By Lynn Petrak, special-projects editor
Processors move toward more automated systems as technology marches on.
It’s the ultimate hands-off policy. As they seek to reduce the need for human labor and simultaneously improve throughput, yield and food safety, poultry processors are embracing automated systems in various parts of their plants.
The use of machines in meat-processing facilities, of course, has been in place for decades. What has evolved, however, is the application and capability of such automated equipment in bird handling and processing, which for years has been, at least in some aspects, more manually based.
“It’s been limited the in past, when it wasn’t as accurate, efficient and cost effective,” observes Heath Jarrett, vice president of sales and projects for Meyn America, LLC, the U.S. arm of the Netherlands-based manufacturer of poultry-processing equipment. “Technology of equipment has really come about.”
Just as important as the “what” of modern automation in poultry facilities is the “why” behind the shift. These days, plant operators often cite the people factor when making the decision to automate.
“During the ‘boom’ periods of the 1980s and ’90s, much of the automation implemented was to increase production. In today’s more mature market, the big driver behind most automation is labor savings and/or product quality or yield improvement, at the same time obtaining higher production capacities from the same space,” explains Peter Goffe, chief operating office for Linco Food Systems, Inc., an Alpharetta, Ga.-based wholly owned subsidiary of Linco Food Systems A/S, which supplies poultry-processing equipment from standalone machines to complete poultry-processing plants.
“That is the big push — to eliminate the labor,” agrees Jarrett. “It’s hard to get qualified labor for that environment, and immigration laws are getting tougher each year, so that is a huge challenge for the industry.”
Michael C. Ruscitti, director of sales and marketing for Gainesville, Ga.-based poultry-processing system manufacturer Stork Food Systems USA, also pinpoints personnel issues.
“Poultry processors are looking to automate in order to eliminate and/or replace people,” he says. “With the increased focus on illegal workers and weak market conditions, processors are looking for any way to reduce costs.”
Correlating with other food-manufacturing settings, there are additional trends that have impacted processors’ decisions to go mechanical. “The other reasons for automation are to minimize process variation and increase overall efficiency,” agrees Tom Surmiak, product specialist, meal components, for Frisco, Texas-based food-processing company CFS North America Inc., who adds a caveat about the end-all-be-all view about automation. “However, there is still a lot on the plant floor that can be done just manually to capture and control parameters that guide plant efficiency.”
Surmiak’s take on the optimization of automation leads to the discussion of the “where” of such systems. Today, automation is a reality on the plant floor from receiving to shipping, just at varying degrees.
“With the exception of the live hang area, and depending on the product mix within, the plant, birds or products don’t have to be ‘handled’ again until a pack-out stage in the process,” says Russ Williams, marketing manager for Gainco Inc, a Gainesville, Ga., developer of automated weighing systems and a subsidiary of Vermilion, Ohio-headquartered Bettcher Industries, Inc.
What’s more, the use of automation is spreading, adds Jarrett. “We’ve seen in the past eight or nine years automation in the front of the plant come a long way, and we are seeing a shift to the back of the plant,” he says.
According to Goffe, some changes not evident in poultry plants here are already in the works overseas. “Automation is nearly everywhere, and where it is not evident, it soon will be. For example, in Europe, one of the driving factors behind the increased usage of gas stunning in poultry plants has been the need to improve labor conditions in the live receiving area, not just the benefits to animal welfare and bird quality.”
Finally, the competitive climate in the poultry industry can’t be overlooked as a factor in the growing sophistication of processing equipment. “In today’s market, where consumption has stabilized, technology needs to be implemented to help maintain the consumers’ preference for poultry,” notes Goffe. “So, the equipment to produce a better quality product, more consumer options, product safety, are all important, along with the need to continuously improve efficiency to be able to remain competitive against other meats and against the production of other countries in the export markets worldwide.”
Adds Williams: “Our experience shows that increased demand and new product development requires us, as manufacturers, to understand our customers’ business better to that we can bring processing solutions to the opportunities presented to us.”
Points of automation
As poultry companies examine the best ways to maximize profits through their processes and human resources, they have a broad landscape to survey when it comes to automated systems. Equipment manufacturers regularly develop new types of machinery to handle what has traditionally been done by hand or at a lower-tech level.
For the first steps in processing, for example, there are new ways to mechanically handle birds during and after the kill stage. Automated gas stunning is one example, with companies like Linco offering live receiving and gas stunning.
Evisceration is another step in the process that continues to become more automated and, along the way, quicker and more accurate. Linco, which started its business in 1944 with innovative systems for feather removal, still improves upon its feather removal machines and also has upgraded its evisceration machines. At Meyn, Jarrett reports that applications of the company’s Maestro evisceration machine continue to expand.
Meanwhile, during the further-processing stage, automated deboning systems reflect the latest in technology as well. Williams, for his part, cites Gainco’s YieldPlus Debone Management System as a current strong seller among poultry operations.
At Stork, Ruscitti reports more automation in white-meat deboning. “Our intelligent cut-up (ACM-MX) systems also help our customers to provide their customers with poultry within a specific weight range, say for deli whole roasters, and the cut-up combinations they require,” he says.
As part of the cut-up process, vision-based systems are more commonly found in poultry plants today than a decade ago. “Vision grading again takes people out of the plant by using a camera and computer to decide the quality grade of every chicken coming down the line,” notes Ruscitti, adding that vision technology also helps the processor optimize processes by directing non-A Grade birds to a specific cut-up program that maximizes the yield from each bird.
Meyn is another equipment company that has improved vision technology. “Vision is used to grade out parts instead of having to depend on human eyes,” explains Jarrett. “It’s a single piece of equipment that goes on each line and it avoids having eight people grading birds. And accuracy goes from 70 to 96 percent.”
Also during the processing of broiler meat, weighing machines reflect a move toward more advanced machinery. “The latest particular trend is to automatically measure the volume of meat entering the line, in addition to usual weighing at the end of the line,” reports Surmiak.
One of Linco’s latest systems is a new multi-head weigher for net weight packages, which are increasingly used by retailers like Wal-Mart for logistical purchases and by export companies. “Traditionally, much of the product that was packaged in specified weights required manual adjustment to correct the weight. Our new technology removes the need for any annual adjustment and allows for a computer-controlled selection of product that vastly reduces the amount of giveaway and rehandling of product that can occur where traditional static sales have been used,” notes Goffe.
Williams also notes that automated weighing systems are gaining ground among poultry plant operators, such as Gainco’s DuraWeigh line of bench and floor scales.
With automation, controls are an integral part of the effectiveness of machinery. To that end, controls, too, are a focus of continual improvements. At CFS, Surmiak notes that the company recently developed controls that allow processors to change product recipes for the lines from one control place as well as tracking meat batches throughout the production floor.
“This goes in line with introducing individual machines that are PLC controlled,” Surmiak adds, citing the CFS CookStar oven that has been equipped with PLCs for several years. “Recently, we started to introduce even smaller machines with PLCs. It started with fryers, where CFS SuperFry has built-in control capability and then moved even to batter and breading equipment with PLC controls.”
Still, even as advanced controls and 21st-century automation becomes more of an integrated part of poultry production, investments are not made lightly. “A combination of speed, accuracy, yield improvement and labor savings are all vitally important features of automated systems. Unless a reasonable ROI is demonstrated, using the aforementioned factors as the basis for capital investments, the system doesn’t meet the necessary criteria for purchasing,” points out Williams.
Likewise, Surmiak recommends that processors ask pivotal questions about the real and ultimate payback of automation: “Is the overall line efficiency better controlled by diligent use of manual methods at the beginning? Are there automated methods allowing better control of particular processes or complete lines? Is it less expensive to automate than to train the operators? And is it less expensive to automate than to employ an incentive system for operators?”
The answers to those questions, he says, will provide insight into the what, where and how of automated systems.