“The pandemic brought urgency to automation” – Tyson Foods’ Chetan Kapoor on the meat giant’s push on production technology
The world’s largest meat processors, already using tech in areas like packing, are investing in ways to make their production more automated.
One of the very biggest, Tyson Foods, has committed to investing more than US$1.3bn in adding more automation to its factories over the next three years.
Investment in automation is not new – two decades ago, Tyson was outlining to investors its spending programme in the area – but expenditure has accelerated in recent years as the pandemic and the ongoing pressure on recruitment has hit the pool of labour. Just Food sat down with Chetan Kapoor, head of optimisation and automation at Tyson, to discuss the US-based giant’s efforts.
Just Food: Given the amount of money Tyson Foods is investing in automation, what do you see as the principal benefits of the technology?
Chetan Kapoor: Team member safety is our primary driver for automation. Food processing plants are wet, they can be cold and there are sharp objects. Removing the exposure to them is one thing that automation does really well. Another is productivity. Automation added appropriately improves the productivity of our team members.
Third is food safety. Automation, machinery in general, has less variation and a more controlled environment should allow us to improve food safety. The fourth, which is much more longer term, technology in our plants allows us to upskill our team members. To use technology, you generally have a higher pay grade to do that, so as we transition to a more modern workforce, technology allows us to pay more. Of course, the number of people who work in our plants is going to go down with technology but we have enough attrition anyways for us to make that possible.
JF: That’s always the elephant in the room with technology. When Tyson Foods set out its $1bn automation investment, it detailed its labour requirement would fall by 3,150 positions by 2024. The company is, however, seeking to emphasise this is an opportunity for staff to become upskilled?
CK: That’s right. Also, we are a company on a growth trajectory. Even though we’re reducing people, we’re also growing at the same time, right? And so, with our number of headcount, as a percentage of revenue, yes, it should go down and we want it to go down but a level that is increasing overall. And we are in places where it’s almost impossible to hire people, that are in remote areas. We have a big challenge in staffing our plants.
JF: Has the pandemic and the related challenges around labour sped up investment in automation?
CK: Definitely, the pandemic highlighted dependency that we realised could be very challenging for our business and it did bring urgency.
JF: How would you describe the labour and recruitment pressures currently facing Tyson Foods?
CK: I know that some of the plants in poultry do have adequate labour but in some areas we don’t have adequate labour. The other aspect of labour is that there’s a significant turnover, which is also challenging.