Most meat and poultry processors today cite a lack of labor as the biggest challenge to consistent production. As a result, automation’s role in meat and poultry processing grows larger year after year. But all the machines and robots in the world can’t help unless there is a system in place to operate, track, weigh, adjust and carry out the inputs from human programmers.

Starting from scratch

Located in Fremont, Nebraska, Costco Wholesale Corp.’s Lincoln Premium Poultry has the capability to produce well over 2 million birds per week. Behind that production lies a partnership with Marel. Along with over 80 percent of the equipment Lincoln Premium uses to process its birds, comes Marel’s Innova software system.

“It runs all the plant floor functions,” says Walt Shafer, Lincoln Premium’s chief operating officer.

The software tracks birds from live, to the first time they’re hung on a shackle and into and through second processing. Bird weights are recorded at multiple points throughout the journey, from stunning to packaging in addition to many other functions.

“We’ll know what it weighs, where there are opportunities; we’ve got cameras that tie into it,” Shafer says. “We’ve got computers that weigh it, allocate it, pack it, ship it, create labels, and all that’s Innova. We use them as a total solution on our shop floor platform.”

While the platform works well for Lincoln Premium, the company faced a unique challenge.

Typical greenfield plant construction projects have some sort of model to look to for guidance on design, process, equipment, etc. Whether it’s an existing facility in a different location or a previous facility, certain aspects already exist to at least guide those involved in making decisions, but Costco and Lincoln Premium had nothing prior to the new plant, including operations software.

“We didn’t have a system that was working somewhere else that just got put in,” Shafer says. “We had to build everything from start to finish.”

Shafer believes in the software package, but as a seasoned veteran of the poultry processing industry, he understands the need of skilled people to make it work efficiently.

“You have to put all your inputs into it in order to make it work, you’ve got to tell it what you want it to do. You’ve got to put all that information into it,” Shafer says. “It takes weeks and weeks and days and days and people’s time to put every detail into these operating platforms to make them give you what you want in the end.”

The decision to partner with Marel, and ultimately use the Innova software, was not made in haste, and Costco played a role in figuring out how to proceed.

“Walt [Shafer] went with Costco on several European tours to find everything they wanted,” says Jessica Kolterman, director of corporate and external affairs for Lincoln Premium.

The process to set up the system is long and arduous, and specialists must assist. Shafer hired both a quality assurance director and a plant manager a year in advance. The two positions spent a bulk of the time before the plant started actual production with Marel technicians explaining what they wanted from the software, such as birds per man hour, yields, efficiencies, etc., as well as populating the new operating system with specifications, quality standards and all the requisite inputs needed.

“All that had to be put into their package with our standards and our parts that we want. I underestimated the time the necessary people would need to be here,” Shafer says. “They’re still here and we’re still populating.”

“It’s learning how it all works and what we can do with it,” Kolterman adds.

Giant robots in the Lincoln Poultry warehouse communicate through the software system to pick and palletize specific Costco orders.

All systems go

Along with tracking birds from arrival to packaging, weighing at key points throughout processing, label creation and packaging, Innova goes deeper.

The software provides the ability to monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) such as yield, throughput, quality, capacity and labor efficiency. The collection of these data enable improvements and ensure quality and food safety in real-time.

Starting with birds entering the facility, the system assigns traceability information, including weights and labels. Birds and information on their producer enter inventory and the software monitors them to reduce any losses and ensure efficient production planning and process scheduling. Inventory levels adjust in real-time and are always accurate and available.

During processing, Innova can control entire processing lines including portioning, trimming, boning, weighing, packing and labeling. It also has the ability to control individual machines within the line such as vision units and radio frequency identification solutions. The real-time data collected to monitor performance allows optimization of profitability at each stage.

From lairage through controlled atmosphere stunning and processing to packaging, Marel’s Innova system tracks every bird at Lincoln Poultry.

Innova controls and data logs labeling, packing, automatic palletizing along with complete inventory control, give away monitoring and finished goods outer case marking. Finished and ready to ship goods are traceable back to the supplier’s original delivery.

Managers access customized dashboards for complete overview of the specific operations they need to monitor. This customization and access increases throughput in less time allowing for better use of resources, materials, labor and reduced risk.

While Shafer, his staff, Lincoln Premium Poultry and Costco all benefit from the features the Innova software offers, what ties it all together is its ability to talk with the software and systems used outside of processing.

“You’ve got to bring in Kronos for payroll,” Kolterman says.

“We use Microsoft 365 for our overall,” Shafer adds. “All of these have to talk to each other.”