any food manufacturer that sets up a warehouse tomorrow may have robots representing around 70 percent of the head count. Take Symbotic, a robotics company now owned by grocery conglomerate C&S Wholesale. The kind of food operations that Symbotics supports might have required 300 people at one time, but now only 30 percent of the jobs or, say, 90 people, are needed. Wulfraat noted that the CEO of CNS, Rich Cohen, has put his move in kill-or-be-killed terms: If he didn't invest in this type of automation, a competitor would, and within five years be ahead. "They don't want to be watching someone steal market share."