The term ‘automation’ was coined in the automotive industry in the 1940s to describe the increased use of automatic devices and controls in mechanised production lines. The origin of the word is attributed to DS Harder, an employee at General Motors at the time. However, automation did not come into popular use until the 1950s.
The automotive industry arguably still leads the way in incorporating automated processing. While the International Federation of Robotics, a non-profit body by robotic organisations from over 15 countries, recently reported an all-time high for industrial robots in 2013, the food sector is still far behind the automobile sector. For example, in Great Britain, the UK automotive industry bought 11 times as many robots last year as food and drinks firms.
“Since the final product, for example ham, is pretty cheap compared to cars I believe it will be difficult to apply the same automation levels and investments into the meat industry,” says Geert Smet, meat industry manager at CSB-System.
The automotive sector has been successful in implementing automated processing. Regular components and a high-value product, as well as relatively low production rates, make automobile production an idea process for automation.
However, despite product and process differences, some business experiences and observations can be transferred into the meat industry. But, in order for meat facilities to implement automation successfully Nollet and Toldra (2006: 47) note that “a longer term, less risk-averse company culture is required, and employees at all levels must be prepared to change”.
Where automation implementation has failed is often down to the lack of buy-in throughout the company. Mark Seaton, sales and business development manager, Scott Technology, says: “It’s quite a mind shift for meat processors. They’re not used to expensive equipment. Despite good returns, it’s a big change. There has been a lack of awareness of the skills and technical people needed for this change. Companies see [automation] as a risk.”
Indeed, the meat industry has been relatively slow to permeate automation. However, many processing facilities globally are now embracing automation production. Increased costs and competition has provided an incentive for processing facilities to consider far greater use of automation and computerised controls in meat processing (Mittal, 1997).
“In the market today, we see bigger groups have digested the cost for regrouping and have funds for automation,” says Smet. “It’s also more and more difficult to find highly skilled people and these specialists are becoming more expensive, plus manual tasks are hard work for the operators. In addition, speed is crucial because orders drop in very late and with short delivery times, which calls for highly automated logistics. Therefore, increasingly, companies seek to differentiate themselves by automating and integrating the production processes.”
In meat processing, speed trumps. Marel’s I-Cut Profile is a high speed, fully automatic portion cutter of thick or thin steaks or groups. The I-Cut Profile was introduced in 2012; earlier generations of portioning machines were unable to group the slices, which, therefore, could not be automatically loading into trays or a packing machine. The I-Cut Profile can slice up to 1,800 slices per minute.
Another key driver to the increasing implementation of automation solutions is that automation is performing tasks that humans cannot. “Inevitably, this is why we’re doing this,” says Seaton. “We generally find ‘task replacement’ just doesn’t stack up well enough to justify the cost of the automation, so we have to find through the automation other processing benefits. We focus on labour cost, health and safety costs, shelf life, and in particular yield.”
Smet agrees: “Machinery is becoming smarter every day, in order for these machines to run perfectly and perform at the best they need software that feeds them with parameters and decisions. Parameters and decision that might be gathered somewhere earlier in the process.”
As automation solutions can be restricted in what they can do since they often have difficulties in handling non-uniform shapes, the pig meat industry has led the way in introducing automation on the processing line, as the product is generally more uniform.
“The slaughter lines for pigs have been automated a lot since farmers became better and better in breeding ‘standard pigs’ with standard dimensions,” says Smet. “There is a much lower automation rate in beef, for instance, because there is a bigger variation in sizes, ages and fat contents of these animals”.
While beef butchery processes are particularly arduous because of the size and weight of the cattle carcasses, and automated solutions could reduce the physical nature of the tasks, beef slaughter automation has received relatively little automation R&D efforts in comparison to lamb and pork (Nollet and Toldra, 2006: 60).
While beef cutting and boning rooms currently contain the least amount of automation, some believe this will improve with future automation likely to be based around transfer of technologies from the pork industry.
Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based manufacturer specialising in automated production, has developed beef processing systems that can be installed in the majority of existing boning room operations. Scott’s Beef Boning Unit is used instead of the boner’s meat hook and applies greater force than a person, reducing cutting and improving yield. While the Striploin Saw keeps the workers’ hands away from the bandsaw blade.
New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of lamb, and Australia is the largest exporter of mutton. It is not surprising that Australasia leads the way in sheep processing automation.
However, with meat bosses in New Zealand recently reporting a fall of 4.7 percent in the country’s lamb crop, compared with 2012, there are further demands on lamb automation.
Lamb boning in Australasia had no automation until Scott Technology started to develop it; the company is developing a fully-automated end-to-end lamb boning room, which the company states increases yield and eliminates waste.
Scott Technology offers stand alone machines and fully integrated systems. The automated lamb boning room system includes the primal system, which produces primal cuts from a carcass; an x-ray system that specifies the skeletal structure of a carcass; forequarter system; middle system; and hindquarter system.
“10 years ago, very few believed we could automate lamb processing because it is so complicated and every product is different,” says Seaton. “We have proved it possible and the focus has switched to financial viability. The sheep and lamb markets have always been challenging and our focus is on achieving payback for processors in little more than a year.”
Barriers to use
In the last decade, many of the technological barriers to automating the meat sector have been removed. However, the industry is traditionally conservative and cash-poor; financial factors are a predominant factor.
“It is a conservative industry, run by butchers not bankers,” says Smet. “Return on investment is not easy to calculate unless you link the automation investments on specific results, for example yield or quality.”
Another limiting factor is that many processing facilities do not have the in-house skills to support automation systems. It is essential for management and production staff working alongside the automated systems to receive full training. At present, there has also been resistance to their use from employees.
“Machine support is also an issue with traditional plant engineers being skilled for servicing a traditional engineering plant,” says Seaton. “They can therefore find it daunting when suddenly faced with x-rays and robots to maintain. Many sites have to bring in new people to service this area.”
Variation of the carcass should not be underestimated. One of the greatest challenges in automation is the varying size and shape of livestock. Variable products require flexible processing technology.
“We found we needed x-ray to be able to ‘see’ everything and provide correct data to the cutting machines,” says Seaton. “And some things can really catch you out – like when rib counting. Most had assumed lamb were 13 rib animals, but actually about 15 percent are either 12 or 14 rib animals. Then there are animals with more ribs on one side than the other, or variations brought on at the plant, for example a leg has been removed for a cyst or the like, and the x-ray may then struggle to identify key features.”
However, with the introduction of technologies such as x-ray, ultrasound and enhanced vision systems, automation solutions are starting to handle more diverse carcass shapes.
Scott Technology has solved variable lamb carcass problems through mechatronic solutions that adjust the most extreme carcass variations through measuring carcass dimensions with X-ray technology. “Lamb is a young animal and there’s going to be rib variation. You do need to know how many ribs there are but sometimes it’s not clear whether you’d call something – which can be really small – a rib or not. It needs to be done on a case by case basis, and that’s a challenge. Through our x-ray technology we have the ability to spot the carcass that is not going to work through the automation, so in the process we can take them off before they get to the cutting machinery, and process them manually.”
Another challenge surrounds equipment longevity and manufacturing flexibility. When investment is being made in machines, processors are looking to maximise how automation can be used and to ensure their investment is for the long term, capable of handling current requirements but also potential future requirements.
Automation has much to offer meat processing operations. In order for automated systems to be widespread, suppliers will need to work in close partnership with processors. “A lot of these automation projects are custom built and cannot be copied one to one to other projects,” says Smet. “I believe that the meat industry will have to define and develop with their suppliers’ automation projects. So it is important to choose a reliable and proven automation provider since the relationship will have to last for a long time”
References and further reading
Caldwell, D (2012) Robotics and Automation in the Food Industry: Current and Future Technologies, Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing
Devine, C. and Dikeman M. (2004) Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences Series, London: Academic Press
Kerry, J. Kerry, J. and David, L. (2002) Meat Processing: Improving Quality, Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing
Mittal, G. (1997) Computerized Control Systems in the Food Industry, New York: Marcel Dekker
Nollet, L. and Toldra, F. (2006) Advanced Technologies For Meat Processing, Florida: CRC Press.