Meat & Livestock News

Navigating Automation Challenges in the Meat and Poultry Industry

TL;DR: The meat and poultry processing sector faces unique challenges in adopting automation technologies, primarily due to the natural variability and complexity of its products compared to other food items. Experts from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Tyson Foods highlight the difficulties of automating tasks that require adaptability to the inherent differences in animal products, underlining the sector’s continued reliance on human labour for many processing tasks.

In the realm of food production, the meat and poultry industry stands out for its nuanced and intricate processing requirements, which have traditionally kept it at arm’s length from the full embrace of automation seen in other sectors. This distinction arises from the inherent variability of animal products, which poses significant challenges for automating processing tasks.

Dr. Konrad Ahlin from the Georgia Institute of Technology sheds light on the complexity of automating meat and poultry production. Unlike the uniformity of manufactured food items like crackers or cereals, every piece of meat — every chicken, for instance — brings slight but critical variations.

This uniqueness demands flexibility and adaptability in processing, qualities that current automation technologies struggle to meet efficiently. Consequently, much of the work in meat and poultry processing continues to be performed by human hands, reliant on the nuanced judgement and adaptability that machines have yet to replicate.

Chetan Kapoor, head of automation at Tyson Foods, echoes this sentiment, emphasising that the discussion around automation in the meat processing industry has historically centred on the processing tasks themselves, which can vary greatly in their complexity due to the nature of the materials involved. The challenge lies in the fact that most automation technologies available today are designed for repetition — performing the same task with unvarying consistency.

However, the introduction of any variability, a staple characteristic of meat and poultry products, significantly diminishes the effectiveness of these automated systems.

This perspective highlights a pivotal issue in the broader conversation about automation within the food and agriculture sector: the critical need for developing technologies that can handle the variability intrinsic to natural products. As the industry looks forward, the focus is increasingly on how to bridge this gap, seeking innovations in automation that can adapt to the diversity of meat and poultry products.

Until such advancements are realised, the sector will continue to lean heavily on the irreplaceable skills and flexibility of human labour, underscoring the unique interplay between technology and traditional practices in food processing.