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May 5, 2022 Back
Meat Industry 4.0: Automation in the Meat Processing Industry
Automation in the meat processing industry is slowly but surely changing the way food is processed. The world witnessed the first robot-run lettuce farm in the world that is able to produce around 30,000 lettuce heads a day and fruit-picking robotic systems able to distinguish different types of fruit. But automation in the food industry doesn't stop there. Robots and cobots ( collaborative robots ) are nowadays used in food production, food packaging and even food delivery. As demand for food is stronger than ever before, food companies gradually started using technology in order to help them with this process. This is the most important reason why robotics is transforming the food industry. Speaking of this, we would like to have a closer look at the meat processing industry, which is, according to many, the most complex production chain. It is affected by many different factors, such as breeding, farming, transportation of animals, primary processing, further processing, packaging and eventually distribution to the end consumer. Each of these factors can be automated to a certain degree, giving the meat processing industry a great potential for digitization.  

Automation in the meat industry and covid

Due to high capital expenditures, automation is still uneven in the meat production industry. While small meat plants usually rely on manual labor, larger ones are investing more and more in mechanization. It's important to note that this also depends on geographic location and labor cost. Other factors also come into play, such as the two stages of food processing (primary and secondary) and the differences in primary processing of different types of meat (poultry, red meat, fish). Regardless of digitization, there are some stages in meat preparation that can be the same while others differ. Stunning, removing the feathers or scales, evisceration, washing, cutting and packing are all phases that each meat plant needs to go through.While smaller plants, that use manual labor, are focused more on producing smaller amounts of food, larger. The meat industry was very conservative in terms of adopting modern technologies in the past. However, today it embraces new machines and robots very quickly. The most important drive for this comes from the exponential use in computer power and the great demand for different types of food. Covid-19 only boosted this drive. Namely, in March 2020 hundreds of plants worldwide closed or cut back operations, which brought meat shortages in many different areas of the world . Under these conditions, it became clear that more and more workers in meat factories were becoming potent incubators for infectious diseases. This was the main reason why robots and cobots took over much of the work in the food industry. Aside from worker safety measures that came into play with the pandemic outbreak, the use of cobots improved food safety. Namely, during packaging and transporting food, people often work shoulder-to-shoulder, so they can easily carry pathogens from product to product or from one area of ​​the plant to another, especially when processing raw meat products. This means that the pandemic accelerated the acceptance of slaughterhouse robots and cobots, and that more smaller meat plants turned to this business model. So, when it comes to employee health and food safety, it's smarter and safer to install a collaborative robot in a meat packing facility because the risk of infection is lower.

The necessity of automation in the meat processing industry

According to research conducted by the National Library of Medicine, food demand will grow to 13% per capita by 2050. So, the meat industry is growing year by year, which requires an increase in productivity, efficiency and speed of meat processing. Under these circumstances, the meat industry , as a manufacturing enterprise, can only meet the high demand for quality and quantity by automating manual tasks and allowing people to take on higher responsibilities and develop more skills. As meat consumption and production increase, workers are incessantly expected to complete all processes faster, making work in the meat industry even harder and more dangerous. This leads not only to labor shortages, but also to poor quality products. In fact, inadequate facilities and hygiene measures in the meat industry can lead to meat contamination, lower food safety and worker endangerment. Workers process hundreds of animals per hour. In large slaughterhouses, for example, over 7000 pigs are processed in an eight-hour shift. People are forced to work at high speeds in cold, wet and dirty conditions, doing thousands of repetitions, over and over again, with few breaks. They usually work in a specific part of the process that involves a lot of physical labor, such as lifting large animals, packing them into crates, placing and removing crates on conveyor belts, etc. Working in these conditions leads to various types of injuries and diseases in workers, which makes it difficult to find people willing to do this job, so the meat industry in developed countries have problems with the workforce. Therefore, they look for workers from other countries. For example, the meat industry in the Netherlands employs people from Romania, and Bulgaria. All these are the main reasons why the meat industry needs to be digitized. Automation in the meat industry speeds up all processes, while improving food safety, efficiency, and productivity. The use of collaborative robots at certain stages of the manufacturing process in meat production will help solve following issues:    
  • Labor shortages - according to a report by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, 89% of manufacturers have difficulty finding workers, especially in jobs with many repetitive and ergonomically unfavorable tasks. Jobs in the meat industry, such as packaging, palletizing, and transporting, involve a lot of exertion, lifting, stress, as well as physical strain and potential injury, which is the reason people are not willing to work here. Digitizing these certain activities in the meat industry could move human workers up the production chain to focus on more critical and logical tasks.For example, palletizing with cobots is a task one of the most significant ergonomic gains in the meat industry.
  • Food safety - from a food safety and quality perspective, the less you touch the products, the better. Can you imagine how many times the raw meat is touched by people during packaging? Automation minimizes food touching and reduces the risk of contamination.
  • Accurancy, precision and speed - automation increases speed and reduces waste. Collaborative robots perform the same tasks with the same precision over and over again during a workday. Unlike humans, they do not get tired and are consistent throughout the process. For example, packaged products contain the same amount of food, weigh the same, and are packaged the same way. In addition, meat products move faster all the way through the plant, from the first steps to delivery. This level of precision and accuracy is especially seen in cobots with soft grippers that help companies package delicate products.
To see all the benefits of automation in food production, read '' How are Cobots Transforming the Food Industry?

Different applications of cobots in meat processing

There are many different types of automation in the food industry. The latest technological innovations focus on collaboration at work and the use of collaborative robots - cobots. They do not replace humans, but are designed to interact and collaborate with them. Cobots can take on tasks that tend to be tedious, heavy and repetitive. Even some tasks in the meat industry cannot be fully automated, thanks to the flexibility and agility of cobots in production, they can be significantly improved in the field of efficiency, accuracy and quality. Cobots are better suited for personalized products than traditional robots because they can be easily programmed and reprogrammed to handle differences in the meat industry.Especially with developed grippers that allow the cobots to be customized to your specific business needs. The primary processing area is more challenging for the use of cobots in the meat industry as animals vary in size, shape, orientation, and density of different tissues. Since each animal is different, slaughtering and cutting is a very difficult task for automation. For example, it's difficult for cobots to match each cut to the shape and position of bones and meat. On the other hand, the entire process of transportation, packaging and palletizing food can be easily done with cobots. Using cobots for these tasks avoids repetitive strain injuries that occur when humans perform the same job multiple times a day.Cobots can work around the clock, very accurately, and in a cold environment, replacing dozens of workers in every kind of heavy lifting tasks in the meat industry.  

Cobots in the meat industry: Packaging and palletizing

Packaging and palletizing are some ergonomic tasks in the supply chain that account for a significant amount of repetitive, strenuous tasks for workers. Lifting heavy loads and bending to pick up or pack goods are not only unergonomic tasks that pose a risk of injury, but also repetitive tasks that can lead to human error as attention spans decrease. Collaborative robots can perform a task with the same accuracy and speed throughout the day without breaks, while ensuring that packaged products meet corporate and food safety standards.Traditional robots have long been shunned in the packaging tasks because they are not particularly precise, but cobots, especially those with specialized grippers, can easily package delicate meat products. The meat industry handle a lot of the logistics, which is probably the best application for cobots since everything can be automated. Collaborative robots can replace human workers in selecting and putting animal parts into crates, as well as placing the crates on conveyors. This is a heavy job because the crates sometimes weigh over 10-20 kg. After that, the workers should take out the crates and wash them. Instead of manually loading the crates onto the conveyor system for destacking, washing and stacking, the use of cobots can continuously guide the crates to the tethering area and optimize the utilization of the slaughter line. Today, collaborative robots are able to recognize the contents of the line by scanning a label, moving to the correct location and palletizing the crate. Cobots not only meet stringent packaging and palletizing standards, but also provide an effective solution to ergonomically awkward, repetitive tasks by helping workers avoid injury by simplifying the lifting of heavy loads using lightweight collaborative robotic arms.Collaborative robots deliver speed and accuracy and streamline packaging and palletizing processes.


Automation in the meat industry: Conclusion

Automation in the meat industry significantly increases the efficiency, speed and quality of meat products and solves the problem of shortages. Instead of giant robots that take up a lot of space, collaborative robots are smaller and more flexible. Cobots are work assistants that can be programmed to perform typical and repetitive tasks in the meat industry, such as batching, moving, picking up, placing, stirring, sorting, arranging and palletizing. cobotxhas developed special grippers that improve the precision, accuracy and personalization of cobots for your own business. In this way, cobots can free humans from monotonous, dangerous and time-consuming tasks, while allowing them to focus on higher value-added activities. In addition to all the benefits for productivity, cost efficiency and better working conditions, cobots work safely side by side with humans, thanks to sensors that stop and slow their speed when obstacles get in their way.  
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