Automated deboning machine shows promise in plant trials

An advanced robotic system designed to perform butterfly and shoulder cuts was successful in its first poultry processing plant trials.

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Ahmet Naim | BigStock.com
Ahmet Naim | BigStock.com

An advanced robotic system designed to perform butterfly and shoulder cuts was successful in its first poultry processing plant trials.

The automated deboning machine ran at 75% speed, processing 15 chickens a minute. This is still slower than the manual deboning process, but it is a good first step towards integrating robotics into processing plants, Dr. Ai-Ping Hu, a senior research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, said on September 29 during the Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI) 55th National Meeting on Poultry Health, Processing, and Live Production.

The trial took place in northern Georgia.

A solution for labor issues

Manual deboning is one of the highest skilled jobs at a processing plant. However, it can be difficult to fill these positions long-term.

“The most common concern or complaint that we hear at processing plants is that they are chronically understaffed. At some plants, we’ve heard of 100% turnover, meaning that the workers you see in January no longer work there in December,” said Hu.

“From a point of view of staffing, I think having robots that can do this really difficult job is a benefit.”

Automation to the rescue

Automation and robotics have been floated as a solution to poultry processing’s labor challenges for a few years. COVID-19 has only intensified that interest.

During COVID-19, many poultry plants were forced to temporarily shut down protection to prevent the spread of the virus. This made it more challenging than ever to find and retain qualified labor.

Modern robotic solutions are better able to deal with unique objects – that may be squishy or wet. Hu calls these automated machines robots 2.0.

“There are existing automated solutions, but they rely on fixed automation. In fixed automation solutions, birds are sorted by weight into different deboning lines, which gives them very little adjustability,” Hu said.

“We wanted to develop a solution that is more intelligent. In our case, that meant using machine vision and artificial intelligence to treat each bird uniquely in one automated solution. The ultimate goal was to design a solution that matched the yield and speed of a manual deboner.”

Early prototypes were the size of a refrigerator and cost more than $200,000. The version used in the field trial is smaller, the size of a human arm, and costs only $25,000, Hu noted.

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