Steve Nunn has worked in the food industry long enough to realize the impact media attention toward a foodborne-illness outbreak can have on the general public, not to mention the manufacturers of the food in question.

“I’ve been selling equipment to the food industry for my entire career,” says Nunn, president of Waynsboro, Va.-based F.R. Drake Co., which manufactures high-performance loading systems for hot dog and sausage processors. “I’ve seen the hysteria come and go over a lot of incidents.”

Nunn doesn’t underestimate the threat of foodborne illness for a minute, but he knows processors can control it and the hysteria it causes with a little help on the production line.

Hot dog and sausage processors, and ready-to-eat meat producers, want to limit human contact with their products before they are packaged.

“That’s the challenge for all companies focused on automation,” Nunn says.

Dick Motley, senior account manager for national distribution sales for Rochester Hills, Mich.-based FANUC Robotics, agrees with that assessment.

“When you get into handling areas, where it’s being done manually, some of the recalls can be traced to human contamination and that’s a big concern,” says Motley.

Enhancing hygiene is just one of the automation trends happening in the hot dog and sausage segment of the meat and poultry industry. Other automation benefits address worker safety, reduced labor, improving productivity and bolstering the bottom line.

Replacing humans

In the 1990s, automation was about increasing packaging speeds, Nunn says. Things have changed.

“We were chasing every technology we could find in order to increase packaging capacities,” Nunn says. “This decade, it’s more about hygiene and keeping those same speed capacities – which is a challenge – but doing it with 100-percent automation and replacing all human contact.”

The foodborne illness that most hot dog and sausage processors are worried about is Listeria, which can be spread by employees on the processing line. While Nunn is impressed with the food-safety programs that processors have implemented in their plants, it’s still not enough.

For the past five years, F.R. Drake has been working on technology designed to take human contact out of the process. The company is developing robots to handle hot dogs, sausage and ready-to-eat meat products before they’re packaged.

“It’s still in development,” Nunn says, noting the challenge presented by processors is to eliminate any point in the line between processing and packaging where a human being might touch product.

Studies show that one in four human beings is a natural carrier of Listeria, Nunn says. This statistic has caught processors’ attention.

Listeria is easily killed thermally, but ready-to-eat meats are typically not thermally treated after they’re in the package,” he says. “Therefore, the time frame of when products are cooked and chilled from the time they are packaged is critical to make sure they remain sterile.”

For hot-dog loaders, that is the point in the processing line where defective products are pulled off the line.

In the line, two employees typically inspect hot dogs. They identify defective hot dogs and replace them by hand with non-defective hot dogs. Drake is working on a robot to do the same job. The robot features imaging technology to spot a bad hot dog and a mechanism to remove it and replace it with a good one.

Automation in this case isn’t being created to reduce labor, but to eliminate human contact and the threat of foodborne disease, Nunn says.

Devising a robot to perform the duty is more than intricate. The vision systems have to be perfect to spot even the slightest defects in hot dogs, and then the robot has to pick them up.

“It has to be 100-percent accurate,” Nunn says. “The vision systems we’re working on are getting more advanced.”

Nunn expects the technology to take off.

“This is a demand the industry is putting on us, and we are trying to fill that demand,” he adds.

Faster, smarter robots

In packaging, robots have made their mark in low- and medium-speed applications, Motley says.

“Robots are getting faster, cheaper and smarter,” he adds.

Because robots utilize microprocessor-based technology, there’s a loose corollary to what’s happening in the personal computer industry.

“If you go back 20 years ago when you had an old IBM, it did some neat things, but sometimes it could be pretty slow to work with,” Motley says. “But as microprocessor technology advances, computers have become more powerful and a lot more user- friendly. There’s a parallel trend in robotics, and it’s leading to the adoption of robots in places where they weren’t before.”

Improvements in sensing capability are a major part of the improvements in robotic technology, Motley adds.

“Adding a camera to a robot gives you a robot that can see or adding a force sensor to a robot gives you a robot that can feel,” he says. “That’s where some of the advances are coming in and making possible some of the applications that have been developed.”

Motley is impressed with the robotic technology occurring in the smokehouse, where robots accept links and emulate what a human being would do by arranging the links on the arms of the smokehouse racks.

Another hallmark of a solid robotic application in hot dog and sausage processing is case packing, which features few change parts and a fast changeover time.

“The most mature robotic application outside of automotive and something that has been real successful is case palletizing,” Motley says, noting that robots are ideal for bending over to pick up heavy cases and stack them.

In the future, Motley expects major automation improvements will be made to solve current ergonomic challenges.

Jeff Gilchrist, the product sales manager of linkers for Townsend-Marel Further Processing, says hot dog and sausage processors are looking for any ways to reduce repetitive injuries through automation. That could mean having a robot or automated equipment hang a 30-lb. strand of hot dogs on a rack or carry it to an oven, Gilchrist says.

“That’s a lot of weight to be carrying over an eight-hour period,” he adds. “It’s not a life-threatening thing, but it can be stressful on the [human body].”

Gilchrist says Des Moines, Iowa-based Townsend-Marel has also been working on automation technology for oven loading.

“We have given it consideration for some time and have developed a new linker and conveyor that addresses more throughput and better safety,” he says. “Processors also like more throughput because it gives them a better bottom line. The market requested it; people want to do things that are safer.”

F.R. Drake also offers upgrade kits, which have been more popular during the economic downturn. Processors aren’t necessarily purchasing new machines to replace old ones. They have been purchasing upgrade kits to modify existing machines. F.R. Drake is pushing the upgrade kits in its customer service department.

“When times get tough, capital expenditures get cut,” Nunn says.

Motley says FANUC Robotics is researching processors’ requests for improved automation at the sanitation level.

“To get through third-shift sanitation, you need an industrially hardened machine,” he says. “We’ve had robots in nasty environments for several years in the automotive industry, so we know how to protect them from that environment. But a new challenge in the food industry is protecting the environment from the robot. You don’t want the robot to become a source of contamination.”

Gilchrist believes automation, specifically robots, will replace human workers as time goes on.

“We’ll see a trend toward less people,” he says. “As long as robots can do the work and are reliable, they will become more prevalent.”