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Automation - man and machine

Yesterday, today was still tomorrow

Man opens a champaign bottle

The beverage industry has come a long way in terms of automation. For a long time now, machines have been able to take over heavy physical tasks and very monotonous ones. But the question is, should they? And how can that be reconciled with a love for craftsmanship, when the hearts of the workforce are beating less and less?

It’s the customers that often have the most transfigured view of the past: Oh, just think, what a beautiful time it was when hand-picked apples were still put in a manual press to create must, when the winegrower’s daughters still waded around in the tub of grapes to press them, and when brewers used to wipe their strong hands on their leather aprons before hauling the next sack of malt on their shoulders over to the tank.But if you’ve seen or experienced all that first-hand, you know that everything used to be much more arduous, more elaborate, and less profitable. Was it better though? No! The products were by no means better.

Man in front of a machine
According to a survey by the DLG working group on robotics, the alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage sectors are pioneers in the food industry when it comes to automation. Machines that independently take over individual production steps, robots that can be used instead of humans, can already be found in companies of almost all sizes (although the degree of automation naturally increases with the size of the company – simply because it’s a question of cost. Automation has its price, and it does pays off, but it’s only in the medium term at the earliest, and more often the long term). Especially in the areas of logistics, packaging and repackaging, and palletising, machines take on heavy, physical jobs. They are used for sorting and picking, too.

In this context, the DLG working group speaks of a ‘humanisation of the workplace’ as one of the reasons why robots are used. The second reason for upgrading process and production technology is to achieve increased efficiency. There is no question that competition in the industry is fierce, and anyone wanting to keep up must be highly productive and ready to be innovative. Savings on staffing are cited most frequently as a reason for increased automation. Of course, the beverage industry hasn’t avoided the much-lamented shortage of skilled workers.


On the other hand, a comprehensive analysis by the Hans Böckler Foundation in 2017 concluded that automation in the beverage industry has already progressed so far that a level of ‘residual employment’ has been reached: Much fewer ‘real’ people would be almost impossible. We simply can’t, don't want to and probably shouldn’t replace any more jobs with machines. Of course, process optimisation is still taking place, but this is falling more under the umbrella of digitisation: The machines are now also being connected in a network.

In our conversations with beverage companies, we found quite varying reasons why even small and medium-sized companies might have decided to make considerable investments in automating their operations: Machines free up the mind, as Jeff Maisel from Brauerei Gebr. Maisel in Germany puts it. When some things happen automatically, i.e. virtually on their own, there is more time for creativity. Then, in the end, better and more exciting products emerge. Others have argued that if more can be done in-house, technology can help maintain quality and avoid lots of legwork.

In spite of all these advantages, the question remains: How can using the most advanced technology be combined with love for true craftsmanship? After all, brewing is a craft and there is a real art to it. Alcohol distillation is an ancient craft. As is the work of winemakers. People’s love, sweat and passion need to go into their products. And not just because that’s how customers imagine it to be. So, we asked around and found out: Man and machine – they can work together. 


What role does automation have at your brewery?
Fritz Wülfing: None, but semi-automatic filling is helpful and we have a self-made temperature control solution for fermentation.

What advantages does automation give your brewery?
Apart from bottle filling and fermentation control, none.

In comparison with the past, when more manual work was necessary, what do you miss?
Nothing, because we brew 100% by hand.
Fritz Wülfing, Brauerei Ale-Mania (Bonn, Germany)
(Brews with a two-stage brewing setup that he built himself, with 10 hl volume without automation.)
Which areas of whiskey production have seen automation being implemented?
Jens Rosenberg: We use modern technologies to monitor the distillation process. We use them to control the temperature, for example. Per shift, we now only need one operator sitting at a screen for monitoring. However, that person still needs to prepare the distillation and process it afterwards; that experience and expertise is irreplaceable. We also use software – our ‘cask management system’ – to manage the storage of barrels, which are now labelled with barcodes, making manual labelling superfluous.
 Most distilleries utilise mash tuns with semi-automatic or fully automatic stirring mechanisms, which are operated at the push of a button. That goes for the cleaning at the end, too.

What are the advantages of that?
The new technologies simplify and facilitate some work processes and therefore contribute to the occupational safety of employees.

How can automation be reconciled with a love of craftsmanship and craft products?
The blending of tradition and modernity needn’t be a contradiction – as long as the automation helps to improve or facilitate something.

Jens Rosenberg,
Brand Ambassador Single Malts & Keeper of the Quaich Beam Deutschland GmbH
(The spirits producer Beam Suntory – which produces Jim Beam, Canadian Club, Bowmore and others – uses automation in various areas of its companies).
Niko Brandner
For you, what work is done manually and what is performed automatically?
Niko Brandner: Manual work: grape harvesting, wooden barrel work, everything in the vineyard – defoliation, raking, tying, pruning, etc. Semi-automatic: stirring in the yeast, disgorging, bottle filling, labelling.

What has changed in your company since introducing the most recent major automation measure?
We are still young. We were founded in 2013. We started on pre-owned machines with partial automation. During the vinification process itself, we almost go without any interventions completely. For this, I want it to be as natural and traditional as possible.

How can a love for craftsmanship and craft products be combined with increasing automation?
As already mentioned, we work in a ultra-traditional way in many areas and this is something we can capitalise on when selling. So, manual work isn’t just something we love – it’s also part of our core image. Through utilising a little automation as well, we can also keep things economically viable.
Niko Brandner, Griesel-Sekthaus (Germany)
(Co-founded the company in 2013. Filling, stirring in the yeast and disgorging are done semi-automatically, otherwise manual work is required).
What role does automation play at your brewery?
Dominik Eichhorn: Our new brewing plant is our first major step in automation. Before that, the only automated parts of our set-up were a CIP system and the temperature control system for the fermentation cellar. However, in our brewery, the importance of automation is also going to increase significantly in the next few years, as we want to automate even more areas.

What do you consider to be the pros and cons of automation?
We hope to relieve the strain on our staff and achieve a more consistent quality.

Compared to the past, when more manual work was necessary, what do you miss?
In the past, everything was done much more slowly and more staff were needed.
Dominik Eichhorn, Schlossbrauerei Reckendorf (Germany)
(Brews in both an old copper brewing set-up that was built in 1961, and an ultra-modern brewing plant).