Automating will boost small to medium meat processors


Food & Beverage Industry News spoke with engineering consultancy company, NIRAS, which provides expert knowledge and global insights into the challenges the meat industry currently has to overcome.

Small and medium processors in the meat industry are confronted by many challenges which currently include attraction and retention of staff, safety, and cost competitiveness against increasing automated larger producers and processors.

Knowledge consultancy group, NIRAS, has valuable global insight and local understanding of the challenges facing the meat production industry and their impacts on product output and cost competitiveness.

NIRAS market leader, Food & Fibre, Glenn Jacobsen, said the meat industry had undergone minimal automation and operational changes in his three decades in the industry, especially when compared to other manufacturing sectors, placing small and medium manufacturers at risk of increasing pressure from their larger competitors.

“It’s one of those things where when you look at all other areas of manufacturing, and the step changes that have occurred in the last 30 years in industries such as clean manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, electronics, even other FMCG, and then you go into small to medium businesses and they are dark cold rooms with guys in thermal jackets manually palletising product and it’s amazing to see how nothing has changed in such a long time,” said Jacobsen.

The meat industry has undergone minimal automation changes.

While larger players are investing in material handling, labour saving and safety improvements such as automated palletisation, carton handling systems, and buffering systems, like a multi-shuttle or ASRS systems, smaller producers, with limited resources, struggle with capitalisation, however NIRAS are seeing a tipping point where these small producers are no longer competitive due to lack of labour and the inefficiency of non-automation.

Price of entry to automated solutions has decreased significantly in recent history and can for example reduce pallet handling costs anything from $70 per pallet down to $10-12 per pallet.

It is also increasingly challenging to find and retain labour to service material handling areas let alone remain competitive.

“More than 80 per cent of the companies we have spoken to in the industry have highlighted staffing as a major issue,” said Jacobsen.

“To be frank, those backend areas like carton loadouts, and palletising are the hardest areas to work in the meat industry with cold environments and the heaviest lifting. We also saw within that area there was a significant high instance of near misses in terms of work cover and time lost.”

This investment can be confronting given the relative technical complexity, and shortage of quality independent advice available, however NIRAS are working with industry and industry groups to find cost effective and staged solutions to start small to medium producers on the technology trail.

There are significant opportunities to looking at incremental solutions like exoskeletal suits, and site automation around lifting as very few small processors can afford to invest in fully automated solutions.

The difficulty in attracting and retaining a dedicated workforce demonstrates the essential nature of adopting more automation just to survive.

The red meat industry has reached a threshold, which sees the small and medium enterprises having to make big decisions to survive and thrive going forward.

Realistically one of the major hurdles to automation in the meat processing industry is the lack of uniformity, by its nature, which puts it at odds with many other industries where product is far more uniform.

“The difference from most other manufacturing is you take a whole lot of components and assemble them into a single product, so you end up with a consistent stream of products at the backend of the process, because you might be doing a thousand boxes of one product before moving to product B, product C, and so on, and the process is set up to cope with that” said Jacobsen.

“Whereas meat processing is very different. You have a component you bring into the process and breakdown into a series of smaller ones, so what you then have coming out of the processing area is this randomness that is unlike most other industries.

“You have randomness of products coming into the carton handling area so where that becomes difficult for a small to medium processor is that investment to automate is substantial. Effective automation requires consistency and repetition.”

The challenge from an industry perspective is how to get effective solutions for small to medium players. It is estimated that the majority of smaller operators are nowhere near positioned to be able to invest in automating the backend of the process.

Many smaller producers and manufacturers have already been acquired recently by larger Companies and NIRAS expects that trend to continue.

Everything from the production process to logistical capabilities will require changes in order to keep up with the larger competitors and NIRAS is a company which is helping those clients come up with affordable, and viable, solutions.

“When we actually look at the whole logistics and distribution equation, the small guys will continue to struggle, and we will probably see more businesses start sorting and storing off site,” said Jacobsen.

“I think there is opportunity for businesses to take away that risk for them, randomly palletise their product and it goes to a third-party provider who will sort, palletise, handle, store, and distribute. Some of the main issues these sites are having around staffing shortages, truck drivers, delivery windows, loading containers, it’s massive and is incredible how much of a cost it has on the business while not adding any appreciable value.”

These investments have quickly become a necessity, rather than a choice, as the gulf between small and medium producers and the larger ones is increasing daily.

There have been two fundamental shifts from a technology provider perspective, we have seen other FMGC sectors being busier than ever and we have seen massive investments in large scale warehouses, both placing tremendous demand on the technology providers.

This has saturated the technology suppliers and allowed them to be very selective in regards project portfolios, and reduced tendering competition, with technology providers focused on the larger producers and accounts.

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