A 2005 report by the Danish Meat Institute entitled "Automation — The Meat Plant of the Future"" mapped out what a future pork and beef slaughter plant would look like. While the pork plant of the future would incorporate automation in 13 distinct areas, the beef plant of the future would incorporate automation in just four areas, leaving the bulk of the work to be done by humans.

Recently introduced technology incorporates intelligent robots to do the "heavy lifting" in the industrial world, but the application to beef slaughter has been has not been implemented as quickly as some industries.

The obstacles to automation in beef are several. Neils Madsen of the Danish Meat Institute points to these challenges: lack of uniformity in the carcasses and high investment costs; the challenge of retrofitting automated solutions into existing facilities; and the opportunities to automate are in many cases still opportunities.

Vincent Volpe, president of Jarvis Products, a longtime manufacturer of slaughter equipment has been around processing plants for much of his life and agrees the adoption of automation by processors is hindered. "It's a slow evolution,” he says. “There are two obstacles. The first is the footprint. These robots take up more space than the existing equipment, and it's hard to fit into the existing space in most plants. The second is the expense. Robots are expensive and might not pay back as fast as companies like."

Volpe's comments are echoed by the general manager of a large midwestern plant. Lamenting the dearth of automation on his slaughter floor, he says "I've seen some automation, like the Davis hide puller, but they are few and far between. I can't afford to be an R&D plant for equipment manufacturers, and (the company) isn't going to put up the capital for equipment that takes longer than three years to pay back."

There is another factor that has determined the path of automation in the beef-slaughter world. Summing up the direction of automation today, one established equipment manufacturer recounts the following story:

"We had developed an automatic hock cutter for one of the larger beef packers in the early 1990s, and had the prototype installed in one of their plants. The testing was progressing well and it looked like it had the potential to be used in the several plants of this company, with significant cost savings. Just about that time some kids got sick in Oregon, and the wholeE. coli: O157issue exploded. Necessarily, the company refocused it's priorities on food safety, but the hock cutter never made it any further than that prototype. And that's kind of been the story of automation in beef slaughter."

Food Safety Drives Automation

If mainline slaughter automation has been a slow evolution, food safety innovation has been a revolution.

Manufacturers and beef processors alike agree that most of the innovation and automation in recent years has taken place on the food safety front. One slaughter operations manager comments: "I haven't seen a lot of change on the labor efficiency side of automation, but there is a ton of innovation on the food safety side." Citing improvements in chemical, thermal, and physical interventions, he says, "we've got projects going on in several of our plants, from new bromine-based chemicals, new spray systems for the head, tongue and carcass, and a brush system like a car wash to treat high-risk areas such as the neck. There is so much going on, sometimes it makes your head spin."

The impact of this focus is seen not only in the beef plant, but also upstream in the supplier manufacturing world. The recent acquisition of Chad, a spray cabinet solutions company, by Birko, a chemical solutions company, combines two prominent pieces of the battle to improve food safety in the beef world. The synergy of such a combination has the potential to bring about more improvement.

Arrowsight, Inc., had a history of using remote video auditing (RVA) to help hospitals improve sanitary processes in the operating room, significantly reducing serious problems like hospital acquired staph infection. It is using the same technology to improve sanitary practices of employees on the slaughter floor in plants of some of the industry’s largest processing companies.

CAT2, a software solution provider, has developed programs to deliver real-time plant monitoring systems to not only identify process variation as it occurs, but also the protocol to manage the correction of deficiencies on a real time basis. The real time information helps identify and solve variation sooner, and the analytical piece helps identify trends to improve problem areas long term.

I had the opportunity to work with both the Arrowsight system and the CAT2 program, at the Cargill Regional Beef plant in Milwaukee and witnessed their impact. Not only were both systems tremendous process improvement tools, but the ancillary benefit of involving production workers in food safety improved employee engagement at the plant.

Slow and Steady Course

Necessity is the mother of invention, and has driven many changes in food safety equipment and practices on the slaughter floor. While automation of the mainline slaughter process is slow, there are glimmers of change. Projects are underway to develop solutions to such areas as head removal, two piece hide removal, split saw automation and others.

The need to automate these and other processes is greater than ever before. Beef slaughter is an incredibly labor intensive business with a dwindling labor supply, and there is no better time to apply the benefits of automation to beef slaughter operations. While the obstacles are real, so is the consequence of failing to overcome them.