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AI, automation garner focus at Manufacturing Outlook event

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The impact of technology on the manufacturing industry, particularly artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, took center stage at a Dec. 6 Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Several industry leaders shared insight on usage of tech in their businesses as well as ongoing workforce challenges at the annual Manufacturing Outlook event. Sally Hargis, Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. chair and vice president, said her company, which appointed Bruce Long in April as the new CEO of the 103-year-old business, plans to invest $30 million next year in automation for its North Packer Road warehouse. Hargis told the crowd of 400 at the White River Conference Center that the investment is driven in part by consumer demand for more product options.

“That has stretched the limits of our warehouses. Our newest warehouse of nearly 435,000 square feet out on North Packer Road is bursting at the seams already because of the number of choices that consumers demand,” she said. “We’re looking at responding with automation.”

Hargis said part of that investment will involve equipment to lessen the physical load on employees moving product in the warehouse.

“Our products aren’t light, and it requires a great deal of physical exertion to perform those jobs,” she said. “Automating our warehouses will relieve, for the most part, a lot of that physical work. It will make the jobs more desirable and a lot easier to retain those warehouse workers if the job is not quite as physically hard.”

The warehouse also will begin employing the use of scanners in the blending process for its line of beverages. Ozarks Coca-Cola bottles over 400 products, and its distribution footprint includes southern Missouri, southeast Kansas and northwest Arkansas.

“Recipe management will be driven by the use of these scanners and will make our blending operations more efficient. These scanners will validate the recipes and ingredients before they’re made,” Hargis said, adding the equipment will shut down the labeling process if there’s a predicted error. “It also saves us time. It makes the workplace a safer place for the employees who are using it.”

Other panelists at the event were Carl Kicklighter, director of plant operations at Vital Farms Inc.; Robert Randolph, executive director for the Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Ozarks Technical Community College; and Jarad Johnson, CEO of marketing agency Mostly Serious LLC.

Employee investment
Both Hargis and Kicklighter said they’ve upgraded training programs to help with employee retention and onboarding new hires.

“We’ve really tried to look at what does the incoming generation want out of their job,” Kicklighter said, noting the company is leveraging automation to provide improved job satisfaction and working environments.

Vital Farms’ Springfield plant grew to 150,000 square feet in an expansion completed last year, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“At Vital Farms, we’re highly automated. We use a ton of robots and process six million eggs a day,” he said. “When we started automation at Vital Farms, it was what are the tasks that no one likes to do. Can we automate them?”

Johnson, who uses AI for work and personal purposes, said technology platform ChatGPT can aid businesses in numerous ways.

“One of the benefits of using things like ChatGPT is we can remove some of the mundane, repetitive work from people’s plates so that they can focus on the more creative and expertise areas that not only is more important to the organization but makes people more fulfilled in their day-to-day work,” he said.

Johnson noted the other company he co-owns, Habitat Communication & Culture, presented a State of Manufacturing in Missouri report earlier this year at the Missouri Association of Manufacturers Trade Show & Conference in Branson. He said workforce and supply chain were the major issues that surfaced.

As a response to the local workforce shortage, Randolph said officials are seeing a trend of manufacturers rapidly increasing the implementation rate of automation and robotics. He cited a 2021 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute that pointed to hiring needs in the industry. The study said the manufacturing skills gap in the U.S. could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030.

“That’s a scary prospect,” he said.

Randolph said OTC is having conversations with employers about skilling up the current workforce on robotics and automation. The college looks to be part of the solution in those discussions, as he said OTC offers short-term and customizable training options to best fit individual employers.

While he said he’s heard about some higher education institutions considering steering away from AI, OTC is “looking for opportunities to embrace that.”

“It’s coming whether you like it or not.”

As for automation and robotics, Randolph said the school implemented an associate degree program centered on the technology when the PMC opened in 2022. Its first class will graduate in spring 2024.

Creeping along
Andrea Sitzes, market executive and vice president with Arvest Bank, said she was glad to hear the panelists speak about investing in current employees regarding technology trends.

“It’s creeping its way into every industry,” she said. “In every industry, there are efficiencies to be gained.”

While not necessarily displacing jobs people currently have, Sitzes said she’s concerned its overuse could run the risk of people bypassing the knowledge base of longtime employees.

“It can’t replace wisdom,” she said.

The Dec. 6 event wrapped up the chamber’s annual Outlook series, which included its inaugural focus on nonprofits in October.

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