Forklift operators and manual laborers might find jobs in scarce supply, but anyone who knows computers or can learn about them could be in demand when Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. opens its new Howard County manufacturing plant in about two years.
The company plans to build what it calls a Market Service Center for the Mid-Atlantic region -- a facility that centralizes the production, sales and distribution processes and uses automation to manufacture, transport, store and retrieve the soft drink supplies.
"If we can replace physical labor with technical-oriented labor, we're better off," said Henry A. Schimberg, president and chief operating officer for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises, following a press conference to announce the project yesterday.
"We're replacing physical labor with people who are computer literate -- technicians," he said. "It's nothing that requires a Ph.D., just simple training. The advantage is it's work people can do for a lifetime as opposed to work people can do until their backs give out."
The Market Service Center concept is intended to reduce operating costs and increase efficiency by eliminating the need to deliver and rehandle the products at a large satellite sales, warehouse and distribution center, company officials said.
Instead, the company will build small sales offices with large parking lots. Trailers loaded with soft drinks and designated for a certain route -- a "warehouse on wheels" -- can be hauled to the sales center and attached to individual tractor-trucks for local delivery.
"We've seen the future and it's Market Service Centers," said Mr. Schimberg.
The center will be a 650,000-square-foot building on 122 acres near Dorsey, off Route 100 between Route 1 and Interstate 295. It will employ about 500 people. The warehouse portion will be about 10 stories tall and will have a capacity for about 1 million cases of soft drinks.
Speaker of the House of Delegates R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. praised the high technology approach.
"It's nice to see you'll have high technology and jobs put together," said the Kent County Democrat. "A lot of people think high technology puts people out of work."
The company opened its first automated warehouse -- the first one in the soft drink industry -- in Cincinnati in spring 1991. The Howard County facility will operate similarly, but will be larger and could include new technology, said Mr. Schimberg.
"We'd be extending the automation we developed in Cincinnati," he said.
For instance, the company is evaluating the cost of making the loading of pallets automated according to individual orders. That work now is done manually, he said.
Computer technicians will operate automated guided vehicles, which carry the packaged soft drinks between the production, warehouse and delivery areas. The AGVs move along wires embedded in the floor. They eliminate the need for most manual labor in moving products longer distances within the plant.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Howard County Executive vTC Charles I. Ecker, who have visited the Cincinnati plant, marveled at the sleek automation.
"The plant itself is a tourist attraction," said the governor. "It's something you have to see. Just to watch the way they move it around is phenomenal."