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Automation Technology: A Solution to Labor Shortages in Food Testing Labs

Automation helps overcome a variety of challenges and enables labs to be more efficient

Wilfredo Dominguez

Wilfredo Dominguez is the US technical sales manager for 3M Food Safety.

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unique reasons for people to leave their jobs. Workers want more pay, more flexibility, and a career they are more passionate about, especially as more people realize that life is too short to work somewhere they are unsatisfied. 

As the world heads into its third year of the pandemic, the food manufacturing industry is not immune to the challenges presented by the resulting labor shortage. Many of these jobs require someone to be in the lab, which means working from home isn’t an option. It also has led to outbreaks in labs, sending workers home and sometimes shutting down entire plants.

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How do labor shortages affect productivity and efficiency?

Labor shortages in the food manufacturing industry pose a significant challenge to testing timeliness. Fewer people to run tests results in delays in the manufacturing process, delays in getting product out the door, and increased cost for storage. Furthermore, lab technicians who are working overtime to keep up with demand face burnout. 

Labor shortages are not the only cause of production inefficiencies in labs. In a lab environment where it is critical to ensure proper testing and training, onboarding new employees can take months. Additionally, ongoing supply chain issues have led to backorders, further delaying food manufacturers from prompt delivery of products. Changes in safety regulations can also alter a lab’s testing procedures, sometimes increasing the amount and duration of testing, as well as changing the technology used to conduct the tests.

What solutions exist for food testing labs?

Investing in automation technology is a food testing lab’s best defense to limit the impact of labor shortages while simultaneously increasing productivity and efficiency. The use of automation technology allows lab technicians to multitask with the ability to step away from tests. Additionally, automated technologies nearly eliminate human error and don’t tire. 

In addition to incorporating automation technology into food testing labs, utilizing ready-to-use equipment can reduce the time spent putting testing instruments together. For example, rather than a technician spending multiple hours prepping petri dishes within a lab, utilizing ready-to-use petri films or dishes can help them gain time back to complete more testing. Products like ready-to-use dilution buffers, media, and other reagents are also available to help labs increase efficiency.

Often, lab managers hesitate to incorporate automation technology due to the cost. When weighing the investment of automation, there are two questions lab managers should consider:

  1. What volume of tests is the lab conducting? If a lab’s testing volume is low, automation may not be as useful. However, it can also depend on how much testing a lab is looking to complete in one day and the availability of trained technicians. 
  2. What are your customers’ expectations? If your customers routinely need results the same day or next day, automation technology can help increase productivity, as well as customer satisfaction.

Understanding your total volume and customer needs is crucial, and these questions can be altered to best suit the needs of your lab. For example, even labs with relatively low testing counts might benefit from automation technology if it needs to provide multiple results the same day.

Meeting changing expectations

As food testing labs adjust to evolving customer and employee expectations, investing in new technology and procedures like automation technologies to increase efficiency can help. It will continue to be critical for labs to be willing to adjust how they operate to attract and retain employees, as well as meet the needs of their customers.