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Labor-solving inspiration is literally in the can

Looking for labor-solving inspiration for your fresh produce or floral company? Business futurist and technology trends spotter Patrick Schwerdtfeger said to look no further than the trash cans in his home town of Walnut Creek, CA.

Schwerdtfeger is an entrepreneur turned analyst, speaker, YouTube blog host and founder of one of the nation's largest entrepreneur communities. He has been tapped to keynote two industry technology events in the months ahead. Produce Marketing Association's first-ever Fresh Connections: Technology event is Feb. 20 in St. Petersburg, FL, and Tech Knowledge will return May 2-3 to Monterey, CA.Patrick-HeadshotPatrick Schwerdtfeger

So, about those trash cans: It turns out they exemplify a solution to our industry's labor challenge.

"Labor -- more precisely, the shortage of labor -- is an industrywide issue for produce and floral," said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for PMA, who will emcee both events with Schwerdtfeger. "Technology can solve that problem by replacing some labor, but it can do even more than that. The labor we do have can also work smarter."

Exactly how can technology help industry address labor problems? Look to the types of jobs, said Schwerdtfeger.Bob-HeadshotBob Whitaker

"Repetitive manual jobs are likely to be replaced by robots at some point in the future, and repetitive cognitive jobs are likely to be replaced by algorithms or some sort of artificial intelligence," said Schwerdtfeger.

As example, he points to Walnut Creek's trash cans. They used to get emptied according to an arbitrary schedule, whether they were full or not. Then the city installed new containers that have sensors to tell authorities when the containers are full. Only then are they emptied.

Similarly, according to Schwerdtfeger, "Any activity you have in your produce or floral business that is done according to an arbitrary schedule, that job needs to be replaced. Figure out how to get sensors to do that job on a just-in-time, only-when-needed-basis. You can immediately save on salaries, and save on time."

To help a company work smarter, not harder, don't just chase the latest technology, said Whitaker. "Our companies' bone yards are full of equipment that no longer works together because we didn't create a roadmap," he said. "A roadmap identifies your labor pain points, so then you can make smart decisions about which technology solutions to employ to address them."

Schwerdtfeger agrees with the roadmap strategy, adding, "It is a lot easier to find something when you know what you're looking for. If you have a holistic picture of the tasks that are going to be replaced and in what order, then you can start having conversations with technology providers."

To help draw your roadmap then find technology solutions to solve your particular problems, Schwerdtfeger recommends studying case histories and success stories.

"That's how innovation propagates," he said. "Whatever you're talking about, there's always one industry or one type of business or one player out there that's doing what you should be doing. You rarely have to reinvent the wheel."

Now that you're "thinking wide" -- "I want peoples' brains to explode over what's possible" -- then "go narrow" to find models and frameworks to tell you what will work, Schwerdtfeger said.FC-Logo

"Then you can see where it makes sense to invest money, and as a result, you will waste less money along the way," Schwerdtfeger said. "You're never going to have 100 percent success, but you can improve your success rate."

To help industry members connect with possible technology solutions, PMA's technology events feature short, Shark Tank-like pitches from tech companies, who then field questions from event attendees.

These Lightning Learning Labs demonstrate the common theme of connections that is central to all of PMA's technology offerings.

"Because everyone's business is different and everyone's needs are different, the most valuable thing PMA can do in the technology space is to help our members create connections," said Whitaker. "That is woven through everything we do, from in-person and virtual webinar events, to research and other content we post to our website."

Schwerdtfeger himself is inspired by what he has learned about the fresh produce and floral industry.

"I don't know that I've ever had the chance to work with an industry that has such a tight window of success," he said. "Inefficiencies get hammered out in the industries that have a time crunch, and this industry is an example of one such industry. I think this is an industry that other industries can look to and learn from."

For more information about PMA's upcoming technology events, visit For online resources, visit