What will poultry processing facilities of 2020 look like? What are the challenges that exist today, and how will these be solved in the plant of the future?

Keeping workers safe and producing safe and healthy products, while protecting the planet, are major goals that will continue to challenge the poultry processing industry in the foreseeable future.

“How are we going to think outside the box about processing technologies to make these things come true?” asked Doug Britton of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, while speaking at the Poultry Processor Workshop.

Intelligent automation to innovate processes  

Greater, more efficient automation will be a key to meeting these challenges, according to Dr. Britton, who said intelligent automation technology will lead to rapid improvements in processing efficiency.

Intelligent automation involves the automated sensing of processes and products to adapt the process to individual product items. Intelligent processing systems allow equipment to communicate up and down the line and detect problems and alert or stop processes.

Intelligent automation promises to be a transformational innovation event, Britton said, and will drive rapid improvement in processing efficiency and launch a new automation efficiency curve.

Advanced sensors key to implementation  

Britton identified a number of enabling technologies for intelligent automation systems. Chief among these will be advanced sensors, which will be essential to the implementation of these systems in poultry processing. Specifically, these technologies include time-of-flight sensors, thermal/visible/3D imaging, laser projection and biosensors.

Research into biosensors, for example, has been on the upswing since 2004, and represents the fastest growing technology for pathogen detection. The development of real-time detection technologies should extend the opportunities for application of intelligent automation for food safety.

Another example expected to find application in poultry processing is time-of-flight sensor technology, the cost of which is decreasing. These sensors can be used to adaptively control automation by illuminating product items with invisible light and sensing the location and shape of those items.

Advanced sensing technologies will be applied in a number of ways, including bone detection, automated rehanging of carcasses, temperature monitoring, packaging inspection and pathogen detection.

Intelligent deboning  

Researchers at GTRI have been working on ways to automate the deboning process, which is an area that requires a great amount of labor and can result in ergonomic injuries. The objectives are to match the yield performance of manual deboning, reduce bone chips and improve consistency, and address labor and worker safety considerations.

Intelligent deboning adjusts the deboning equipment for each individual carcass. The process uses 3D imaging and force feedback sensors in the knife to adjust the blade as it is cuts through the product.

Bone detection  

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The researchers are also working on an “outside the box” approach to bone detection. “The idea is to inspect the frame after the meat is removed and detect what bones are remaining on the frame,” Britton said.

“We built a specialized cone line that uses near-infrared cameras and near-infrared LEDs in the cones to back light the frames. The process can successfully detect where bones are missing bones. The question is whether or not this can be detected at the line speeds needed,” he said.

Such a system might also be used to measure yield, according to Britton.

Temperature monitoring  

The GTRI researchers have also developed a prototype Thermal/Visible/3D imaging system that estimates the internal temperatures of individual product items.

“The concept is based on knowing the cooking profile and the product profile of the product coming out of the oven,” Britton said. “When you have a 3D image of the product and the surface temperature, it is possible to estimate internal temperatures. The question is whether or not this feedback can help control the oven processes.”

These systems could be used to help detect undercooked product and reduce overcooked product.

Laser projection  

As intelligent automation systems are implemented, there is the need to communicate to the worker what problems may exist and where they are located.
Laser projection can be used in intuitive and intelligent human-machine interfaces that provide real-time, symbol-based communication to workers. Applications may be in quality- or safety-based sorting or removal, including temperature monitoring.

“When product is exiting a temperature process, a cooking oven or a freezer, workers cannot visibly tell which products are cooler or warmer or needs to be sampled,” Britton said. “That’s especially true in traditional stick-probe temperature processes. How can workers be guided to know that a certain piece of product on the line is suspect and needs sampling?

“The idea is to combine a laser projection system to provide an intuitive, intelligent human interface that gives a real-time, symbol-based communication to the worker on the line. The laser projects a symbol on the product to let the operator know it is a suspect product that needs to be checked.

“Laser projection can beused for all types of quality or safety sorting. It is a very intuitive way to communicate with workers on the line performing final inspection,” he said.

Transformational innovation  

Is intelligent automation a transformational innovation that will lead to rapid improvement in processing efficiency and safety? Britton thinks so. He expects to see continued development and application of advanced sensing technologies that will allow processes to be automatically adapted to individual product items on the line.

“The idea that we can automatically adapt the process to each individual product item is the ultimate goal of the intelligent processing system,” he said.