Photos courtesy of Tom Spiekermeier
Headquartered in Wahpeton, N.D., Giants Snacks might seem like an unlikely candidate for automation but the company is proving to be a pioneer. We talked with Tom Spiekermeier, the Operations Manager at Giants, about how automation is actually making their company and their employees’ lives better.
Q: Tell us about the work that you’re doing with automation in your plant.
A: Much of our automation at Giants is in place to reduce the menial tasks that are not enjoyable or fulfilling to an employee while also driving efficiencies and quality. All of our packaging lines have case erectors and case sealers. At this point, I have a hard time imagining what it would be like without these pieces of equipment, having to employ people to form and tape our boxes. Very few people would want to do this job and I feel like the turnover in a position like that would be ridiculously high.
All of our packaging lines have scales that automatically weigh very precisely how much product to put in each individual package, as well as packaging machines form, fill and seal. These two pieces of equipment are something that I would say I took for granted as they are standard in high-volume food packaging operations in the U.S. That is until I was recently in a factory overseas and saw how their workers were using pan scales to get the correct amount and then filling pre-made packages by hand before manually running the package through a sealer. Some of our packaging lines have case packing robots that will pack our standard regular slotted carton cases. In our production areas, we use automation to move product throughout the processes, as well as automated batching systems.
We’ve never let anyone go due to automation. When a position has essentially been eliminated due to automation, those people move into new roles, typically with more responsibility and in turn higher pay.”Tom Spiekermeier, Operations Manager at Giants,
Q: From a business perspective, why did it make sense to invest in automation?
A: Obviously, labor costs is a big one. But labor issues are up there too. Being located in Wahpeton can prove di cult for sta ng being that Wahpeton is a small town but has a lot of manufacturing businesses all vying for the same candidates. As mentioned above, we try to automate the simple tasks that people don’t like to do every single day. People like to be challenged, at least somewhat. If they’re not, they will get bored and not want to come to work every day and eventually leave for more fulfilling opportunities, which could hurt us if we have to shut a line or two down because we’re understaffed. This can then snowball. For instance, if we require other workers to pick up their slack and work more hours then those workers could get frustrated and the problem just escalates.
This could potentially lead to us missing orders and cost us sales, as well as damaging business relationships with our customers. Giants is built and runs on quality. Automating certain tasks allows our employees to focus on more quality-focused tasks to ensure we are always producing the highest quality product.
Q: Right now, automating is an expensive undertaking and it can take several years for the investment to pay off. However, in order for it to become mainstream, it takes some early adopters. Why did you invest in it now?
A: As our founder, Jay Schuler, always says, “If you don’t innovate, you die.” We’re always looking for ways to improve, whether it be new products or new processes or improving e ciencies through automation. If we have a high level of con dence of an automation project and its ROI, then we’re not afraid to move forward. There’s always an opportunity cost that if you invest in something now, something better will come along and you’ll second guess yourself that maybe you should have waited. But you could do that forever as there is always something new and better coming out.
Q: When people think of automation, they mostly think of people losing their jobs. However, in reality, it can create higher paying jobs with the new technology and overseeing the equipment. What have you seen in your experience with launching the new technology?
A: We’ve never let anyone go due to automation. When a position has essentially been eliminated due to automation, those people move into new roles, typically with more responsibility and in turn higher pay. As we grow and become more automated, our workforce is becoming and will continue, to become more skilled while decreasing the ratio of man hours to productivity.
I envision down the road that our plant could produce two to three times as much with approximately the same number of employees, but of higher skill and with the right automation investments. When people think about people losing jobs due to automation, I don’t think they are completely wrong. Automation does create the need for higher skilled and higher paying jobs but it reduces the need for lower skill jobs.
From a social standpoint, this concerns me as not everyone is cut out to be a machine operator, forklift operator, engineer, etc. Some people need jobs that
are highly repetitive and require very little decision making while these are the jobs that we reduce through automation. Even though these are typically harder positions to keep sta ed, and I’ve discussed how these are the tasks that we try to reduce through automation, there is a population of people that need these types of jobs.
A Brief Timeline of Giants Snacks
1958: Bob Schuler brought sun ower seeds to the Red River Valley.
Late 1970s: Schuler’s son Jay started Sigco Research, which set the stage for GIANT Sun ower Seeds.
Late 1980s: Jay Schuler and Gary Fick partnered at Seeds 2000, an exclusive breeding and growing partner of GIANT Sun ower Seeds.
1995: Jay Schuler and a business partner started GIANTS
2004: GIANTS becomes the official seed of the Minnesota Twins.
2008: Built new facility in Wahpeton.
2016: Expanded product line to include Pistachios
2018: Expanded product line to include Cashews