Robotics and Automation in the Food Industry || Robotics and automation in meat processing

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  • Woodhead Publishing Limited, 2013

    13

    Robotics and automation in meat processing G. Purnell , Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Education (GIFHE), UK

    DOI: 10.1533/9780857095763.2.304

    Abstract : Tasks in the meat processing sector are physically challenging, repetitive and prone to worker scarcity. Despite the potential for automation, the inherent biological variation of meat and the commercial characteristics of the supply chain have limited the widespread implementation of automated systems. This chapter describes potential benefits and challenges, and gives an overview of some of the robotic and automation equipment available and in development for beef, pork and lamb processing.

    Key words : meat processing automation, robotics, primal cutting, boning, trimming.

    13.1 Introduction The benefits of automation are well understood and frequently adopted by many manufacturing industries. The food sector generally has been slow to capitalise on the opportunities, particularly in the primary production operations before pack-ing. The specific issues associated with automation for the meat sector are dis-cussed in the following sections.

    13.1.1 Scope of chapter Butchery tasks are unpleasant, physically arduous and carry a high risk of worker injury. This suggests them as prime targets for the benefits of robotisation; how-ever, the skilled nature of the butchery task, combined with the biological varia-tion of the raw material, poses substantial challenges. This chapter considers the applications of robotics and automation in primary meat production processes in the abattoir and cutting plant for beef, sheep/lamb and pork meat.

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    Automation in poultry and fish production are dealt with in other chapters, as are operations such as packing and palletising that occur after retail portion cutting.

    13.1.2 Drivers for automation in meat production Robotics and automation have been relatively slow to permeate the meat produc-tion industry, and the majority of tasks are still performed manually. Whilst indi-vidual machines can be developed for skilled and complex tasks, their function always remains specific to the task for which they were developed.

    Replacing a skilled slaughterman or butcher is difficult. For the more (seem-ingly) mundane tasks, such as putting lamb chops into packs, laying up sliced beef, handling bundles of wafer ham, etc., the human is difficult to replace at a viable cost. Research projects have tackled the technical aspects of these problems for sev-eral decades, but commercially viable systems are only just beginning to emerge.

    There are a wide variety of commercial and product quality reasons leading many companies to investigate robotics and automation applications on meat pro-duction lines. Ultimately all drivers to adopt automation have the same aim increased profitability. If no profit or long-term benefit is foreseeable then no changes will be implemented. The use of automation in meat processing in place of human operatives has many potential benefits, which may be tangible, intangi-ble, social or economic. Many generic drivers are quoted to support the introduc-tion of automation including:

    Production quality : It is widely accepted that meat cuts best in the range 25C, just above the initial freezing point. As the temperatures reduce, the cut quality improves, but cutting forces increase (Brown et al ., 2005 ) to an extent where human strength could be insufficient to maintain production rates. Automation can be used to exert higher forces, maintaining or improving on cutting quality and production rates. Product consistency : Boredom, stress and tiredness are not an issue with auto-mated systems, typically performing a task more consistently than a human. This consistency can additionally permit efficiencies in other aspects of the business thus further aiding profitability. Getting things right reduces waste and increases overall yield. Added functionality : One key benefit of robotics is in performing tasks that the human cannot. Automation can make subtle adjustments beyond the skill of an operative, or be endowed with superhuman sensory, recall, reasoning or other capabilities such as infrared detection, increased strength, X-ray vision, huge memory, etc. Machines can be designed to operate under conditions where humans could not perform effectively. This can allow processing in environments beneficial to quality, for example, sustained low temperatures, aseptic atmospheres, etc. Worker safety : Injuries cause lost production and absence from work, not to mention costly compensation claims. The meat processing industry has a poor

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    safety record when compared to all types of manufacturing industry surveyed by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). For 20052008, the meat and poultry sectors had a mean annual injury rate of 1313 per 100,000 employees compared to a mean of only 913 for all manufacturing industries (HSE, 2008). Injury occurs to both experienced and trained staff, illustrating that it is the nature of the work rather than inexperience causing the danger. Cuts made with high force towards the body, bad knife design and cold fingers contribute to the poor safety record (North, 1991 ). Food safety : Foreign bodies and microorganisms can be transferred to foods from operatives. Replacement of potentially contaminating human labour by machine can reduce this risk. The costs of preserving hygiene with the large numbers of staff present in a normal meat plant increase the overall production cost. A number of studies of specific systems (Holder et al ., 1997; Clausen, 2002 ) suggest that automating and removing staff from the production process can improve the microbial condition of processed meat. Legislation : The minimum legal continuous working temperature for a stand-ing, active labourer in the UK is 10C (UK Factories Act, 1961). EEC directive 95/23/CE states that during cutting meat temperatures should not exceed 7C, and the processing rooms should be at a maximum of 12C. Automation and robotics can work closer to the optimum temperatures for meat processing than can be legally achieved with human operatives. Difficulties in recruiting staff : There is a shortage of skilled labour for many of the tasks in the meat industry. The work is typically repetitive, physically intensive and takes place in an unpleasant environment. Many employers have substantial difficulties in recruiting and retaining useful staff. The continual recruitment and training introduces unwanted additional costs.

    13.1.3 Barriers to introduction of robotics and automation into meat processing

    A traditionally conservative, cash-poor meat industry with low margins has some fundamental financial, attitudinal and commercial challenges in imple-menting automation systems. Developments made during the last decade have removed or reduced many of the technological barriers to automation of meat production tasks. The predominant limiting factors are now related to business and commercial factors. Despite the advances, automation technology is still a long way from the generic robot-type system capable of replacing people in most food operative situations as envisaged by Khodabandehloo and Clarke ( 1993 ).

    Commercial and organisational challenges Automated processing has been successfully implemented in the automotive industry where regular components and a high value product, coupled with relatively low production rates, make vehicle production an ideal process for

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    robotisation. Despite the product and process differences, some business experi-ences and observations can be transferred into the meat sector. A longer-term, less risk averse, company culture is required, and employees at all levels must be prepared to accept change. Where automation projects have failed is often in the lack of buy-in throughout the company and lack of awareness of the skills and organisational changes required to support the implementation.

    The same organisational risks apply to the food sector, with additional chal-lenges of high product variability and a constricting market structure. The low margin on most meat products reduces the finances available for investment and a marketplace dominated by major multiple retailers exacerbates the situation. The majority of labour in the food sector is unskilled, and thus sums saved by manpower substitution are low. Supply, demand and processing specifications are flexible, seasonal and regional.

    Many meat processing plants currently lack the in-house skills to specify and support automated systems. The skills required stretch beyond the basic engineer-ing function of current mechanised lines into more complex aspects of automa-tion system specification, installation, support, maintenance and reconfiguration of the system to deal with changing production requirements. Management, and production staff working alongside the automated systems, need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the equipment and adjust practices accordingly. The entire organisation, from cleaners to directors, has to embrace a positive mindset to automation of traditionally manual operations. Inappropriate attitudes at any of many levels can cause automation projects to fail.

    Technical challenges From an automation viewpoint, the complexity of meat production tasks should not be underestimated. Humans possess sophisticated, integrated sensory abilities with inbuilt reasoning and manipulation capabilities. The majority of tasks within meat production have evolved to utilise these inherent abilities. The human is excellent at evaluating situations and acting accordingly, while a typical machine system has a predestined function, and correction of only a limited number of possible perturbations can be incorporated into the design. An automated system to replicate even a small subset of human abilities can require very sophisticated systems integration.

    Despite the advances in meat automation progress made in recent years, the greatest technical problem is still that of coping with the natural biological variation in the product. Variable products require variable production strategies and thus flexible processing methods. This has implications for sensing systems and system elements in contact with the meat such as fixtures, grippers and cutting tools. Many meat products are relatively delicate and can be damaged by inappropriate handling. These factors tend to exclude direct technology transfer from other industries.

    The secondary technical challenge is in equipment longevity and suitability for food production environments. Hygienic and robust systems that can resist high-pressure wash down, hot or cold, and condensation can be designed and built, but

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  • Woodhead Publishing Limited, 2013

    308 Robotics and automation in the food industry

    at additional cost and complexity. This further increases costs for implementation of automation for food production. A number of studies of specific automated meat production systems (Holder et al ., 1997; Clausen, 2002 ) acknowledge the automation production benefits but express concern over cleanability of the often complex equipment.

    13.1.4 Current status of meat processing automation Pigs, cattle and sheep are all quadruped mammals and the basic operations for conversion of animals to meat are similar. There are some differences however. Cattle and sheep have their entire skin removed whereas pigs are de-haired. The details of the evisceration process are different for ruminant cattle and sheep and for omnivorous pigs. Pork and beef carcasses are split whereas smaller lamb car-casses are typically not split. All species have different cutting patterns to pro-duce different meat products and portions; these cutting patterns can vary between countries and regions, and seasonally.

    Pork meat production is the most widely automated. Many of the key develop-ments have been made by the Danish Meat Research Institute (DMRI). Whilst DMRI have a stated goal of producing a virtually fully automated pork process, some operations such as shackling, sticking, gambrelling, veterinary inspection, final trimming and removal/separation of specific organs are not included in the plan (Clausen, 2002 ). This ambitious target can be attempted due to the coop-erative and nationally integrated structure of the Danish pork industry, research establishments and equipment producers.

    Whilst the size and weight of the beef carcass suggests automated processes would be of benefit to reduce the physically arduous nature of the tasks, this carcass type has received relatively little automation research and development (R&D) effort compared to lamb and pork. The key challenge for automation is the large variation seen in cattle. Slaughter animals may be from a wide vari-ety of breeds, ages, type (bull, steer, heifer, cow, etc.) and range in weight from 200 to 1000 kg. The variations seen in other carcass types are substantially less. Mechanised processing aids, guided by human staff, have been in existence for many years, but the Fututech Australian R&D programme (White, 1994 ) sought to develop the worlds first truly automated beef processing line. The system was developed through to a commercial prototype stage and designed for a minimum processing rate of 60 carcasses per hour. The system included a large number of automated or semi-automated modules that performed the majority of the slaugh-ter tasks. These modules included rectum clearing and bagging, aitch bone cut-ting, head removal,...

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