Poultry processing facilities faced increased workforce challenges due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As a result, there is growing interest in robotic and automated technology solutions that could help reduce labor issues and improve worker safety.

“Poultry’s kind of the last frontier in regard to having anything fully automated,” Jay Russell, a key account manager with Marel, said.

“You have plants in Europe that have been automated for 20 plus years. The U.S. has always had the ability available to be able to manage people that are no longer available today. Things have changed.”

The ultimate goal of automation is not to entirely replace workers at meat and poultry processing plants, but instead to find ways to augment or enhance the worker experience. When done correctly, technology can minimize downtime, improve worker safety and reduce human error.

Automation can also improve the working conditions of employees who often perform tasks that are labor-intensive and may cause injury.

“It’s a reallocation of people to put them in roles where they can use their human brain to think and do different things,” added Russell. “There are certain functions from an automation standpoint that just make logical sense – safety, availability of labor or just a repetitive action. A machine can perform these tasks just as well or better as a person in certain applications.”

For example, automation can be advantageous over human labor when it comes to routine tasks such as case packing for retail or case ready. These often require boxes to be very specific weights to not overload a pallet. New innovations can automatically connect with a scale to ensure uniformity in tray weights, saving a manual step and reducing spoilage during storage.

New robots are designed for direct contact with food and the harsh washdown procedures in processing plants. (Courtesy Staubli Corp.)

 

Ready to handle harsh environments

Poultry processing plants require strict sanitation procedures – something that needs to be carefully considered before any automated or robotic solution can be used.

“There are now robots that are truly designed for the poultry industry as a primary environment,” said Mathias Konne, business development and marketing coordinator, North America, Staubli Corporation. “It’s a big fear that the equipment is not suitable for direct contact with food and the harsh washdown procedures that happens in these plants.”

Compared to other industries, such as automotive, poultry processing is relatively new to the adoption of automation and robotics. 

“People are just starting to get on board with automation and robotics and there is a lot of education to do,” Kone said. “A lot of people aren’t really sure of where to start, how to start, what process should they be looking at, what would be the one that makes the most sense and what’s the one that would give them the best return on investment (ROI).”

It’s important to perform research on costs, software and performance before investing in automation, Konne added. Automation is more than just an equipment purchase. Consumables, maintenance, spare parts, downtime and training should also be factored in. Sometimes, processing plants may need to be redesigned to fit automation.

This helps ensure that a processing plant has best technology that fits their individual needs.

Kinematic enhancements to in-line, immersive chilling

Current attempts at automated, in-line chilling are limited in efficacy when compared to unshackled, screw-auger immersive chilling. However, full and partial attempts at in-line immersive chilling still need to have enhanced chilling to gain wider acceptance. 

A new approach that incorporates advanced kinematics within conventional chilled water could lead to more effective in-line immersive poultry chilling. The system features a modified shackle that can be used to transport and counter-rotate WOGS throughout the chilling system, by way of a secondary roller chain sprocket arrangement, without removing them from the shackle.

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“Effective in-line (i.e., shackled) immersive chilling avoids the poultry processing burden of re-hang, as well as lost product sequence, traceability and repeatability typically associated with unshackled screw-auger immersive chilling,” explained Comas Haynes, Ph.D., research faculty at Georgia Tech Research Institute.

The approach avoids the need to rehang carcasses, which offers several benefits. Keeping carcasses shackled throughout the process helps processors maintain sequence and retain “single-piece” traceability. It can also reduce and alleviate burden of rehang, which can be a labor issue.

The adoption of an additional velocity component via superimposed rotational patterns synergistically increases the heat sink effect, hence viability, of in-line immersive chilling. 

“Our goal is to aid the prospect of in-line immersive chilling via additional motion patterns beyond traditional line speed (i.e., adding optimized rotational patterns that speed up the chilling process),” Haynes said.

In-line chilling avoids the poultry processing burden of re-hang, as well as lost product sequence, traceability and repeatability. (DH Saragih I Shutterstock.com)

 

Minimizing supply chain disruptions in case-ready poultry

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of a strong poultry supply chain – lessons learned that can be used to prepare for bigger disruptions in food retail to come. 

During the pandemic, demand for groceries spiked as consumers avoided indoor dining to prevent the spread of the virus. In addition, interest in e-commerce has accelerated, with 10 years of predicted growth seen over the past year. The market shift has affected both retailers and food producers, with many food producers moving toward making goods available direct-to-consumer.

The e-commerce culture in combination with mass urbanization trends is leading to smaller orders being placed more frequently. The 28-degree rooms of yesterday will not work for these new demands. The future for case-ready poultry weigh-price-label (WPL) operations relies on automation and robotics to do it better, faster and cheaper. 

The use of automation connects the production, weigh price label subsystems, shuttle aisles and palletizing robots via a conveyer network to allow precise control and dispatch of each individual container throughout the system.

Automation can help streamline case-ready poultry by reducing the labor needed with its ability to handle smaller more frequent orders and improved inventory management, as well as reduction of inventory shrink.

What’s coming next

For more on the technologies set to advance the poultry industry, join industry-changing innovators, researchers, entrepreneurs, technology experts, investors and leading poultry producers at the Poultry Tech Webinar Series, scheduled for November 2, 4, 10, 11, 17, 30 and December 2.

During the webinar series, industry experts will preview what’s coming next – from prospective solutions to developing technology – for the poultry industry. 

This webinar series is proudly sponsored by: Arm & Hammer, Aviagen, Baader, Boehringer Ingelheim, Cargill, Ceva, Chore-Time, Cobb, Evonik, Marel, Phibro Animal Health, Staubli, and Zoetis.

Visit our website for more details on the webinar series, topics and speakers.

Register for free today and join us for a glimpse at the future of the poultry industry.