Labor shortage advances automation

US processors looking at automated breast filleting opportunities


Technological advancements in automated deboning machinery and a growing labor shortage may push US processors from manual to automatic deboning. Larry Campbell and Simon Langhorn talk about Marel's solutions to these issues.

Source: Wattagnet

Compared to human labor, automated deboning devices are becoming considerably more competitive. Particularly their performance consistency and endurance are cost-effective. At the moment, Marel Poultry has its AMF-i and FHF-XB breast filleting systems available that can cut labor needs by 50 percent. It could change the way US processors staff and equip their plants.

Tough labor

There are two obvious reasons for progressive automation in the poultry plant: increasingly challenging labor markets and steadily advancing technology. Working in a poultry plant is found to be tough and employee turnover is high. This, along with a stronger economy offering jobs that are more attractive and governments’ attitude towards immigrated workers, makes it more difficult for processors to find workforce.

Reasons to switch

Poultry plants are steadily becoming more automated to increase capacities and throughput while reducing labor. Now, one of the greatest opportunities for advanced automation lies in deboning.  Historically, US poultry processors relied on manual deboning to achieve the highest possible yield. Thanks to the strong labor pool, this worked out fine for decades. However, the current labor market and the technological advancements may be reasons for processors to switch to automatic.

Intelligent machines

Marel's breast filleting solutions are able to measure each bird and then adjust the processing modules to perform the most effective operations. In the old days, the first deboning systems were mechanically set to cut all products in the line identically. As product size varied largely, this resulted in inconsistent performance and yield. A modern system such as Marel Poultry’s AMF-i uses an intelligent method to assess the size of the broiler and then software determines how the system should be adjusted for the best yield.

Yield and consistency

A Marel automated deboning line can significantly reduce labor needs, with better long-term performance. In terms of consistency, machines outperform human labor.

“A machine does its job much more consistently,” said Larry Campbell, Marel vice president of poultry sales for North America. “It comes to work every day and does the same work every day, every hour, regardless of the environment or the time of day, without getting tired.”
Over a short period, a skilled worker would perhaps perform the same as a machine, but in the long run, the machine will bring similar and more consistent yield without having to replace and retrain workers.

As for quality control, this can be done automatically too. The rework, however, is still a manual job. “With IRIS, we offer an automated vision grading solution that can detect quality issues with products, but up to now, there is no robot that can trim off fat like a human worker can do almost intuitively.”

Mechanical and manual

Poultry processors who are reluctant to adopt full automation may consider implementing a hybrid system that combines manual and automatic breast filleting. Simon Langhorn, Key Account Manager for Marel Poultry, said, “Some of our customers are opting to split deboning between mechanical and manual. This way, operators can save on machinery costs and maintain a higher yield than a fully mechanical operation. Assigning a portion of the work to a machine can be the difference between running the plant five days a week versus six or seven, which can help retain workers who otherwise couldn’t work those extra hours.”

Increased market demand

Developments in the labor market and technical progress are pushing processors towards more automation. They are constantly dealing with labor issues and cry out for ways to reduce the need for manpower. That’s why there’s a big interest in automated deboning systems in the US at the moment.

According to Simon Langhorn, the vast majority of US processors still use manual filleting lines. Over the past two years, however, market demand for automated deboning has increased considerably. “It’s going to be a situation where we’ve got to automate everything. The more automation we can come up with and develop, it’s going to be better for our customers,” Simon Langhorn said. “In Europe, processors debone almost 100 percent mechanically… because they just can’t get the labor. I think eventually the US will go that way too. It may take five years, it may be ten years, but it’s definitely trending in that direction.”

Marel’s solutions:

FHF-XB front half deboning system
FHF-XB is a modular overhead conveyor system which debones ‘football’ birds and front halves. It can produce a wide range of skinless or skin-on breast fillet products both with and without back meat attached, as well as ‘Kiev’ products, where the first wing joint remains attached to the breast fillet portion.
FHF-XB carries out all operations automatically. The only manual operations are loading front halves onto the system and removing loosened tenderloins from the carcass.

AMF-i breast cap filleting system
AMF debones breast caps (the breast shell with the back removed), which are semi-automatically loaded onto the product holders.
AMF-i features a measurement unit, which establishes the breast cap size automatically. The modules downstream adjust themselves accordingly for product variance.
After various cutting and deskinning operations, breast meat is automatically loosened from the bone. Finally, breast fillets and tenders are harvested by hand.

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