Future of poultry processing: Intelligent automation

Equipment companies have successfully automated virtually every task in first processing in modern broiler processing plants.

Okeefe T Headshot
zentilia, IStockphoto.com
zentilia, IStockphoto.com

Equipment companies have successfully automated virtually every task in first processing in modern broiler processing plants. People are still required to hang the live birds, inspect/trim carcasses, conduct quality tests and adjust equipment, but eviscerating departments that used to require 100 or more workers now may need fewer than 20. Many carcass cut-up and dark meat deboning operations have experienced similar levels of automation, but automation of breast deboning has proven to be more difficult.

Automation versus cone line

Early attempts to automate breast deboning in broiler and turkey processing plants were largely unsuccessful, because labor cost savings in the actual steps to remove the breast meat from the breast frame were often more than offset by the cost of decreased breast meat yield and increased labor cost for trimming and inspecting the meat. This general tradeoff of reduced total meat value versus labor cost savings has remained relatively intact for three decades, but automated systems have improved.

Equipment offerings have been getting more effective at removing meat and minimizing bone breakage, and labor costs have continued to increase. In the European market, where bird sizes are smaller and the labor cost per pound of meat processed is higher, automated breast deboning systems have become widely accepted by broiler processors.

In the U.S., where the live weight of birds raised specifically for deboning routinely exceed 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms) the cost analysis has still generally favored deboning of breast frames on manual cone lines. The statement, “a good cone deboning line can outperform a machine” is still generally accepted, but things are changing.

Intelligent automation

“Yield has been the primary driver in the North American market (for breast deboning). If labor (cost) becomes a primary driver, we will see more automated deboning systems in North America,” said Dr. Doug Britton, program manager, Agricultural Technology Research Program, Georgia Tech Research Institute.

Britton, who heads up a research group that has developed an intelligent breast deboning system, said: “I expect that in the next 5 to 10 years, we will see intelligent solutions that allow these deboning systems to accommodate both bigger and smaller birds which will match the yield performance of human operators and achieve the line speeds that make them tractable as fully automated solutions for doing breast deboning. There is no doubt that this is coming down the pike.”

This optimism regarding the future of intelligent breast deboning is the result of a couple of developments. Britton said the cost of robots has dropped significantly, by about half over the past five to 10 years. This is indicative of the drop in the cost of the sensors and computing power needed to operate machinery that can adjust itself on the fly. Another significant factor in the equation will be the increasing cost of labor.

When considering the true cost of labor on a deboning line, much more than just the cost of wages and average benefits for workers need to be considered, according to Britton. Workers compensation costs specific for deboning line employees need to be considered as well as the downtime costs when there are labor shortages.

Britton pointed out that in systems that require manual adjustments, the adjustments tend to be made after the size change and reaction to a problem. With truly self-adjusting systems, the adjustment is made for each breast frame, just as trained workers would do on a cone line.

Intelligent breast deboning

The technologies developed by Georgia Tech for intelligent broiler breast deboning have been tested at about 33-50 percent of the line speed anticipated in a processing plant, according to Britton. He said the technology and intellectual property for the system are now available for license, and because of this he couldn’t describe the system for this publication. He said there have been improvements made since information was last released about their work.

WATT Global Media contacted several equipment companies to ask about the future of intelligent deboning systems. Arie Tulp, sales and marketing director, Marel Poultry, said the company’s AMF-I breast deboning system automatically detects the size of the breast cap and adjusts.

“This intelligent solution automatically adapts its settings to the individual incoming products, eliminating the need of pre-grading,” Tulp said.

Integrated systems

Britton and Tulp both said an effective intelligent deboning system is a combination of the right sensors, software and mechanical equipment. Tulp explained that simple sensors all the way up to complex image-capturing ones, such as X-ray or video, are already being used in equipment. He said more ways to translate sensor information into mechanical actions, such as servo action, pneumatics and hydraulics, are being implemented.

Tulp said the key is probably in the algorithms that allow translation of the sensor data about the breast cap to be deboned into effective action by the equipment. One way of looking at this process is that the sensors function like the vision and sense of touch of the human deboner. The deboning equipment takes over the role of the knife and muscles, and the software and computer take over the role of the brain and experience.

Automated inspection systems

Vision systems that can inspect and grade carcasses pre-chill and post-chill have successfully been developed and employed. X-ray bone inspection systems that can find bone fragments that aren’t visible on the surface of the meat are also available. One of the next steps is for development of systems that can detect a wide range of foreign materials. Expect all of these systems to become more accurate and reliable in the future.

Water’s role in processing

The cost of treating water continues to go up and, in some parts of the country, poultry processors are in competition with other uses for water. Britton said the combination of increased water treatment costs and water scarcity may ultimately have an impact on how liberally water is used in poultry processing plants.

Britton suggested that air chilling of poultry carcasses might gain broader acceptance in the U.S. as a result of these water issues. He said his research group is investigating several water-saving and reuse technologies. They are even investigating use of alternative chilling media like ice slurries.

Page 1 of 32
Next Page