Later this year, Just Born will add some help to its Peeps production lines.
The additions will work in packaging — plucking the marshmallow treats off conveyor belts and placing them in trays. Speed, care and nimble, pliant fingers are required.
One more thing about the helpers: They're robots.
More specifically, Bethlehem-based Just Born will bring in machines with blue "fingers" that can handle the pillowy Peeps without squishing them into a marshmallow blob.
According to Just Born's Matt Pye, the robots will work on the back of production line where the company makes single Peeps chicks, including its sugar-free product, and chicks dipped in or filled with chocolate. Those products represent about 10 percent of the overall Peeps business but have become its fastest growing segment, he said.
Robotics have played a role in Just Born's manufacturing for many years, said Pye, who is senior vice president of sales and marketing. The company also uses robots that pack cases on pallets and pick up Peeps Bunnies, he said. And while the company has been producing individual chicks for at least 15 years, it never automated packaging for those items, he said.
The marriage of marshmallow treats and the new robots originated during a trade show attended by Just Born managers, said Craig Souser, president and CEO of York-based JLS Automation, which sells the robot machinery.
"We were demonstrating a [robotics] tool, and they said, 'Could you pick up Peeps with that?' " Souser said of Just Born's request. "They noticed we were picking up items in different shapes and sizes."
Souser, a 1980 Lehigh University graduate, enlisted Soft Robotics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., which makes a gripper assembly that uses the fingers. The robots with pliant, dexterous and fast appendages are gaining popularity as companies in retail, food handling and agriculture move toward more automation, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.
JLS provides robotic systems at another Lehigh Valley company, pet food maker Freshpet. Michael Hieger, Freshpet's senior vice president of manufacturing, said three robots were installed in recent years at the company's manufacturing facility in Hanover Township, Northampton County. They take the company's chubs and pouches of pet food and load them into corrugated cases for shipment.
In both Just Born and Freshpet's cases, Souser said, the hand-packing jobs are tedious.
"It's not skilled labor," he said. "There is nothing you are going to learn doing that job that will take you further in life."
Souser also said many of JLS' customers struggle to find people to do the work because such jobs do not pay well and are "ergonomically challenging."
For retailers, fragile, malleable products that vary in shape and size, such as fruits and vegetables, often suffer at the hands of conventional robots, in part because machines lack something of a "closed-loop system," said Bart Selman, an expert in automation and artificial intelligence.
Selman said robots do not possess the highly tuned sensory feedback humans have at their fingertips. But Selman, a computer science professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said scientists and automation companies are narrowing the gap from "incredibly poor to close to human level." And recent improvements in vision and grippers are helping fine-tune that dexterity.
Pye said no Just Born employees would lose their jobs when the robots arrive.
"We currently pull associates from other lines to produce individual Peeps chicks," he said. "We won't need to do that now with the robots."
He also said using robots will help speed production and lower costs, while allowing for quicker flexibility in developing new products. The equipment also will remove injury risks.
As for disadvantages, Pye said, the new technology will require time to train employees — though he doesn't anticipate any production delays as a result.
Hundreds of Just Born production workers belong to Bakery Workers Union Local 6, which went on strike at Just Born for about one month in 2016 over several issues, including a disagreement over workers' pensions. Hank McKay, Local 6 president and business manager, did not return messages seeking comment.
Selman said while it's true that — in the short term — automation of the line shouldn't come at the expense of jobs, there may be a social cost down the road.
"Further out, what happens is you can produce more with fewer people," he said, noting job cuts in the semiconductor chip industry. "I think the social problem is more significant than what people who work on these systems would highlight."
Still, Selman said companies will continue to develop robots to meet specialized flexibility needs for companies such as Just Born.
"It's a competitive issue [for candy companies]," he said.
Pye declined to say how much Just Born is paying for the robots, but he noted with the growth in the company's newer product line, it sees a "payback" with the robots. Souser said it's hard to put a specific dollar amount on the technology, but he estimated the robots and related equipment often can mean a multimillion dollar investment for a company.
Just Born, which is privately held and doesn't divulge financial data, hopes to bring the robots on board in August and launch them into production about a month later, Souser said.
The most recent Candy Industry Magazine's rank of the Global Top 100 candy companies puts the Bethlehem manufacturer at No. 71, with estimated net sales of $243 million and 550 employees.