Will New Hygiene Standards Propel Automation?

Robot Meat Packing Machine
Screenshot Scott Automation and Robotics Meat Packing Robot

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

h/t Breitbart; As Coronavirus immigration controls and outbreaks amongst workers cuts off the supply of cheap Labor, meat packing plants are increasingly turning to robots to fill the labor shortage. But there is nothing new about labor shortages triggering a wave of innovation.

Tyson and other meat processors are reportedly speeding up plans for robot butchers

By Alicia Wallace, CNN Business

Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT) July 10, 2020

(CNN) Tyson Foods and other meat processors that became early hotspots for the Covid-19 pandemic are reportedly accelerating plans to have robots replace human meatcutters.

Tyson (TSN) engineers and scientists — with the help of some designers from the auto industry — are developing an automated deboning system to help butcher the nearly 40 million chickens processed each week, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

A labor shortage is behind the push to automate. Meat processing companies were already facing difficulties in recruiting workers, the Journal report said. That was made worse by the pandemic.

Read more: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/10/business/tyson-meatpacking-plants-automation/index.html

Obviously this is a multi-dimensional issue.

As automation continues to rise, the people who used to pack meat will need to find something else to do, possibly leading to some people who find it difficult to learn new skills experiencing hardship as they compete for an ever shrinking pool of repetitive semi-skilled jobs which have not yet been automated.

But the benefits to society of automation are too great to ignore.

Just as the end of mass hand weaving led to more affordable higher quality clothes, so automated meat packing will help keep meat affordable. And in the age of Coronavirus and ever stricter hygiene standards, the concept of food untouched by humans at every stage of processing is an attractive selling point.

Video of Scott Automation’s Meat Processing Technology. The robot uses x-ray vision to map the skeletal structure of the carcass, to help identify the correct cutting points.

36 thoughts on “Will New Hygiene Standards Propel Automation?

  1. I’m waiting now for the spy movie, in which the hero(ine) is strapped to a moving gantry and sent in to encounter an automated meat-cutting robot.

    Of course, s/he will escape by doing an uber-gymnastic leg-lift back-bend over the top, and then use the circular saw to cut the wrist-binding cable-tie. Followed by bad-guy comeuppance.

    Gotta happen. 2022. 🙂

    • If we make it to 2022. I’m betting on the total collapse of Western civilization some time before then…

      • The head of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, said this morning that internal Republican polls show Trump ahead in all the battleground states.

        So don’t dispair, unless you are a Leftist Democrat.

        • What will happen is that both sides will cheat, both sides will claim foul and victory, and the media will report nothing honestly.

          But realistically, there is literally no good outcome in November. Riots, totalitarianism, open civil war. Take your pick.

          • While it is possible that there may be some Republicans who try to take advantages of the weaknesses the Democrats have built into the system. It’s also true that the party with a long history of playing fast and loose with election laws has always been the Democrats.

          • Oh, I don’t doubt that the Dems will be much worse. But Republican supporters have shown their willingness to cheat too, and it only takes one for the Dems to whip their propaganda machine into a hysterical frenzy.

  2. I did some research on this the other day after the WSJ article appeared. There are some tasks that are ‘easy’ to automate. One is degutting plucked chickens because they are all about same size and body cavity shape. But not deboning the breasts. Another is sawing down the spine of a hog carcass to separate the two halves. But not extracting the spare ribs from those sides.

    Almost everything is ‘hard’ because of variation in size and thus fine anatomy, (boneless chicken breasts, spare ribs) and the value of less meat cuts compared to more scraps ($5/lb versus $0.15/lb for beef) that robots produce today. For example, even tho meat is red (beef) or pink (pork) and fat is white, robots cannot yet trim fat as well as human fat trimmers. The big packers like JBS and Tyson are investing huge sums (Hundreds of millions per year in automation R&D each), but it is a real slog because of the inherent natural variability. Machine vision, AI not up to the job yet.

    • Hi Rud,

      The article I found, said it was possible to automate production line slaughter houses.

      Production line meat slaughter houses are being forced to shut to down because Meat slaughterhouses have had immense outbreaks of covid among staff.

      For example, a Tyson food plant in Germany had 1550 cases of covid from one plant.

      To automate (Europeans have spent $450 million on automation) will require slowing down the slaughtering line and will increase the cost of meat.

      The jobs to maintain and adjust the slaughtering line robots will be high paying jobs.

      An Aside
      Production line mass slaughtering lines are dangerous, depressing jobs in every country, because of short term risks and long-term injury due to repetitive motion.

      I have seen a slaughtering line up close for pigs and discussed what it is like to work on a mass production slaughtering lines with many people. The workers who work on mass production slaughtering lines are those who are desperate for money and are willing to damage their bodies.

      Workers all say, the slaughtering lines are run far too fast (too many animals are killed per hour). Slowing the line down would enable more separation between workers and would reduce repetitive injuries. Wages need to be higher as it is not safe to work long hours doing repetitive jobs. This is not a job you would want your son or daughter or husband to have to do.

      The high speed and the ridiculously long hours for a repetitive job, means all of the workers get repetitive injuries and will be forced to change jobs with lifelong injuries.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/essentials-meatpeacking-coronavirus/611437/

      https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/22/business/meat-plant-germany-coronavirus-outbreak/index.html

      • WA, back when I was a senior partner at BCG I got Hormel as a client. Took my whole team on a guided tour of Hormels Minnesota pig slaughterhouse adjacent to their world HQ. 8000 hogs per day, two shifts. Only thing not used somehow was the squeal.

        So about 8 Hogs per minute, one hog slaughtered ~every 8 seconds via bolt stun kill. Many, but not all, of the downstream operations had roughly the same tempo. Brutal. European higher automation is, as you point out, at a slower tempo.

        My research triggered by the WSJ article found a video (made by the automation seller) of a European ‘automated’ hog slaughterhouse operation in Germany. Did not bookmark, but Googlefu will take you there like it did me. Very neat, because they break out all the basic steps ( the video skipped the actual Manual kill step) and ‘zooms in’ on each basic operation separately. Shows robotic decapitation then evisceration, the backbone sides saw. Still a lot of manual stations. Tempo was about 1/4 of Hormel back in the day, maybe two hogs a minute.

        Dunno the answer, just that—independent of tempo—machine vision and AI is not yet up to many of the basic meat processing tasks. I gave some examples in my comment.

    • ” robots cannot yet trim fat as well as human fat trimmers”
      and they probably can’t recognize an abscess …..
      Yuck!

      • My Immigrant grandfather from the OLd country was a butcher. He taught me a lot. I can disassemble a whole chicken into all the usual parts with a knife and meat cleaver in 30 seconds. And can perfectly debone both resulting breasts in another 20 seconds. Since Covid-19 dramatically raised the price of packaged chicken parts, I have been buying whole chickens cheap and putting those Old World skills to good use.
        Both back halves plus wings make a great chicken soup using the trick my grandma taught me. Hint: the red stuff next to the backbone on the hind back piece is actually kidney, and disflavors and discolors the soup. Scrape and wash it all out, you get a beautiful clear broth.

  3. I’ve been noting this developing meat cutting automation trend over the last 4 months, on US agriculture oriented websites. As the Wuhan virus ran rampant through the work forces in major chicken, pork, and beef processing plants, the plant owners have been seeking automated cutting tools to reduce the impacts on production and improve both the quality and profitability of the delivered final product.

  4. Once I worked in a r and d division of a major forest products company. One project group was designing and building a CATscanner for logs which did not exist at that time.
    Very large logs were presold to Jspan then cut into cants and they shipped only the best quality pieces with the rest attracting a charge for ‘disposal’. Good experienced sawyers could produce a far mote valuable prduct result from a log than could an inexperienced sawyer. It took years to learn to ‘read’ the interior of a log before making the first cut.
    The CAT scanner could view inside the log before sawing and using optimizing algorithms produce a cut pattern for the sawyer.
    The gizmo worked well but was decommissioned soon after it was installed. It made the cheaper less experienced less senior guys just as good as the master sawyers. The Union could see where that leads and threatened to shut the place down.
    The sales division also wanted it decommissioned fearing the Japanese customers once they knew the mill could predict the quality yield of each.log would pay for only the best cuts instead of the whole log which was worth more.

    • The word sabotage came from workers who would throw their wooden shoes (sabots) into the machinery in order to break it.

      This kind of strategy works for a while, but never forever.

      • “The Future Doesn’t Need Us” – An article by Bill Joy.

        It is a must read. A bit off on his timing but it’s happening. Given the curve of ability there will be no job a robot can’t do by 2040-50.

      • As robots become more ubiquitous, the price of everything should continue to fall.
        Because of this, individuals won’t have to work as much in order to earn what is needed to feed the family.
        People used to work 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week.
        It was industrialization and machinery that brought about our current 40 hour week.

    • Automation companies like Fanuc have lights out manufacturing facilities where robot production workers are building robots for sale that will replace production workers.

      The new hot job market will be churning out technicians capable of programming and rebuilding all the new automation going in, currently there is a shortage in that area. Parents might want to start getting your kids interested in robots. This is what I do for a living and finding people are hard, finding competent people is darn near impossible.

  5. Pre Panic2020:
    A similar tale from the ag sector is automation in vineyards with harvesters. Grapes meant for high valued wines are still harvested by workers, as are small “family” operations. Workers and cost of labor drives many such decisions.
    Automation is coming to fruit harvest – apples and such, and even strawberries. Reducing insects on strawberries can now be done with a vacuum sweeper.

    Panic2020:
    The WSJournal also had an article on the decrease in money sent back to family by workers. The total of these “remittances” is astounding, and to the families the money means the difference between a good existence and hard-scrabble surviving.

    • But machines can’t vote for Democrats, so I predict that agricultural automation will be forbidden by the Biden Administration.

  6. I live in blueberry country and I saw many new looking automatic harvesters in operation this year.
    The old ones, which I’ve seen sitting unused in local farmyards look like subway one-way exits, with a bunch of rotating bars to hit the bushes and knock off the berries.
    These new units looked similar, but have finer bars, and look to be more maneuverable, with off-road tires and an articulated gantry to drive over the bushes without harming them.
    I’m sure these new shiny machines are being bought because of the lack of foreign migrant pickers.

  7. automation invariably introduces large amounts of hazardous particulate and fails to continually inspect meat… which means it will kill more people than Covid, hundreds of times more.

  8. I worked in a family butchers in Ireland when I was young. Would never do it again, happy to let a robot do it. However, the animal is dead, the virus cannot survive without a warm, living, host. And then prepare and cook food properly.

  9. I’m in the robot business.

    Using robots (or more correctly excluding dirty contaminated human beings) in the food processing industry also extends the shelf life of the products by 3 days.

    As regards replacing humans – most jobs that go to robots are backbreaking, dirty, dangerous etc. etc. that most people are glad not to do.

    Robots are also expensive in terms of cost per person replaced.

    We are over 200 times more productive than our great grandparents – that means in four generations 199 jobs in 200 have been lost to automation. But this did not lead to 199 in 200 people being unemployed.

    A combine harvester does the work of 400 people – anyone want to go back to the labour of harvesting corn with a scythe ?

    Whilst there may be short term job losses, overall productivity improves our standard of living.

    Being a Luddite will confine you to the dark ages.

  10. This is good news for:
    Safety
    AI programming skills
    Carnivores
    Freezer companies
    Robotic companies
    Agricultural feed farmers

    This is bad news for:
    Cows, pigs and chickens.
    Some people as there is nothing that works for all.
    Artistry lost in finer cuts of meat
    And anyone that has no idea where their food comes from nor how to break it down correctly for cooking.

    The tricky part of this equation is the business “need”. While it may be easy to ramp up the production for more sales–how will preventative maintenance be viewed in the process? What over rides will be written in for when management freaks out that they are behind budget for a day or an hour or a minute and how will that affect the food chain?

    I’m all about automation, I really am…I think that there are mundane tasks that need to be automated (washer and dryer I’m looking at you). But just like the automation of textiles—there IS a lot that is lost along the way. I’m a weaver and I can say that while automation made cloth less expensive–I would not say in today’s day and age that it made it better quality……it used to be….so what happened? An examination of the textile industry’s push to maximize profits can tell you. Using cheaper, faster and exploited methods, flooding markets with only 3 types of weave structure, and the elitism of other weave structures that can’t be made on the fly (results in a machine having to go down to be rethreaded–which adds in enormous cost) has resulted in a resounding lack of quality in modern clothing rather than what automatic looms were hailed to do.

    I hope that if the slaughterhouses and meat packers go this route–they learn some history of other industries that are automated and understand the mistakes that were made there along the way.

    As for me, come Fall, I’m buying 1/2 a cow and a pig–and I always have a few chickens in the freezer–I also break down my own chickens because I’ve had the unfortunate experience of opening prepackaged chicken breasts and been accosted by bad spoiled meat–too many times.

    • The nobility had the ability to dress well, but look at what the average person was able to afford.

      What you decry as cheap, the vast majority of people in the world celebrate as affordable.

      • “MarkW July 13, 2020 at 8:27 am

        The nobility had the ability to dress well, but look at what the average person was able to afford.”

        Maybe. French nobility used to use Versailles like a toilet.

  11. Many of the workers who would be displaced will be trained to clean and maintain these machines. To maintain sanitary standards these machines will have to be cleaned a lot. Still many steps in butchering process will require human labor. I have cut meat in the past and sure I will again before I shuffle out of this world. Going to be a long time before it is all automated.

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