Automation company in prime position to take its cut of the beef boom

The keen interest from the Chinese marketplace in Australian beef has disrupted the Australian meat processing industry in more ways than one. Aside from the controversial purchasing of meat processing plants by Chinese investors, there is also the demand for huge quantities of Australian beef to feed China’s growing middle classes.

Industrial Conveying Australia (ICA) General Manager Bruce Granger said that the growing demand for Australian beef underscores the reason many in the meat processing sector were turning to automation.

“Recently we manufactured a system for a family owned and run abattoir who are seeking out opportunities in the global export market. There were two main drivers for the upgrade: meeting the biosecurity requirements for a Tier 2 export licence and increasing throughput to meet demand from the international marketplace.

“Its previous operating system relied solely on manual handling and as a result they were unable to meet the benchmarks required to export large volumes of beef overseas. It simply wasn’t possible to achieve the volume of output required.”

The challenge put to Bendigo based ICA was to manufacture a system that would significantly reduce manual handling, increase efficiency and ensure world’s best practice food safety standards were met. To meet the requirements for a Tier 2 export licence a number of stringent tests and inspections are carried out onsite by the industry governing body, and the new system had to be built with this is mind. It is particularly important to avoid contamination of raw meat, something that can easily happen when manual handling is involved.

“Biosecurity issues around food are huge and that makes Australia a desirable food source. Not only do these markets – particularly China – want clean, safe food, but they want a lot of it and they want it now,” Granger said.

He noted the growing demand for paddock to plate identification was also a consideration when designing for the meat processing sector.

“The food safety technology industry has advocated for greater traceability throughout the supply chain and automation aids this process,” he said.

In this case, the ICA designed equipment is split between the boning room and packing room. The boning room system delivers empty cartons to where the meat is processed into various cuts. The meat comes in on hanging rails as full beasts, with workers stationed on the outside of the rails manually breaking the beasts into different cuts. The cuts are placed onto the table (designed by ICA) and the boning staff then slice these pieces down into smaller bulk cuts.

The meat on the cutting tables is divided into three sections: bulk cuts of meat, good meat trim and waste trim. For example, on a full porterhouse there will be the porterhouse cut itself, a portion of trim that is good meat and a portion that is purely fat and waste. The bulk cuts of meat (such as the porterhouse) are packed into cartons which travel down the conveyor system to be packed and sent to butchers.

The tables have holes with chutes and conveyors positioned underneath to catch the trim. The boner will drop the good meat trim down one chute and the waste trim down the other. The conveyors at the bottom of the chute manoeuvre the trim to where it needs to go – good meat trim is packed for mince or similar and waste trim is disposed of.

Before this system was integrated, the staff would start work an hour earlier to stack boxes and pallets etc. This is no longer required because there are staff upstairs stacking the boxes to go in the chutes and it goes down into the conveyor system efficiently.

The possibility of a small abattoir competing with large scale meat and smallgoods manufacturers by integrating elements of automation into its operations is a testament to the technology and engineering designed by ICA.

“Previously this client relied solely on manual handling. It can be daunting for small manufacturers to invest in automation for the first time, so we designed a system within the budget and specifications provided to us that can be enhanced in the future, Granger said.

“Even without a full turnkey system this abattoir will reduce biosecurity hazards and increase throughput. This will enable them to achieve a Tier 2 export licence and meet export demand while saving money on raw materials and labour.”

Granger added that the demand for Australian beef will only grow as a result of the free trade agreement.

“We deal with many clients in the food processing sector – particularly meat and dairy. We believe these sectors will benefit significantly from the FTA. Conditions have never been better for these markets than they are now. We encourage producers who haven’t already done so to invest in automation to build their production capacity and position themselves as a supplier of choice over the next decade.”

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