When people talk about innovation, it’s about new ideas fixing persistent or emerging problems. It’s certainly exciting to gain new technological ground and expand our collective capabilities, but it’s equally important for the innovators themselves to prepare for the big changes that often follow and take actions to address any consequential impacts.
Consider automation. For society, it creates greater efficiency, predictable results and a better quality of life for people saved from back-breaking work. However, the World Economic Forum says that 85 million traditional jobs will be displaced in the next five years as a result of automating various processes. The good news is that if businesses and governments embrace their roles as community stewards and help workers with the transition, 97 million new jobs can be gained in new positions.
As we’ve pursued automation within Acadian Seaplants, we have strived to keep our workforce whole. Our business is built on a reverence for sustainability, an appreciation for tradition and a love of innovation, requiring us to think creatively and with care as we enhance the efficiency and performance of our seaweed agribusiness.
Thanks to the commitment of our leaders and our resourceful people, we’ve threaded the needle in a way that has allowed us to pursue automation with a human touch. Here’s how we did it.
We weren’t always an automation-focused organization. Wade Hazel, Senior Engineer at Acadian Seaplants, recalls how when he started with the company in 2000, the organization had industrial controls in place, but otherwise relied upon manually controlled processes to prepare our seaweed products for our customers. Since then, he has become a key player and facilitator of the automation process at our flagship Cornwallis processing facility and other Canadian locations.
Wade’s automation journey began in 2006. At that time, the Acadian Seaplants manufacturing and engineering team saw an opportunity to run a pilot automation program. Wade was collaborating with a consultant who had vast experience in automation. Wade and the team identified an opportunity to transform a difficult, manual process associated with one stage of processing into a consistent, high-efficiency automated activity.
“Whenever you have humans doing something, no two do it exactly the same. They pay varying degrees of attention to the task, especially when there’s a range of moving parts and considerations at play,” said Wade. “We recognized that one stage of the process had a troublesome bottleneck, so we started there and thus began our journey of automation.”
When this proof of concept ended up being an overwhelming success, the leadership at Acadian Seaplants, seeing the value of these initiatives, embraced the idea with open arms.
“Initially, there was some skepticism and nervousness about it since it was our first foray into automation,” Wade continued. “Folks were wondering if this would work and how can you do the process better than a person would do it. Today, Louis and Jean-Paul Deveau want to make automation part of our operation wherever we can.”
This brings us back to our core values. Rather than just turning precise and complicated processes over to algorithms and calling it a day, we have been intentional about making sure that we approach automation with a human touch. Rather than treating this advancement as an elimination of jobs, we have viewed the process of automation as an opportunity to create higher-value jobs that are sustainable for our people.
Acadian Seaplants is in a unique situation. Since there was no off-the-shelf seaweed processing machinery when we started our business 40 years ago, our workers had developed very niche expertise using manual processes on custom-developed equipment. To facilitate the transition from manual to automated processes one fundamental principle guided the activity – make it clear-cut and understandable. From a user-experience standpoint, that sentiment encapsulates the approach to new tech in our company. With the wide range of Employees working for us, some who are tech savvy and some who are not, we needed to make sure that there were clear and understandable processes in place as we transferred knowledge and retrained workers on innovative new methods.
This mindset guided us during the update of our Yarmouth facility in 2021. As one of the first facilities Acadian Seaplants obtained and operated, Yarmouth ran on an old system that could not provide our Employees with comprehensive insights into daily operations, malfunctions or bottlenecks in the manufacturing process. While we were upgrading the overall infrastructure, we decided to extend the scope and incorporate automation and other value-added functions into the project.
“Aside from putting the project together, making it successful required getting buy-in from folks,” said Wade. “To get that buy-in, we needed to make sure the project was well thought out and well-executed, presenting it in a way that made sense to people, and provided them with the tools, skills, and training they needed to feel comfortable. That’s what we set out to do.”
During the scale-up of the project, Wade developed training materials, methods, and SOPs that would streamline the transition. Long before our Employees saw the new equipment, we guided them through training sessions in the boardroom, showing them what the equipment would look like and how they would interact with it. We even provided our Yarmouth Employees with a tour of the Cornwallis facility, allowing them to see and interact with the new systems as well as touch base with other operators and ask questions. This allowed them to acquire comfort and confidence in the transition ahead.
“At Yarmouth, our automation process was very successful,” said Wade. “Everyone from the oldest person there was willing to grab on and learn the new equipment and processes. They wanted to be part of the project. It was an overwhelming success. We took that facility from zero automation to where it’s at now.”
Since we’re always thinking of the social implications of automation, we seek ongoing opportunities to improve functions that both enhance our business and free up our people to pursue different work within our operations.
For example, when our Harvesters’ boats reach docks and ports, there’s an initial visual inspection to remove any obvious objects from the seaweed itself. However, there are still smaller or less visible elements mixed into the mass of seaweed that require on-site inspectors to sift and screen the resource for foreign materials. “By revamping the screening process with automation, a two-person job now becomes a one-person job, allowing the other operator to fulfill a different role within the facility,” added Wade.
On the opposite end of the seaweed’s journey, we’ve identified an opportunity to improve the way in which we package one of our products. Packaging our Powdered Seaweed Products involves a complex system and substantial manual effort. Our proposed plan will greatly simplify the powder packaging line, reduce manual effort, and be fully automated using advanced technologies. By introducing a highly automated packaging system, the operators involved in this process can be redirected to quality assurance roles or to other operations that require a human touch.
With each subsequent opportunity, we see an occasion to create the value-added jobs that the World Economic Forum envisions. All the automation across our Canadian and International operations in Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere are all assessed for not only production benefits, but how they improve our people’s working conditions too.
On top of retraining our people to maintain an engaged workforce, as our company grows, we can continue to encourage economic growth and foster decent jobs within the communities where we operate. We believe a rising tide raises all ships.