Automation in Meat Processing: New Trends to Watch

Meat Processing

Automation is one of the hottest manufacturing stories today. Robotics, sensors, and other automated systems are revamping how plants operate and how products are made.

Compared with other industries, food — particularly the meat sector — has been slow to jump on the automation bandwagon. However, that’s changing as new technologies emerge and processors look for ways to both increase their throughput and adapt to consumers’ ever-changing demands. In Food Engineering’s 2015 State of Food Manufacturing survey, automation was identified as the biggest trend affecting operations.

Here are three automation trends in meat and poultry processing to keep your eye on in the coming year.

Robotic meat processing

JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, recently made headlines when it invested in a robotics company. JBS hopes to implement robotics on its processing lines for lamb and pork. (Processing beef is more challenging because the carcasses are less uniform.)

Robot butchers have been around for several years, but until now the meat industry overall hasn’t shown much interest in them. JBS’s investment, however, may signal a shift in the meat processing mindset. If their venture pays off, other companies are likely to follow suit.

Robotic poultry deboning

Deboning poultry is a hard job. It’s hard for humans, who get tired at the end of a shift. And it’s hard for machines, because on a small animal, even a small deviation can have an undesirable result (like cutting into, instead of around, a bone).

In February, Provisioner Online reported on a new robotics technology from researchers at Georgia Tech that could revolutionize poultry processing lines. Currently, the technology can locate and cut around a shoulder joint with 95% accuracy. The goal for this year is to bump that number up to 99.9%.

A major advantage of this technology is that it will be developed as a modular machine, rather than a fixed automation system. This will save processors the upfront installment costs traditionally associated with new automation equipment. It also means that processors can pull the machine out of the line without shutting down production completely.

This new technology isn’t quite ready for primetime, and it’s still quite expensive. But it’s definitely worth watching.

Rapid yield analysis through advanced imaging

One measure of the quality of a meat cutter’s work is how much meat remains on the carcass. Even 1% yield loss on a regular basis can represent millions of dollars of unrealized revenue.

Thanks to advanced 3D imaging technology, also developed at Georgia Tech, processors can now regain some of that revenue as well as increase line efficiency.

Conducting a standard scrape test takes about five minutes. With 3D imaging, processors can cut this time down to mere seconds and give operators instant feedback about their performance. Essentially, this system provides workers along a meat cutting line with ongoing real-time training to improve the accuracy of their cuts.

In general, appetites for automation and robotics solutions are growing. In 2014, 7% of all North American robotics orders were from the food and consumer goods markets. While a small percentage, it still represents a more than 100% increase from 2005.

Food companies are turning to automation to solve problems ranging from reducing downtime to improving sanitary design. If the trends identified above catch on, we expect to see processors adopt automation as a way to tackle even highly exacting tasks like cutting meat.

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