Robotics can help protect the product, like natural casing sausage, that could be damaged if handled using traditional mechanical methods.
Change is taking place in the meat-processing industry at lightning speed. New technologies are being introduced constantly – technologies that allow for increased line speeds and efficiencies throughout the operation, including automation in packaging.

This is especially true with the increasing employment of robotics – mechanical robots – in the packaging of hot dogs and sausage, says Tom Ivy, president of F. R. Drake, based in Waynesboro, Virginia, a leader in the loading of cylindrical meats and a part of Middleby Corp.’s processing and packaging technology division. “We make most of our automated equipment for use in the loading of hot dogs, sausages, and a few other products,” Ivy says. These products are sorted, conveyed and loaded at speeds up to 1,800 pieces a minute. Drake’s products include robotic loaders, collator-style loaders and launcher-style loaders.

The company was started by Fred Drake in 1979. Drake spent many years designing machines for the meat processing industry.

While robotic loading and packaging machines are new developments in the industry, automated loaders have been around for quite a while. “I’ve been in the industry for more than 30 years, and some of these machines have been used in the meat industry for 25 or 30 years,” says Tyrone Beatty, North American sales manager for Drake. But he points to a great advantage of the robotic machines. “They allow the meat processors to load various package configurations on a single line. The robotics allow new types of shapes of products,” he says.

Beatty says Drake robotics load products like natural casing sausage that could be damaged if traditional mechanical methods were used. The robots use high speed end-of-arm tooling. This accurate tooling makes it possible to handle variation in products, like curvature and a variety of consistencies, he says.

George Reed, vice president of engineering for Drake, says in 2013, the company didn’t produce or sell any robotics. A year later, the company was selling Fanuc robotics. This year, Drake is producing its own robotics and control systems designed specifically for its applications. “We are able to deliver a robotics loading system with a sanitary design and a single control system,” he says.

The company also produces collator-style loaders for use with hot dogs, sausages, snack sticks, pickles and other products. Collators are very fast – maximum of 1,800 pieces a minute. Launcher-style loaders are also sold, primarily to processors making delicate products, like soft cooked sausages. During sanitation, these loaders can easily be disassembled without tools.

Packaging solutions
JLS maintains remote access to its equipment so that processors using the robotics can get assistance and service if needed.

Industry growth

Reed says what’s spurring the growth of robotics is the equipment’s ability to outperform traditional methods of packaging. “That competition is people’s hands. The cost of people’s labor is higher than these robotic machines,” he explains.

It’s not only that, many people don’t want to do this work anymore,” Ivy says. “Working in a cold, wet plant is not appealing to many people if they can do something else. Our customers are saying it’s harder to find employees.”

With much of its automated equipment devoted to loading sausage and hot dogs, most of Drake’s business is outside the US. That’s because more sausage and frankfurters are manufactured and sold outside the US. “Mexico and South America are bigger markets,” he says. “Especially for hot dogs – I call it hot dog economics. Those products are inexpensive proteins, and the people in many of those countries don’t have the income for other center of the plate proteins.”

JLS Automation, based in York, Pennsylvania, partners with Reiser, a leading supplier of packaging and processing equipment for sausage, frankfurters, poultry, seafood, prepared foods, bakery and cheese products. The company has committed to automation and robotics in a big way. JLS was started in 1955 by Joseph L. Souser and his wife Polly, as a manufacturer’s representative firm.

The business reinvented itself in 1993, moving into packaging automation. By then, Souser’s son Craig was running the company, and is the CEO and president today. Twelve years ago, the company became involved in the food industry. The company moved into robotics and found niches that it could move into to provide automation in packaging, including robotics. One major niche area JLS moved into was meat. Over the past few years, the staff doubled in size and during the past year, doubled its revenues.

“The meat industry wasn’t too involved in automation yet, nor robotics, so the partnership with Reiser became very helpful,” he says. The company works with very large to small processors. For example, JLS created a robotic machine for a processor with 20 people on a dedicated line, that was one of their first chub loaders.

Souser says JLS does the design and the assembly of their robotics, but the frames themselves are fabricated elsewhere. “We put everything together here,” he notes. Integrating robotics into meat and poultry plant environments that are physically challenging takes a lot of work. “Since often the plant workers need help with technology, JLS provides a lot of service to the processors. We maintain remote access to our equipment, so we can help them if need be,” he says. “We have a ‘JLS View’ that’s like an ‘augmented reality’ – which means we can be at the machine with the operator remotely. We can insert videos to help the workers know what to do.”

The head of JLS says the changing ways people buy food in grocery stores, the rise of meal kits, and other developments puts pressure on processors and others to make changes of their own, including more automation in production. “We’re being challenged with new applications – a lot of pressure is being put on the supply chain,” he says.

The advantage of using robotics in processing operations includes reduction in labor and higher product yield.

Employee relations

Souser also says that automation, including robotics, is solving problems the meat industry faces, like working conditions. “Jobs we’re replacing (with automation and robotics) are less than ideal jobs that many people avoid – like slicing up sausage and sticking it in a thermoform all day long,” Souser says. He refers to an unnamed plant in the Midwest that has 800 workers, but there are 1,000 openings. So, 200 workers are missing every day.

Another issue is food safety. “Robots don’t sneeze, they don’t get head colds,” he notes. “Processing companies don’t have to worry about smocks or gloves getting dirty or torn or contaminated.”

Souser says robots in meat plants are designed for agility. One designed to be agile is its Talon pick-and-place packaging system. It’s designed to integrate with other packaging machinery.

In 10 years of offering automation, there have been considerable technology gains in the food industry, according to Waheed Chaudhry, Automation Technical Product Manager at Multivac Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri. One reason meat moves slower toward automation is the level of regulation enforced by the US Dept. of Agriculture.

The company has its own line of robots, vision systems, product loading devices and conveyors, Chaudhry says. “Regarding robots, we offer more than 25 models of 2, 3 and 4 axis delta kinematics robots, complete with customized grippers and control schemes that can load hot dogs and sausages.

“The advantages of robotics include labor cost reduction, fewer employee breaks or sick call-ins, higher product yield and hygienic product handling,” Chaudhry points out. He notes that automation in packaging can be used by large and small processors.

Provisur Technologies provides belt and conveyor automated loading systems for meat and poultry processors. “The equipment is provided for general company use, but is often customized to specific applications,” says Brian Sandberg, global product manager for the company based in Mokena, Illinois.

There have been three main benefits from automation: the reduction of manual labor, an increase in food safety due to less product handling by people, and plant operation and processing at higher speeds, Sandberg says. While food safety may not be the No. 1 goal of automation in the meat industry, sometimes it’s the main beneficiary. “If you can avoid one recall, which can be a disaster for a company, it’s like buying insurance,” Sandberg says. He thinks adoption of innovative technology tends to be slower in the meat industry because of the large number of existing plants, instead of new and “greenfield” plants. “We tend not to be ‘first adopters,’” he says of some processors.