- Tyson Foods is more aggressively pursuing an automated meat processing strategy as it faces issues with staffing and safety exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal.
- The meat company has invested $500 million in technology and automation in the past three years, including the opening of Tyson's Manufacturing Automation Center in August 2019. CEO Noel White noted the push for more robots in factories to debone and filet meat will continue after the pandemic.
- This long-term, robotic solution also is being pursued by JBS US Holdings and Cargill. However, due to the variability in poultry and livestock carcasses, automation technology is not yet ready to replace human hands. The Wall Street Journal reported poultry processing deboning machines trail humans by 1% to 1.5% for the meat yield they extract per bird.
Robotic skills, which have lagged when compared to human finesse, have made meaningful strides in recent years. While fine motor skills such as gristle removal and fileting without cutting the bone of an animal remain the domain of skilled human workers, more routine tasks like splitting carcasses is commonly performed by machines. In Europe, automation is more commonly employed, according to The Wall Street Journal, with robots using lasers and optical eyes to sort cuts of meat and send them to their destinations for final processing by humans.
In the U.S. though, the introduction has not been as widespread. Low temperatures and blood spatter make it difficult to introduce robots into a meatpacking environment. And due to risks associated with bacteria, it has been difficult for robots to withstand the continuous washing and sanitizing required in a meatpacking plant.
Despite these limitations, animal protein companies are continuing to invest heavily in automation. JBS is dedicating part of its $1 billion capital expenditures to automation, it told The Wall Street Journal, and in 2015 the company took a $42 million controlling stake in Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm. Tyson said last August it invested $215 million in automation and robotics during the previous five years.
Although robots are not always as successful at their jobs as their human counterparts, the continually rising demand for meat in the U.S. has begun to outpace worker processing capacity as employees leave. Annual turnover rates at meat processing plants average 40% to 70% while other manufacturers experience a 31% average turnover rate, according to data from the Boston Consulting Group cited by The Wall Street Journal.
The need for automated labor was apparent even before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the pandemic infected more than 17,000 workers in April and May, causing labor shortages and factory shutdowns. The question of worker safety also lingers as plants begin to reopen. Massive meat plants are not designed for social distancing so it is challenging to keep workers apart. And even though unions are insisting people wear gloves and face masks or shields, it can be tricky because plants are cool and protective equipment can fog up.
Automation has the potential to produce safer working conditions for employees, although unions are no doubt closely watching to make sure this is the real reason robots are employed and not to save money if jobs are lost. With more machines performing work that is currently done by hand, companies could stagger entry time, slow production and provide more protection for humans.
The pandemic may be the catalyst that pushes animal protein companies to successfully implement robotics into meatpacking. In 2017, almost a third of food processing and 94% of packaging operations surveyed by the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies said they were using robotics and planned to incorporate more in the future. This interest was confirmed by Global Markets Insights, which showed the robot packaging market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 12% and will exceed $650 million worldwide by 2023.
After opening its Manufacturing Automation Center last year, Tyson rolled out a mechanical system in many of its chicken plants that is able to carve chicken breasts more precisely than a human using a water jet cutting system. There is still development needed to teach machines to accommodate for the differences in meat coloration, shape and texture. However, once the technology is capable it is likely that automation will become as widespread as it is in many other industries, including automotive, canning and packaging.