- Tyson Foods' venture capital arm participated in a $10 million series B funding extension for Soft Robotics, a provider of artificial intelligence-enabled robotic automation for food processing. The round was co-led by Material Impact, Scale Venture Partners and Calibrate Ventures. ABB Technology Ventures and Tekfen Ventures joined Tyson Ventures as additional investors.
- Soft Robotics' SoftAI technology uses AI and 3D vision to maneuver the company's mGrip robotic grippers with human-like hand-eye coordination. The technology allows the automation of bulk picking for fragile and irregularly shaped proteins, produce and bakery items, according to the company. Tyson Foods is an existing user of Soft Robotics' software.
- In addition to its funding activity, Tyson Foods has spent more than $500 million on technology and automation at its meat and poultry plants during the past three years to improve worker safety and bridge a labor gap that has grown due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The pandemic has worsened what has been a long-running labor deficit in the meat processing industry.
With up to 20% of Tyson's 120,000-member workforce not showing up on some days for a variety of reasons, automation is "one of our solutions to what we are experiencing today," Hector Gonzalez, Tyson's senior vice president of human resources, told Food Dive in a recent interview.
Most recently, Tyson has focused on refining its use of automation and robotics so it can move product more precisely. Some tasks require the ability to sort through differently shaped cuts of protein, or demand a delicate touch. According to Soft Robotics, its SoftAI software can bring the finesse of a human hand to applications as diverse as shifting chicken breast tenders to packaging soft marshmallow Peeps.
"We are continually exploring new areas in automation that can enhance safety and increase the productivity of our team members," Rahul Ray, senior director of Tyson Ventures, said in a statement. He noted the transformative potential of Soft Robotics' robotic technology, computer vision and AI platform.
Demand for Soft Robotics' automation technology has been so robust due to the ongoing labor crisis that the company said it recently experienced two of its largest sales quarters in its seven-year history.
For Tyson, the Soft Robotics technology is yet another tool in its technology toolbox. In 2019, the pork, beef and chicken processor built a manufacturing automation center near its headquarters in Arkansas to develop and test automated and robotic technologies that do everything from detecting product defects to stacking pallets.
Investing in automation is key for Tyson following a surge in protein demand by consumers as they look to have a balanced diet, satisfy hunger throughout the day and build muscle.
In the company's second-quarter earnings call, the company noted how volumes were under pressure despite surging demand for meat because of COVID-19-related production inefficiencies. Tyson's then-CEO Dean Banks pointed to high employee turnover and absenteeism.
Tyson is investing in automation and technology "to try to alleviate these more difficult and higher turnover jobs," and to reclaim some of the efficiencies and profitability it has lost, Banks said.
Other meat producers also are investing heavily in automation, including Pilgrim's Pride, the second-largest poultry producer that is majority owned by Brazilian meat giant JBS.
"We continue implementing a long-term strategy of introducing more automation in our operations to reduce operational challenges to labor and again in the future," Fabio Sandri, the CEO of Pilgrim's Pride, said in the company's first-quarter earnings call. The Colorado-based firm plans to spend more than $100 million on automation during the next year, which it believes will help it trim 5,600 positions.
Automating meat factories has long been a difficult feat because it is costly and carcasses come in varying sizes so it can be hard for robots to cut and work with all types accurately. But as the coronavirus ravaged meat plants, forcing many to temporarily shutter as thousands of workers got sick, more companies accelerated their plans for automation. Meat and poultry companies also are automating certain tasks that can be repetitious or prone to injury, such as moving or loading boxes.
Tyson's investment in Soft Robotics, and the hundreds of millions of dollars it has spent on technology and automation, is likely just the beginning as the meat and poultry giant joins other competitors in making their businesses more efficient and predictable.