Measure Twice, Cut Once
By Shonda Dudlicek
Poultry portioning relies on automation for precision and efficiency.

Fast-food chains and quick-service restaurants demand consistent cuts and fixed-weight portions in their search for efficiencies and labor-saving tools to address operating challenges including personnel issues and escalating business costs.
Automation comes to the rescue with portion-cutting systems capable of producing consistent cuts of meat with assembly-line precision. Benefits include versatility and flexibility in cuts and shapes with less product waste.
Portioning for profit
Gainesville, Ga.-based Scanvaegt US Inc.’s Portion Cutter B22 system is a dual-lane machine for fixed-weight portioning. Meanwhile the company’s Horizontal Breast Cutter reduces the thickness of the chicken breasts and butterflies to achieve fixed-weights and specific shapes.
“To live up to the increasing demand from the restaurant industry, it is a necessity to have the newest technology within portioning,” Jan Elgaard, president of chief executive officer, emphasizes. “Nobody wants to give away products due to overweight if they can eliminate it.”
That is why Scanvaegt’s portion-cutting systems specifically target the poultry industry. “This means we now have longer over-dimensioned belts, smaller knives and nice small footprint,” Elgaard explains. “It is dual lane but very compact and very efficient.”
The portion cutter makes up to 1,500 cuts per knife per minute per lane and is able to cut a tender up to three times even though the belt speed is set at the maximum speed.
“What is on the market today doing this job is old-fashioned, inaccurate, lacks flexibility, with a rather large footprint and is expensive,” Elgaard says. “With our development we have created a machine easy to load, easy to change molds, with high flexibility, is very accurate and extremely easy to clean. The idea is simple — you have two times two molds with room for one butterfly or two single fillets in each mold.”
FMC Foodtech’s Vision System portioner makes cuts with a guided water jet, a relatively new technology. Water-jet portioning is preferred over a knife or blade to avoid cross-contamination with other products, explains Jon Hocker, product manager of DSI Systems, a unit of FMC Foodtech. “With the water jet, it’s a single use. From a food-safety standpoint, that is better,” he says.
Moreover, Hocker says water-jet cutting helps improve yields. “This is a big benefit because before you can take one cut, you can look at four or five things you can do with the meat to get the highest yield,” he explains.
The Vision System also uses scanning system software in which a camera locates fat to determine shape, thickness and weight. DSI software optimizes a trim strategy for each individual piece of product based upon user specifications and product values. The computer controls the position of high-pressure water jets to hygienically and safely execute the cuts. Computer-controlled water-jet cutters move both parallel and perpendicular to the direction of product flow for cut flexibility.
“An example is a poultry plant running premium strips and two types of whole muscle. We can calculate whether to do a sandwich portion or a single piece of poultry butterfly, to either send it to strips or sandwich portion,” Hocker says. “Some portioning can’t be done by other means, but we can cut any shape you can draw into a poultry breast. It’s remarkable.
As Hocker explains, a customer can sketch a shape and put it through the machine, which scans it to make a 3-D topographical map. “For instance, if you want eight strips, we can calculate a yield and pick the highest-yielding solution,” Hocker says. “The machine takes the information and does the optimization.”
Gainesville, Ga.-based Gainco offers four models of in-motion portion sizing and distribution equipment using fiber-optic technology to quickly evaluate product prior to weighing to improve accuracy. Flexible programming for each discharge bin by weight, count or “intelligent batching” allows the unit to achieve a targeted weight and count to minimize overpacking.
“Auto-tare” software assures weighing accuracy by updating the weigh belt tare rate to compensate for scrap buildup in belt links. “Auto-zero,” another software feature, fine-tunes weighing accuracy by automatically compensating for load cell drift or scraps on the weigh deck. Interchangeable in-feed system facilitates adaptation to size and type of product for processing.
“They’re used for specific weight and consistency. Processors are looking for splitting or halving machines, which can take a single breast to create an identical one,” explains Russ Williams, marketing manager at Gainco, a subsidiary of Bettcher Industries Inc., Vermilion, Ohio.
Some companies introducing water-jet cutting for poultry may have found them expensive to implement, notes Carmine Caparaso Jr., vice president of sales and marketing at Jaccard Corp., Orchard Park, N.Y. Jaccard manufactures and distributes rotary-blade slicers and dicers
“They may do a nice job on trimming fat and cutting shapes, but may not add much value,” Caparaso says. “Certainly [processors] are asking for safe, simple, and sanitary equipment that provides reliability. As for specific cutting applications, processors want three-dimensional cutting — no pre-cutting — of fresh, tempered or cooked meats.”
Equipment evolves over time to meet a customer’s needs. “It’s common now for rotary blade slicers to be able to butterfly a breast, and for a dicer to cut relatively equal pieces,” Caparaso concludes.
More automation, please
Portioning technology has greatly improved with automation, manufacturers say.
“Before you would use scissors or knives to size and put it on the scale. Then you would put on the specs or weight,” Williams of Gainco says. “Now we allow portioners to shape and weigh. Some scales can be used in applications that are not limited to poultry and seafood.”
Improvements have been made in the ability to evaluate products and find the best use for the portion, FMC’s Hocker confirms. “Today we use more intelligence and are doing more decision-making. It’s all about yielding, at the end of the day,” he says. “Before automation, we had to guess on maximum throughput, and it was a skill. Our latest machinery finds our own maximum throughput. We use information process that hasn’t existed before. We’re capturing data using statistical process control but using it to drive effective data processing.”
When it’s automation versus hand trimming, the labor savings and yield enhancement achieved through automation wins out every time, Hocker says, adding, “The equipment pays for itself.”
Automation also brings flexibility and user-friendliness. “If customers already have the portioner running and they need a new product, they can scan it and upload it themselves in real time,” Hocker says.
Scanvaegt’s Elgaard says poultry processors are asking for fast, high-capacity machines with a small footprint and fixed-weight accuracy.
“Of course, the machines also have to be flexible and competitive in price and running cost,” Elgaard says. “One of the things we are seeing now is also the more automation the better. Labor is very difficult to get and the more machines, the less labor, the better.”
Value-added portions
Portioning equipment popularity is increasing in the poultry industry because processors view such systems as way of cutting costs by optimizing raw materials with very little give-away. In the past, processors had trouble meeting a customer’s specifications due to oversized birds, Elgaard notes.
“You can today take almost any size and cut it down to the required weight. With the Scanvaegt 45-degree cut, it is almost impossible to see that the portion has been cut to fixed weight,” he says. “Take, for example, cooked products for fast-food sandwich chains. They require a fixed weight and a template size for each sandwich. Now the processors can cut to the customer’s specifications and continue to use the larger bird size. No giveaway and a very happy customer.”
Williams says the rise in poultry portioning is due to convenience. “Poultry portioning creates value-added products because it makes a clean, consistent product that resonates with consumers and makes them want to go back and try the product again,” he says. “The cooking time is identical so it’s not over- or under-cooked. The cleanness has to do with breading and battering ability.”
Poultry processors are using equipment to cut different sizes and shapes, such as fajita strips, medallions, jerky strips and butterfly cuts, Caparaso says. “Any time a processor can reduce the efforts of the end user of the product, value has been added. Also, similarly sized and shaped products have similar cooking times — one piece hasn’t burned while another is rare — which makes it easier on the cook.”
Because of new product developments — and new shapes — portioning will continue to gain popularity. “Five times as many companies as before are doing this. There’s a big rise and demand [and being asked] ‘Can you do this?’”
Future prospects
One trend that will surely continue is the movement toward ready-to-eat foods that are easy to prepare in less time. Portioning can help consumers get that consistent look and taste, every time.
“As people’s lives get busier and busier, they are looking for a way to better utilize their time,” Caparaso acknowledges. “Good tasting, easy to prepare — almost ‘ready-to-eat’ — foods. We can expect more further processing in the future. Every time something is invented or marketed that will save time or make life easier for consumers — of any product — the time saved is quickly filled up by another task or leisure activity. There is no reason to believe this will change, and as a result, food processing companies will continue to add value to their products.”
Hocker agrees. “QSRs are continually dreaming up new poultry dishes, so portioning will grow even more as processors demand more from their equipment,” he says.
“We’ll definitely see more portioning because everywhere you’re seeing these fantastic new this or spicy new that [products].” NP
The ''buzz'' on portioning
Portioning is the most effective way to improve yields and profit margins, say manufacturers and suppliers of portioners and slicers. Equipment suppliers offer some tips for processors who want to improve those aspects of their production, and in doing so, help clarify the use of some of the buzzwords found in poultry-portioning circles. Processors are looking for machines with a small footprint that are easy to clean and cost-effective, and feature improvements in speed, accuracy, flexibility and reliability. “We believe it is a matter of being in the market or not,” says Jan Elgaard, president of chief executive officer of Scanvaegt US Inc., Gainesville, Ga. Beyond those goals, here are other features and benefits processors should seek in top-quality portioning equipment, according to suppliers of the equipment:
• Optimal yield, value: “sorting in ways to optimize your yield and inspection, from blood spots to whole tears to split tails,” says Jon Hocker, product manager of DSI Systems, a unit of FMC FoodTech, Sandusky, Ohio. Meat processors should measure flexibility, accuracy and throughput when considering an investment in poultry-portioning capacity. If those criteria are satisfied, processors can increase processing flexibility, adapt to new cut requirements and improve raw product utilization, labor efficiency and consistently meet customers’ specifications.
• Water-jet cutter to achieve portion control. “Another [feature] is a rotating strap device that’s used to make the cut,” says Russ Williams, marketing manager at Gainco, a subsidiary of Bettcher Industries Inc., Vermilion, Ohio. “We haven’t moved in on this yet, as we deal with weighing and yield management.”
• Bigger, better, faster, stronger. adds Carmine Caparaso Jr., vice president of sales and marketing at Jaccard Corp., Orchard Park, N.Y. Jaccard’s high-speed FS-19 rotary slicer can also produce 2 dimensional slicing in single operation.
— Shonda Dudlicek