- Tyson Foods has opened the Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center near its headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas. The facility will develop automated and robotic solutions for the meat packer's food production plants, according to a press release.
- Engineers at the facility are working to create robots that will do jobs that may be physically demanding, highly repetitive or dangerous. It would also help with any shortages of human labor.
- Tyson said it has invested more than $215 million in automation and robotics during the past five years.
As global demand for protein rises, meat packers across the country are struggling to keep pace with production. Meat processing is a career that is generally unpopular among middle-class Americans, and a meaningful portion of the U.S. agricultural workforce consists of undocumented workers. Just this week, U.S. immigration officials raided several chicken processing plants in Mississippi, detaining nearly 700 people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Beyond immigration, there are concerns in meatpacking plants regarding safety and the speed demand that accompanies these jobs. Machines have not always been equipped to replace these tasks. Historically, humans have been employed to perform more complicated tasks such as fish filleting and removing gristle, as the work was too delicate for machines to do. Furthermore, due to risks associated with bacteria, it has been difficult for robots to withstand the continuous washing and sanitizing required in a meatpacking plant.
However, that is changing. Some robots are being built to withstand washing and are becoming more sensitive to nuances like detecting defects and ripeness to complete more delicate tasks. In fact, robotics are advancing so quickly, they are becoming commonplace in many areas of the food chain.
According to Global Markets Insights, the robot packaging market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 12% and will exceed $650 million worldwide by 2023. High-tech greenhouses already make up about 10% of the total market and cities like Cincinnati are looking to introduce fully automated farms into urban areas.
Still, meatpacking is not farming and some parts of butchering has to do with touch as well as sight, so fully replacing the human workforce isn't practical. But Tyson isn't the only company betting that robots will play a bigger role in the future. Already the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS, has been investing in robotics.
Robotics might be necessary as global demand for meat increases and manufacturers require speed in order to keep pace with demand. To get the machines to the point when they are able to replace the human workforce is going to take time, research and money.