Automation's past success in milling

by Josh Sosland
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Josh Sosland
Grain-based foods, particularly flour milling, played a key role in one of the first times automation was a force in business in the developed world. The early lead does not mean that continuing progress along the same lines will see milling and baking avoid being charged with replacing human work with machines. This is especially true even if the industry’s progress at this stage might seem limited. Assessing such possibilities has been made urgent by the focus during the last presidential election on causes of unemployment in specific areas. Indeed, blaming unemployment on the failure of government stood as perhaps the most influential force in bringing Donald Trump to the White House.

When it comes to measuring the likelihood of automation looming large in the United States and in Europe in the not-too-distant future, agreement is startlingly widespread that it appears imminent. Advances in various elements of technology, especially computer power, have made it almost certain that a number of industries will see rapid adoption of automatic machinery to carry out tasks that are now being done by human beings. Without meaning to identify one spot where automation will have its nearest and greatest influence, the most popular target appears to be automatic driving of motor vehicles. Such a possibility is forecast by a number of experts who say this will happen within a few years’ time, thus forecasting a revolution in transportation as well as in driver employment.

History assigns to flour milling the start of automation when machinery first replaced people in jobs that had been demanding for generations. It was in the 18th century that this all began when James Watt, an Englishman, invented the machine powered by steam that could be used in turning millstones in what was the way flour mills ground wheat to make flour. It was toward the end of that century that Oliver Evans, an American engineer, utilized Mr. Watt’s steam engine not just to drive the roller mills but to move conveyor belts throughout a flour mill, thus changing what had been very hard human labor in moving grain and finished products in mills to the work of engines and conveying systems. Much has been improved since the first modern mill Mr. Evans worked on, including steel roller mills and modern-day pneumatic systems, as well as new and increasingly efficient equipment.

When Oliver Evans spoke of his new automatic system to mill wheat, he frequently estimated that it would reduce employment in a mill by at least half. Later improvements in milling that have continued to this day usually focused on flour quality as well as achieving constant gains in production efficiency. Commercial baking, which lagged milling from a time viewpoint, has embraced numerous systems and machines aimed at reducing employment. It is baking that operates the largest truck fleet of any single manufacturing industry, and thus baking is where attention must be focused on what driverless vehicles might mean in the future for delivery of baked foods.

Grain-based foods also has participated in an indirect way in another great automation that turned farms from employing huge numbers to cope with crops like wheat to industrial operations where people numbers are small. Except for a few instances, the reduced employment that has occurred in milling, baking and grain farming has prompted little protesting. Reading about the strikes and even riots that occurred in England when automation first came to knitting mills and similar facilities is a reminder of what may occur. That is especially the case as warnings about automation lead many news reports.

Nothing is far-fetched about efforts that may be brought forward to shy away from automation advances, especially those driven by robots and other computer/electronic gear. Stepped-up education efforts to provide jobs for people who might lose to automation appears the most sensible solution. Regardless of what is proposed to counter automation, grain-based foods is an industry that may proudly note its leadership, not in eliminating labor, but in focusing as efficiently as possible on its production of mankind’s most essential food.
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