The opportunities for meat and poultry processing operators to take advantage of automation and robotics technology are many, and an increasing number of solutions are being developed and implemented to address problems in today’s plants. In general, stakeholders in processing plants and their supplier partners agree that the health risks associated with repetitive motion, heavy lifting, working in hazardous environments and handling raw or ready-to-eat products can be (or are being) addressed by robotic technology. End-of-the line tasks, including packaging, boxing and palletizing have been the focus of many processors’ efforts when implementing automation in their operations. In recent years, box folding, case packing, palletizing and wrapping have become more common as processors test the automation waters and look ahead.

More companies are realizing the value in other end-of-line processes, including the potential of multi-dimensional, vision-based inspection systems, which can eliminate human error and oversights related to fatigue, line speed and product type. As processors consider other possibilities for automation and robotics, their attention turns upstream. According to findings from the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies’ (PMMI) recent Top to Top Summit, held earlier this year, makers of consumer packaged goods and original equipment manufacturers identified the advantages robotics offer. In general, reducing workplace injuries while saving money and reducing damaged products are some of the obvious benefits. Additionally, robots facilitate operational flexibility and more efficient throughput, including exposing bottlenecks in production lines.

The executive summary of PMMI’s findings notes robotics can help processors address the “challenges brought on by the SKU proliferation, especially when it comes to meeting the demands of retail-ready packaging.” It also stated, “Robotics allow for flexibility and modularity with EOAT (End of Arm Tooling) options to meet a variety of production operations challenges.”

Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit automation addresses is the industrywide shortage of labor in the meat and poultry processing industry. This is a widespread problem facing poultry processing operations and is a challenge equipment suppliers are tackling.

“The demand we’re seeing (for automation) has been forced by the labor situation,” according to Simon Langhorn, a key account manager for Marel, with US offices in Lenexa, Kansas. Marel offers a full line of technology focused on the labor-intense process of chicken deboning. “The considerations are in reducing labor. They want something that shows up every day and takes minimal operation to run.”

The labor challenge for meat and poultry processing operations is often compounded by the proximity of the plants to labor pools. “These plants are also in rural areas (that can be hard to recruit from) and at the same time, it isn’t easy,” said Jay Russell, vice president of sales for Meyn, a leading supplier of poultry processing equipment and automation solutions with US offices in Atlanta.

Riding the wave

Many processors are on the automation bandwagon and enjoying the ride, including Daniele Inc., a processor of prosciutto, salame and other artisan dry, cured meats. During a 2018 tour of the company’s nearly 900,000-sq.-ft. facility, it was obvious that the ratio of product produced to employees in the plant is significantly lopsided, thanks to the recent adoption of robotics and automation by the family-owned company.

“Here in the sleepy corner of Rhode Island, is the most technologically advanced company in the world, period,” said Stefano Dukcevich, president. “You won’t see any humans for acres,” said his brother, Davide, who leads the company’s sales efforts. “You only hear the sound of the robots.”

Up to seven robots zig-zag across Daniele’s plant, rotating product and moving it in and out of different drying and curing rooms. Stefano doesn’t see the robotic technology as a threat to employment.

“It’s not that you’re taking somebody’s job,” he said, “it’s that nobody’s showing up for the job, particularly for the menial tasks,” including pushing the giant racks of hams and salame to and from different drying and aging rooms. “Thank goodness we have robots pushing around the racks because that was a thankless job,” he said. “I prefer to hire better skilled people, better paid people and fewer people. Technology helps us afford that.

“Before we used to have guys putting meat on wagons; guys putting meat on the conveyors; a lot of manual, very physical work,” Stefano said, and filling those positions was difficult. “It was getting nearly impossible, so automation helps for many of those positions.”

Shadows of doubt

However, many processors are reluctant to embrace automation, a topic PMMI’s research explored. Operationally, some of the obstacles identified included: assessing the real need for automation in a plant; space requirements for robots; the ability of robots to integrate with other equipment; and the availability of a labor force trained in how to operate and maintain automated systems. Other concerns among processors include doubts about the ability of robotic technology to maintain quality standards that might require a human judgement.

Cost of automation and robotics implementation is another top-of-mind issue among processors, according to the PMMI study. While some companies reported that paying the labor cost makes more financial sense than investing in the technology and training workers, others find it cost prohibitive for a company that requires flexibility and operates in a series of short runs and small batch processing. Still others have doubts about the viability of robots in their facilities and whether they will become obsolete before the return on investment is realized.

Sanitation is another hurdle for many CPGs, as concerns about the cleanability of the machinery over the long term isn’t yet known. The logistics of cleaning such sophisticated machinery alongside proven durable equipment makes some companies reluctant. Finally, a significant concern mentioned in the PMMI study was the safety of employees working around automated equipment and robots. It stated: “Both the perception of robotics safety and the actual validation of safety protocols are significant.

“A cultural shift in safety perception is needed if robots are to help solve some of the CPG’s production (and) operations (challenges).”