KANSAS CITY, MO. — Not unlike the trend among homeowners to equip their abodes with smart technology to remotely monitor and control everything from thermostats to door locks to lighting, operators of meat and poultry processing plants are increasingly implementing digital and automated solutions at their facilities to optimize operations and address labor challenges. Indeed, most of the industry’s larger companies are at various stages in converting to and implementing automation, robotics and digital analytics across their operations, but the path to smart manufacturing is a challenging one to navigate and far from a one-size-fits-all scenario.     

The genesis of Cargill’s efforts to develop what is now known as the “Facility of the Future” was underway well before 2020, when COVID forced most plants into survival mode, and pushed many ancillary efforts to the back burner. For Cargill, the brakes were tapped for its Facility of the Future plans, but parts of the program were launched amid the pandemic as the leadership team was eager to prove its concept and execute changes sooner rather than later. The focus of the program is on three areas: automation, digitalizing the processing floor and advanced analytics. Investment in the Facility of the Future program will top $100 million in 2023. That investment just in Cargill’s protein business segment is expected to top $700 million through 2026.

Cargill has rolled out examples of its Facility of the Future program at multiple plants. They include:

•             Smart saws

•             Automated rib (and strip) chine saws

•             Foreign object detection technology

•             Super Comm and Shift Simulation technology

•             Automated box handling

•             IDEX Boards

•             FEWS (Fab Early Warning Detection System)

•             Paperless FSQR (Food Safety Quality and Regulatory)

During a recent tour of the sprawling Cargill Primary Beef Facility in Dodge City, Kan., company officials and plant management provided an update on its progress in executing the Facility of the Future program with examples of applications already in place.

Using its biggest operation as the pilot for many of its Facility of the Future initiatives, Cargill officials demonstrated how the plant utilizes a combination of automated equipment, technology and digital analytics to make workers’ jobs easier and safer while streamlining processes, improving yields and delivering logistical solutions.  

On the operations side, Jeremy Burr, general manager of the Dodge City plant, said the process of removing the chine bone (or spine) from the rib primal cut of beef, using automated technology from Amarillo, Texas-based Midwest Machine LLC, is a perfect example of a Facility of the Future solution at the Dodge City plant. Two recently installed automated chine saw lines eliminated safety risks previously faced by two workers per shift, whose jobs were to push the bulky primal into a bandsaw by hand, up to 3,000 times a day on the two lines. That process is now handled using a 3-D vision system that scans the meat to determine the cutting path after it is loaded into a cradle. The meat is then conveyed, hands free, through a horizontally mounted bandsaw that adjusts to achieve the optimum cut. Workers are only needed to load the cradle and no longer risk being injured by the blade as it cuts. In terms of productivity, each Smart Rib Saw has the capacity to make seven to 14 cuts per minute.

Burr said this type of safety-focused automation, which can also improve yields, is game changing.

“Three thousand fewer cuts made by hand per day helps me sleep better at night,” he said.   

When implementing food safety and automation solutions, optimized visioning systems are critical for success and nowhere is this truer than Cargill’s foreign object detection (FOD) technology, an integral part in each step of its ground beef production process and throughout the Facility of the Future food safety applications. The company utilizes detection technology that specializes in providing computer vision systems using artificial intelligence technology to sort products and detect foreign material in the food supply.

Another Facility of the Future technology being utilized in the Dodge City plant is its Super Comm and Shift Sim software, which allows managers to optimize each shift’s labor assignments based on the day’s production schedule. Managers input data related to factors such as chain speed, numbers of employees and their levels of training, volume and variety of products scheduled for processing and the Super Comm provides a snapshot of station assignments and expected production based on that shift’s staffing availability.

An additional smart manufacturing application implemented at the Dodge City plant is what officials call a smart saw. The operator of the band saw on the back side of the fabrication floor is “wired” to the saw with sensors that will automatically stop the blade within a fraction of a second of when the operator’s hand is detected too close to the blade. This is another way of tapping into technology to optimize worker safety.

The rollout of strategically located IDEX boards has been another Facility of the Future component that gives workers at plants the opportunity to have at-a-glance updates about each shift’s production schedule and goals along with the productivity status across the operation.

Big box project

In terms of large-scale automation at Dodge City, its “box building” operation is one of the most significant investments and a long-term success story. In 2015, the company invested about $48 million to add a 62,000-square-foot automated order distribution center, which is the foundation for what exists today. The box storage area has been expanded and refined since then. In 2018, the center was upgraded as Cargill saw the opportunity to have a dramatic impact by automating the storage and retrieval of up to 130,000 boxes of beef produced at the plant. Today, the facility is equipped with 30 automated cranes that zigzag 30 aisles of products stored on multi-storied racks.

Officials estimate that after processing, each carcass processed at Cargill today requires between eight and nine boxes to store the variety of products, which compares to five to six boxes produced when the building was first constructed. Back then, storage and retrieval were labor intensive, but Burr pointed out that on most days, just two mechanics are working in what is now approximately a 65,000-square-foot building. The cranes shuttle boxes to one of 18 sorting lanes and the system can handle 90 boxes coming in for storage and 50 boxes going out for shipment per minute.

Cade Schoonover, Cargill’s capital leader and a key member of the Facility of the Future team, admitted the company’s implementation of automation applications and robotics was historically somewhat on a hit-or-miss basis. Cargill’s first significant foray into automation was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and until recently the utilization of automated technology hasn’t exactly been undertaken using a holistic approach.

“We’ve done some things with different robotic suppliers and tried to tackle some of the challenging jobs that we had,” he said.  

In 2018 Cargill started pursuing opportunities in smart manufacturing, specifically in the areas of process controls and some digital solutions. While working on its ERP deployment during that period, Cargill officials were working with some consultants who connected them with some universities that were doing some research in smart manufacturing, robotics and advanced controls.

Those connections resulted in Cargill stakeholders looking at the possibilities and asking questions about what could be, Schoonover said.  

“How do we leverage technology to really make an impact on plants, reduce the demand on our people and make some of these very difficult and labor-intensive jobs easier; how do we leverage it for safety, sustainability and food safety?” he said.

Looking to the future of plant operations and implementing automation, the goal has never been how to wipe out the most jobs. To the contrary, the Cargill mindset was that incorporating next-level technology at its processing facilities would allow it to lure the most talented job seekers and ensure a sustainable future. Once Cargill’s team agreed this was the way forward and committed to developing a “Facility of the Future” program for the entire company, they sat down with their university partners to flesh out a plan. Just before the pandemic the group focused its energy on rolling out something different.  

“As a group, we said, ‘We need to come up with a holistic plan across all of our businesses to bring what we chose to call the factory or facility of the future,’” Schoonover said. “We wanted it to be something that resonated with the workers on the shop floor and something that could drive people to imagine all that it could be.”

Read the complete report on Cargill’s Facility of the future in MEAT+POULTRY’s June cover story.