Hughes Enterprises

Coronavirus, Automation, and Worker Scarcity

Hand robot manipulator for packaging automation

2020 – The start of a decade that promised to usher in widespread use of such groundbreaking technologies as Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, 5G, Robotics, and more. Three months in, the world had shifted focus to the most widespread pandemic since the 1918 Flu. COVID-19 has changed the landscape for corporate America in ways not previously imagined.

Prior to the outbreak of the recent coronavirus, companies were looking toward, and employing, packaging automation to solve the problem of worker scarcity. An unemployment rate that fell to 3.5% earlier this year created such a labor shortage and competition for unskilled workers that most companies had little choice but to invest in capital equipment to automate many mundane tasks once reserved for human capital. 

As the economy was put on shutdown to battle the virus, the unemployment rate soared to about 15% in May this year. Still today, with the economy reopening, at the time of writing this, the rate is hovering at about 8.4%—more than double the low reached early this year. One would think that would create a situation where industry might have plenty of available workers to hire for unskilled tasks. Strangely, the landscape has not really changed.

The last 100 feet of the packaging line uniquely lends itself to automation. Such products as case erecting, case filling, case closure, in-line printing and labeling, palletizing, and stretch wrapping are easily automated with quick returns on investment. Flexible packaging lines can be automated with shrink wrapping and bagging systems as well. Robots are being employed in many of these areas to increase efficiencies. 

None of this is groundbreaking—these technologies have been in place for several years. What is surprising is that we are getting to a point in which this automation is increasingly morphing from a “nice to have” to a “must have.” The human capital just isn’t plentiful enough today, nor will it be in the future.

As 2021 approaches and we work toward defeating this virus later next year, packaging automation for that last 100 feet will continue to grow in popularity and become more widespread. Lead times will stretch, as manufacturers of packaging equipment will be running at peak capacity. The companies that haven’t thought much about packaging automation or replacing tired and aging equipment would be well-served to get ahead of the curve today. 

If you want to get ahead of the curve, contact a Hughes packaging expert.

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