WASHINGTON – Incorporating automated and robotic systems into meat and poultry processing operations is a growing trend in the industry, but that doesn’t mean every plant should necessarily make the switch. There are a number of things to be considered when automating operations, many of which were shared during the North American Meat Institute’s virtual Meat Industry Summit April 13 at the “Challenges and Rewards of Advanced Processing Techniques” session.

Any processor considering a switch to automated operations at any point in their processing line needs to first consider the common reasons for automation. Waheed Chaudry, automation project sales engineer for Kansas City, Mo.-based Multivac Inc., said the top reasons for considering automation include: cost, volume, quality and precision and safety.

Chaudry said companies should consider following questions: Can the processor reduce the cost of labor or the cost per unit of what is being packaged through automation? Could the company increase the volume of what’s produced by switching to an automated system? Could automation help the company produce a more consistent product from batch-to-batch, line-to-line, shift-to-shift, day-to-day? Would automation help protect workers from unsafe processes during production?

“It really starts with knowing your process,” Chaudry said. “Knowing your challenges – whether we’re talking about volume or financial. Knowing your requirements – there’s the ‘nice to have versus have to have.’ Knowing your components along the way … And knowing your automation partner.”

“Knowing your process” starts with documenting how the system currently operates, then identify the problems that automation might help solve, including: What’s slowing down operations? What steps are repeating? Why are production goals not being met?

Chris Duncan, director of continuous improvement and engineering for Lansing, Ill.-based Land O’Frost, agreed.

“It starts with understanding your process and once you understand your process you can work with your vendors to incorporate that knowledge and take those learnings and run with it.”

Choosing the right automation partner is also a crucial step toward success, he said.

“It’s important to partner with a vendor who gives you the capability and opportunity to evaluate and test with your product, with their equipment, to understand some of the challenges and understand how you can solve those challenges,” Duncan said. “Once you can get to that point, you can start crossing off some of those questions and integrating some of those answers into the automation solution.”

Another important consideration when looking at automating processing operations is the space new equipment might take up in the plant.

“Automation almost always requires more space than manual production,” Chaudry said. Space allotment needs to be discussed in the early stages of an automation project.

In short, Chaudry said there are five steps to take before moving forward with any automation project:

  1. Define the reason for the automation.
  2. Define and document the current processes.
  3. Identify requirements for the automated system.
  4. Figure out your automation components.
  5. Select an automation partner.