Full speed ahead

by Bernard Shire
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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.

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