Beefing up automation in the Australian Meat Industry to remain globally competitive

Modernising a meat processing plant does take time. But the rewards can be huge. Food & Beverage Industry News talks to Beca experts Rhys Davies and Ross Darbyshire.

Australian high-quality meats – especially beef – are in demand in many parts of the world, which means many abattoirs are working hard to keep up with demand.

In the past, the meat industry has been reliant on manual labour to get throughput happening, but over the past decade or so, a few of the big players – and some smaller ones – have seen the benefits of automation, especially the back end where products are packaged, chilled or frozen, sorted, palletised, picked and dispatched to customers.

Like any industry, those in this primary agricultural endeavour to look for ways to get better efficiencies, not only in labour, but also energy, cold storage and scoping out new plant and machinery.

It is also an industry that has a huge legacy in the Australian food processing landscape in terms of exports and domestic consumption, and in a lot of cases, that legacy is also tied to ageing plant and machinery.

Energy efficiency

When it comes to the energy equation, Ross Darbyshire, Queensland regional manager for engineering consultancy firm Beca, said the meat industry is ramping up its commitment to sustainable energy sourcing.

The red meat industry is driving initiative to be carbon neutral by 2030, said Darbyshire.

“The industry is looking at smarter ways to produce power. This includes solar farms and producing biogas off their waste and other materials for reuse to generate power,” he said.

“Boilers are being changed to biogas, coming from onsite treatment ponds. Capture and reuse of this biogas is offsetting use coal-fired boilers.”

Implementing smarter ways of doing things, requires a solid track record in understanding how the industry has worked at works now.

Beca specialises in helping companies develop practical solutions that are cost-effective and help with the bottom line.

Rhys Davies, who is Beca Australia’s business director, industrial, acknowledges meat industry’s plant and infrastructure in Australia is often approaching end of life and some operations have become old-fashioned as they are limited by older assets.

Notwithstanding this, the industry does have developing change momentum.

Areas of emerging change are in energy.

Quick paybacks from lowering energy consumption are being made by using Artificial Intelligence (AI) particularly in the refrigeration space.

Longer term paybacks are being achieved via investment in renewables and biogas.

“Typically, meat industry plants are of medium scale and can be challenging in terms of energy offset capital investments,” said Davies.

There are more opportunities to make savings through  operational improvements.  These are increasingly being led by the application of digital and AI technology.

Digital products like Maestro are helping our clients find efficiencies quickly with little disruption to plant and operations.

“The trick for effective implementation is a solid understanding of the traditions of the industry, where it has come from, and matching this up with the myriad technologies out there that can help the industry operate smarter, faster and leaner,” he said.

Cold storage

Being such a huge continent, and with beef, sheep and pig farms spread far and wide, it is important to get cold storage right.

Companies, especially the bigger ones, are also changing the way they operate in terms of getting food to market.

Traditionally major supermarkets have established joint venture operations with meat producers, integrating meat products in the form of primals and carcass, into their cold chain network.

This produces a variety of cold storage requirements, from carcass, large cuts in carton, and varieties of trim and other raw products. These products were then processed in supermarket, and independent butcheries.

The industry has progressed significantly over the past 20 years to now focus much more on cartonised product in various forms, including store ready products that require no further processing before selection by the consumer and presentation at the checkout.

“This change, together with aggregation of manufacturing plants, has allowed enormous improvement in the efficiency of cold storage, handling and automation.”


One of the key factors in making all these processes streamlined for the meat industry is automation.

As Davies points out, the front end of a meat works will always be labour intensive.

It is the back end that is getting all the attention in terms of automating processes, and it can be a significant investment.

“In the old days meat was once put into a 24 kilo carton, and handled three or four times before it got to the end user. Now it won’t be touched once because it is fully automated,” said Darbyshire.

“The labour at the back end has been replaced by robots and is fully automated racking.”

Beca’s expertise can come into play here as it has the depth of knowledge and experience to show companies how automation can increase efficiencies.

Both Davies and Darbyshire make no bones about the capital investment being costly, however the long-term gains – not only with regards energy efficiencies and labour costs, but in volume throughput – make the investment well worthwhile.

“The larger operations are investing in automating the meat carton in terms of handling, assembling and cold storing ready for  despatch for exportation overseas,” said Davies.

“You need the volume to support that investment, but once you are there, you are  efficient, and have enhanced your national and global competitiveness. You know where stock is, coding out is minimised, and you are maximising shelf life. The reality is having made the investment in automation it harder for others to catch up.”

Darbyshire said companies in the meat industry get what is needed to be more competitive, with Beca having tripled its workload in the arena in the past two years.

“The price per kilo for beef is currently at an all- time high. Businesses are seeing this as an opportunity to invest,” he said.

Master planning

Davies says master planning is core to Beca’s services, particularly so given the  need for a team of people with diverse skill sets to achieve positive outcomes.

“Master planning is a great thing because if you get such a plan together, anything is possible,” he said.

“But it’s not the job of just one person – it’s a case of many minds make for excellence. You need industry specialists – you need architects, structural people, utilities people, and you need people that understand building approvals plus much more.”

Another bonus when utilising virtual digital tools for master planning is that people from different parts of the country can leave comments on the plans – what they like, don’t like, adjustments that might need to be made, or other amendments.

“We can bring people together into a 3D  virtual environment. It is quite powerful,” said Davies.

“You can work with that model via personal monitors and all work together in real time with rendition of what you are doing, especially helpful during border closures. I find these master plans very exciting, allowing us to do some great things.”

Darbyshire concurs.

“Many of the meat industry sites are 50 and 60 years old so they have probably had many expansions over that time,” he said.

“They have a building that has been expanded so many times that it is a very strange set up. We come and look at it with a fresh set of eyes.

“You want a client to have an open mind and be open to challenge things. It’s about businesses being open to new ways of doing things who enjoy the biggest rewards.”

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