Earlier this month, a new member of staff joined the factory floor at Cargill’s production plant in Big Lake, Minnesota. But co-workers looking to trade small talk about the weather, sports or the latest hit TV programme would have been disappointed because the new worker was a ‘cobot’; a collaborative robot designed to work alongside humans.

Cargill is using the cobot to help pick a 40-pound box of eggs and pack it on a pallet for distribution. The company is satisfied enough with the performance of the cobot it recently introduced a second at the same facility.

The US agri-food giant, one of the country’s largest meat processors, has already invested US$300m into introducing automation in its facilities, with plans to invest an additional $400m into automation, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence as part of its Factory of the Future initiative, which was launched last year. The privately-owned behemoth has set out why it wants to make this investment in automation: it wants to make its workers safe, its plants more efficient and its customers more successful.

Cargill is not the only major name in the meat industry looking to significantly ramp up investment in automation. Tyson Foods has also committed to investing more than $1.3bn on adding more automation to its factories over the next three years. Rival large-scale meat processing businesses in North America and around the globe have announced similar investment plans.

Globally, meat processors in Australia and New Zealand have been ahead of the game when it comes to the roll-out of robotics and automation. Some meat processing companies in the two markets started investigating ways the technology could be introduced to factories back in the noughties and rolled out things like ‘cutting robots’ in the mid-2010s, with mixed results.

One source says they saw one of these machines in action at a food processing plant shortly after it was installed to butcher meat and “it left a lot of meat on the bone”, before adding: “The machines have probably been refined since then.”

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Among smaller players, the technology has mostly been so far used in areas like packaging, industry watchers say.

“Packaging is often a big bottleneck, if not the biggest bottleneck in many operations,” says Nelson Gaydos, outreach specialist at The American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP). “The time and hands-on attention needed can be greatly improved with automation. Investing in improved packaging equipment can check all the boxes by increasing output, decreasing time at this step, decreasing labour need, and allowing employees to move to other vital areas in the operation.”

Nick Allen, CEO of The British Meat Processors Association, concurs and emphasises how a lot of people would be surprised to discover how much automation has already been installed in meat processing plants to improve packing processes, even at smaller players in the industry. “An awful lot of automation has been focused on that final processing and cutting and packing sort of area because that’s slightly easier to do,” says Allen.

Larger meat processing businesses like Tyson have also been investing in areas like case packing and freight packing for some time. “I would consider these areas to be very mature traditional types of robotics and material handling applications,” says Marty Linn, director of engineering and technology development at Tyson. Linn operates the Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center, which is tasked with helping the company develop more automation and robotics for its food production plants.

“We’re aggressively pursuing those types of applications because it’s fairly low risk and it’s well-understood technology. Those are the types of things where we see that the business case makes sense for us to do it and we can automate it in a way that’s going to help our team members. There are other applications where you go up through the [production] process that we’re [also] looking at very intently and actively trying to help.”

It’s a similar scenario at Cargill, where Cade Schoonover, engineering lead for its Factory of the Future project, says the bulk of the money the company has invested so far in robotics and automation has been around functions like packaging and placing products onto pallets. Cargill has also recently invested in automated guided vehicles for truck loading and unloading, which Schoonover says is at the proof-of-concept stage. 

“Just as with any project, you’re really looking at where can I get value and where can I minimise the amount of effort to do something and so a lot of the things that we’ve been working on [to date] are off-the-shelf solutions.”

The pandemic, which had a devastating impact on the day-to-day operations of meat processing plants, didn’t cause Cargill to accelerate the rollout of automation and robotics technology as its ambitious investment plans were already in place.

Moreover, the Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center, set up before the pandemic hit, was created to help the meat giant invest in automation to tackle a long-standing problem in the sector – labour shortages.

That pressure on labour was exacerbated by Covid-19, with the pandemic encouraging some businesses to fast-track their own technology investment plans. When Tyson announced its $1bn-plus investment plan last December, the challenge of finding labour was paramount in its decision-making. “Today, across the organisation, we have open frontline roles, many of which are harder to fill. So we plan to use automation to reduce the number of hard-to-fill roles, and in doing so, we will help make life a little easier for our frontline team members,” Tyson president and CEO Donnie King said at the time.

Perdue Farms is another major processor in the US meat industry that has sought to invest in automation. “The global pandemic has caused labour challenges across the industry over the last several years, which accelerated the pace at which we look to incorporate automation to allow us to keep up with customer demand without sacrificing associate safety,” a spokesperson for Perdue Farms says. “While many areas of our operations will always require manual skills, such as product stylers, some recent automation we’ve implemented includes automation in case packing and other pack-out processes.”

At the AAMP, Gaydos says the pandemic shook up and changed the whole of the meat processing industry, which, he argues, has had wider implications for some companies in terms of investment in technology like automation.

“It has really forced processors to take a closer look at their operation and find ways of making it more efficient with larger workloads, fewer employees, and more,” says Gaydos. “I see the need of increasing automation in packaging only increasing in the future.”

Meat processors eye opportunities for automation

Many meat processing businesses won’t limit themselves to exploring automation opportunities in the packing area in the future, however. Thanks to technical improvements made over the last decade in the areas of robotics, AI-based systems and machine vision, there are lots of possibilities to introduce more advanced solutions, Tyson’s Linn suggests.

“There’s a lot of things relative to the butchering side that we can automate we believe, and the use of robotics and machine vision, AI capabilities, we think will really allow us to work in that space,” he says.

Of course, discussions around automation always lead to debates about what they will mean for human jobs and, rightly so, given there are possibly livelihoods at stake. When Tyson announced its investment push last December, the Jimmy Dean brand owner did not say the push to automation would come with job losses – but it noted the labour required would be reduced by 3,150 across the group by 2024, in stages over the three years. Instead, the initiative will be geared toward “upskilling” workers, the company said.

King added: “It’s a very simple approach here: to take away the more difficult higher turnover jobs that we have and upskill the labour that we have and create greater value and better return on all of our investment dollars, not only for the technology, but from those team members as well.”

His Tyson colleague Linn tells Just Food there are lots of tasks currently performed by skilled workers where they can be given tools – whether that’s robotics or machine vision – that allow them to do their jobs better.

It’s a view shared by Cargill’s Schoonover who says the company sees a lot more applications for things like cobots in the future.

“We’ve got a pretty good hold on off-the-shelf solutions and we’re actively deploying those,” says Schoonover. “We’ve also got work streams that are exploring areas that haven’t been tackled yet and some of these areas are closer to the customer and closer to customer-specific problems that we don’t have an off-the-shelf solution for. A lot of the solutions we’re looking at have an impact on what it costs us to make those products for the customer, so there’s cost implications and there’s also a consistency of product implications.”

He adds Cargill is currently working with some engineering firms to design solutions in areas like primary beef processing, which is a significant area of opportunity for the meat processor.

“We’re at an interesting point in time where robotics and automation, and the digital analytics, specifically computer vision, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, are starting to come together in the same space and time,” explains Schoonover. “So, computer vision and AI coupled with robotics in beef primary processing is an area where we’re spending a lot of resources. We haven’t invested a significant amount [of money] yet, we’re still exploring, but that’s an area that we see as prime and ripe for automation.”

The challenges of automation

It’s an area that’s not without its challenges. It’s slightly easier to introduce automation to the butchery of poultry pigs and lamb as they tend to be a more uniform size compared with beef, which is really difficult to debone using robots.

And that’s not the only challenge. Although the cost of some of the technology has reduced in recent years, the BMPA’s Allen says the more sophisticated robotics and machines involved in automation being used by larger meat processing companies might cost in the region of GBP3-10m, which is too expensive for smaller peers in the industry.

“The development of these things has to take place in really big plants that can afford to do it,” Allen adds. “Our plants in this country aren’t really big enough to develop these things. We almost have to wait for them to be developed in other countries and in bigger plants and then when it becomes more commercially available we can take it on board.”

Other challenges flagged up by Linn and Schoonover, include the cold and wet environments that these machines have to operate in, plus the fact that robots take up much more space on a factory floor than a human does, which means processors may have to rethink their real estate requirements in the future.

However, if they can overcome these hurdles, the benefits of implementing automation and robotics in the meat processing sector are manifold.

According to Schoonover, the returns Cargill is enjoying from its automation projects are exceeding all expectations.

“We’ve got more than 130 active projects going on right now and we’ve got 230 active and proposed projects, so we’ve got a lot of things that are moving and, collectively, the return that we’re seeing on those active projects is better than what we’d expected,” he says. “We’re seeing efficiency improvements, we’re seeing uptime improvements, we’re seeing an impact on the labour that’s required at the plants and we’re seeing improvements in safety and reducing exposure.”

With these sort of benefits potentially up for grabs it’s little wonder many of the larger meat processors are investing so heavily on introducing robotics and automation to their factory floors.