British Meat Processors Association
British Meat Processors Association
Robots in a factory

Meat Industry 2.0: How automation will play a part

The first speaker at BMPA’s annual conference, Hildur Einarsdottir from Marel, offered a glimpse of how automation, robotics and AI could provide solutions to the workforce and productivity issues. She said that, while the poultry and fish industries are ahead of pork and beef sectors in their adoption of this new technology, the UK in general is somewhat behind the curve compared to our international competitors. 

In conversation afterwards, she explained that this could be due to the willingness of different governments to subsidise the take-up of new technology. As an example, the Australian and New Zealand Governments have committed funding to help meat processors install cutting edge visualisation technology that would be financially out of reach of individual companies. 

Another quirk of the UK meat industry is that short term contracts with the big retail customers creates an environment of uncertainty, and disincentivises companies to commit to investments that require a longer time horizon to see returns. 

But the landscape for investment is different in the UK. Providing further insight, Nick Allen, CEO of BMPA added: “For transformative technology development to be viable, particularly in the meat industry, it has to happen first at scale in much larger production plants than we have in the UK. Only then can it be adapted and commercialised to work in smaller-scale operations. That’s why much of the current funding of meat plant automation is happening in countries like Australia, America, Canada and Germany where a single plant’s weekly output can be equivalent to the entire output of the whole UK industry.

“The British meat industry will certainly benefit from new technology, but it’s likely to happen in a second wave after the initial capital-intensive development has taken place. This is one of the reasons that BMPA has been pushing for immigration rules to be adapted to take into account the medium-term need for overseas workers to fill vacancies in meat processing that can’t be filled by UK workers and can’t yet be replaced by automation.”

Technology adoption curve

Marel see a technology adoption curve which starts with logistics, moves on to automation then adds a layer of software and AI intelligence to enhance processes and maximise yields. Hildur’s view is that Poultry has completed the logistics stage and can now focus on automation, but many red meat companies are still on the logistics journey.

There are still challenges to automating parts of the production process, particularly the difficulties surrounding robotic deboning which is still slow, low throughput, high cost and high maintenance. However, computer vision and AI is being successfully integrated into the process, as are ‘cobots’ (robots which are mobile, moveable and can safely work cooperatively alongside humans). They are increasingly filling gaps in the production line.

Perhaps the biggest leap forward for meat processing will be seen with the introduction of AI. While still in the very early stages, current experiments going on in the US are pointing to a potential 9% reduction in the number of animals needed to achieve the same yield and output as now. This will be achieved through the ability to collect and process vast amounts of data across the supply chain from fat/water/salt content, staff availability, carcass size, bone placement, grade through to the status of production orders.

The race is on to modernise and evolve. Wherever our members are on their technology journey, BMPA will continue to engage with the companies at the cutting edge of this field and with the government policy makers, ministers and civil servants who have the power to create a fertile environment for the industry to evolve.

Members can view Hildur’s presentation here.

About BMPA

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) is the leading trade association for the meat and meat products industry in the UK.

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