Jeff Elwer Owner and Professional Engineer, EES Companies

Facility automation and technological advancements in equipment have allowed for greater control in seed treatment and production. Though each facility project presents its own unique challenges and goals, an increasingly intense focus on optimizing efficiency and improving quality to optimize these advancements is often the main focus of capital investments. During the facility planning, engineering, and construction phases, however, one crucial consideration may often be overlooked: the workforce — particularly the operator.

What key workforce-related considerations should you be aware of during the planning and engineering process? Why is it vital to keep your current and future workforce top-of-mind during the early phases of your project planning? How does addressing these questions at the early stages of planning provide a future return on your investment? Here is why it is vital to plan with the human element in mind.

Design Beyond Minimum Safety Requirements: Regulations are clear about safety requirements for plant design and operation. However, designing to these minimum requirements alone without consideration for the day-to-day needs of the workforce ignores significant opportunities to improve and refine the efficiency of operations.

In the early phases of planning, give serious consideration to equipment accessibility and maintenance clearances, line-of-sight for quality checks, the workflow and daily movements of the operator, employee/vehicle traffic pattern interaction, as well as potential automation opportunities in the future. Planning with operators in mind improves efficiency by mitigating down-time for equipment repair or maintenance due to accessibility issues, reduces redundancies or inefficiencies of the operators’ working area, and provides a safe space in which to work.

Planning for the Workforce of Today and Tomorrow: The seed industry is not immune to the coming demographic shifts within the American workforce. With this shift will come a turnover of the accumulated skills and wisdom of long-tenured employees. Within the next two decades, replacing or retraining the existing workforce could potentially present an investment similar to that of a capital project investment for some facilities.

Assessing the needs and capacities of your existing facility and your workforce should be balanced with assessing how continued advancements in equipment technology and output requirements will affect your training and hiring processes.

Early planning with a long-term perspective of equipment and process advancements will help you address today’s needs while planning for future opportunities. We encourage all our partners to consider their projects holistically from the perspective of system-wide analysis, including a needs assessment of the current and future workforce.

Improving Your ROI: In planning a project, the foremost focus is often given to the material and structural components of the investment — what equipment is procured, how equipment is integrated spatially within the facility, and how system design impacts overall efficiency and quality.

With industry shifts currently underway, and workforce shifts looming, project planning and engineering with the human element in mind will become an increasingly important factor during the planning process.