Robotics can augment human labor in poultry processing

Automation and robotic technology could improve return on investment (ROI) by augmenting human labor at poultry processing plants.

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Automation and robotic technology could improve return on investment (ROI) by augmenting human labor at poultry processing plants.

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

The technology isn’t there… yet

Although there are some robotic prototypes designed to help with manual deboning currently in development, there are no systems able to match the speed and accuracy of a human worker.

“When it comes to meat processing, the ability to distinguish between fat and meat or bone and fat is something that doesn’t naturally organize itself for machine learning and the actuation devices have a hard time making a cut. That’s a more difficult application,” Decker Walker, partner and managing director, Industrial Goods and Corporate Development, Boston Consulting Group, said during AI, Automation and Their Impact on the Food Industry.

“We’re in a very interesting time where it’s not just about ‘let’s put a robot up there and replace a human.’ Put aside the societal, economic and ethical implications of that. There’s a very practical reality which is that the technology just isn’t there to automate many of those steps.”

Augment, not replace

The ultimate goal is not to entirely replace workers at meat and poultry processing plants, but instead to find ways to augment or enhance the worker experience.

“The foundational challenge is how do you integrate automation when labor is not disappearing. What I mean by that is the human workforce is not leaving meat processing in the foreseeable future and I think almost every single company in the meat industry would agree that 1) we’re not there and 2) there’s a whole host of reasons why that cannot and should not happen,” Walker explained.

“That creates a unique challenge where you’re actually augmenting human labor and not replacing it. And that’s a very different use case than automating a robot to very precisely cut the meat off the bone at a meat processing facility.”

Return on investment

The right robotic and automation solutions will provide a high ROI for processing plants.

“What we’re finding is that companies have all invested in significant ways, but in different areas, so chickens have a different problem than beef and pork. In something like beef, there are worker safety steps where if you can automate the steps where there is either repetitive stress risk or actual worker injury risk, there is a very high return on investment (ROI),” Walker said.

These benefits will be seen in terms of downtime, worker safety and ease-of-use.

“They reduce downtime by providing better worker experience. They reduce absenteeism by making sure that workers are leaving where they are injured or tired. There’s a whole category of use cases where there is labor augmentation with high ROI, but if you’re running a strict P&L, you might not come to that conclusion,” he noted.

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