The past few years have been as tough for the poultry industry as it has been for the rest of U.S. and world economies. This has resulted in a change in the investment strategies and capital expenditures for most poultry processing plants.

As a result of this change, many equipment companies have adjusted their new products to reflect this new business climate. The 2009 AMI Show in Chicago presented a unique opportunity to see new poultry-processing equipment and discuss the business climate with equipment companies and processors.

I was particularly struck by trends in three key areas: X-ray systems, automated deboning systems, and chiller and post-chiller dip chemicals.

In the area of X-ray systems, several companies were highlighting new technology in the continuing effort to identify any foreign material in poultry products — specifically boneless breast fillets. This has been a particularly difficult problem for the industry to solve due to the range of foreign contaminants. Metal detectors have proven themselves to be very efficient at the identification of metal in product, but they are not designed to identify bone or plastic components.

The natural solution to this problem is the X-ray system. This technology uses a high-energy source that generates a two-dimensional (2-D) image that shows the variation in the electron density of the material that it is exposed. Thus, dense materials such as bones appear as white spots on the X-ray image, and less dense materials appear as dark spots. The key to any commercial product is the ability to interpret the differences between light and dark areas. For example, when is a transition due to plastic material (from a glove or conveyor part) and when it is due to non-calcified bone material (fan bone)? Because of the unpredictable location of the foreign objects in the image, it is especially difficult to accurately differentiate product.

At the show, I saw a number of companies offering a variety of X-ray systems. They all offer a trade-off between the number of false positives and missed product that is, in some sense, software selectable. Is any system able to be 100 percent accurate or even 70 percent accurate? I doubt it.

The problem is simply too difficult, and there is just not enough information in the images to make the decision. Based on the results of our work at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, it is my opinion that no system will ever be sufficiently accurate as long as it relies on data from a single type sensor. I believe — and we have some evidence to support this — that only by using different modes of sensing and sensor fusion can the problem be adequately solved such that a single commercial system can identify all types of foreign objects.

One of the other interesting takeaways from the show for me was the lack of systems addressing automated deboning of product. This has been a hot topic of late, and a number of companies have been actively marketing systems in this area. While there might not have been many companies at the show in this area, it is definitely something that is at the forefront of every processor.

The fundamental tradeoff for these systems is yield versus labor. Manual systems traditionally have a higher yield even though the performance numbers vary based on the skill of the individual worker, while the automated systems require less people but have a reduced yield.

The economic downturn has reduced the pressure that many processing plants have experienced in past years in finding workers to staff their operations. The increased supply in workers has reduced the pressure to automate tasks, since there is no clear economic benefit. As a matter of fact, the current economic climate has more clearly focused the industry on improving the yield of its processes. What the end result will be is a question yet to be decided. But I feel sure that we will see many new innovations and solutions that come out of this thinking.

My final interesting observation from the AMI Show was the amount of interest and developments focused on the chiller and post-chiller dip. The chiller has been a foundation of the poultry-processing industry for decades. It represents a key step in the food-safety process as it acts as the last line of defense for the plant to kill foodborne pathogens on birds. In the last year or so, a new process known as the post-chiller dip has been introduced. The purpose of this new step is to briefly dip the bird in a solution to eliminate all pathogens.

While the concept of the dip has been around for a few years, the number of companies looking to develop new materials for the dip was interesting to me. These companies have moved far beyond the simple application of chlorine and are now investigating new solutions that are not only more effective, but also environmentally friendly. This work has tremendous potential for the industry.

The equipment industry continues to deliver a range of high-quality products to meet the diverse requirements found in poultry-processing plants in the U.S. and the world. These products span a range of technically divergent fields that require a deep and thorough knowledge of the technology and the application area.

I have chosen to focus on three very specific areas that are on the forefront of development due to technology innovation and changes in the business climate. How these areas change and evolve over time will be an interesting story to follow, and one to which processors should be finely tuned.

One thing remains clear, however: Times are changing!