Lean machines

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Meat processors, Tray

Tough times for meat processors mean that the industry has been going through a prolonged period of consolidation. But as businesses merge, that...

Tough times for meat processors mean that the industry has been going through a prolonged period of consolidation. But as businesses merge, that doesn't always mean that bigger is better when it comes to manufacturing facilities.

"Consolidation is a long-term trend in the industry and it's a continuing one," says Philip Hambling, food policy manager with the British Meat Processors Association. "We've been seeing fewer companies and fewer sites, but I think we might be on the cusp of a slight change. I think what we might see is a continuation of consolidation in terms of businesses, but instead of consolidating their facilities, we'll see smaller or medium sites spread around."

According to Hamblin, the reason for this change is economics. Even though farmers are currently benefiting from higher prices, a lack of confidence in the longer-term future is still seeing them leave the livestock business in droves. Hamblin believes that sourcing animals reliably on the scale needed to sustain a giant processing plant could become increasingly difficult: "Maintaining very large sites can be expensive unless you can maintain very high throughputs."

But whether they are big businesses or small, meat processors are all feeling the pressure to work faster and reduce costs by becoming more productive. For many of them, increasing automation is the answer.

Automated solutions

According to Terry Starkey, marketing consultant with Marel Food Systems' subsidiary equipment supplier AEW Delford, almost every scale of facility can benefit from some degree of automation. AEW Delford supplies fully integrated processing and packing lines for high-throughput operations, as well as standalone machines. "You need to be a big processor to benefit from one of the integrated lines, but smaller firms can benefit from smaller combinations of machinery."

The most obvious benefits typically come about in two ways. The first is reduced staffing on the automated lines. "Anywhere they can get rid of labour they are doing it," says Robert Reiser, general manager of Reiser UK, which sells several different brands of processing and packaging equipment. Even so, he believes that processors can make equally big gains in another way. "Labour gets a lot more attention, but giveaway tends to be where you can get the really large savings. If you're processing 90 trays per minute of mince, the difference between 500g and 501g or 504g in each tray can add up to hundreds of thousands of pounds per year."

Marel is one of the biggest equipment suppliers around and points to two recent projects to highlight the potential benefits.

Norwich-based poultry producer Crown Chicken managed to save, both in manpower and giveaway, when it installed a RoboBatcher system from Marel. By using the robot to pick chicken fillets and drumsticks, the company upped production by 40% while using the same number of operators and cut the level of giveaway by more than half. In fact, the payback based on giveaway alone was estimated at between 90 and 100 weeks, but the efficiency savings mean that the actual figure is much lower.

"Going from manual to robotic packing has been crucial in our strategy to move from being primarily a wholesale supplier to becoming a retail supplier," says commercial manager for Crown Chicken, Dennis Manley. "Our throughput has increased and the flexibility provided by the robot enables us to respond to the challenge that our customers put to us to produce accurate fixed weight portions in smaller series."

In another example, Cranswick Country Foods used to have between six and eight people on pork steak packing duties. All but two of them have now been redeployed since the introduction of an OptiCut high-precision cutting and packing system from Marel, which has also improved giveaway and yield. The yield improvement is enabled by a built-in feedback system that constantly checks the weight of the emerging steaks and adjusts the cutting to ensure the best results.

The automated system has also eliminated a problem of tray leakage, according to Cranswick retail manager Jonathan Healy: "With the old horizontal slicer the meat was cut onto a conveyor and then gloved operatives picked the steaks up and packed them into trays ready for sealing. The problem was that, although the operatives had new gloves every day, during the handling process the proteins and fats would build up on their gloves and eventually contaminate the sealing part of the tray. Now the OptiCut packs the steaks into trays without the need for human handling, so our leakage has virtually disappeared."

Ishida Europe is another big player in equipment, and in October it announced the successful completion of a massive automation project in Spain. The deal involved the installation of three packing lines for Spanish meat producer, Embutidos F Martínez. Ishida built and supplied almost all of the equipment for the lines, as well as providing project management and integration services.

The new lines have eliminated all human handling from the packing of minced meat, as well as maximising speed and efficiency. From insertion of the meat into trays to placing the sealed trays into pallet-ready cases, the lines are achieving a total capacity of over 72,000kg of packed product per shift, supplying national retailer Mercadona.

Integration played a crucial role in maximising the efficiency of the different operations, which include de-nesting, tray sealing, labelling, metal detection, seal testing, label reading and 'pick-and-place' packing into Eurocrates.

Embutidos F Martínez set project objectives of 100 packs per minute (ppm) for its 400g pack and 80ppm for its 1kg pack, which were impossible when the company was weighing and packing the sticky meat by hand. "Much of the equipment is capable of considerably higher speeds," says plant manager José Luis Temprado Pérez. "The limiting factor is currently the rate at which the meat can be extruded."

The other big benefit of high-speed processing is an increase in shelf-life once the mince hits the supermarket shelves. With the new systems, it takes just 15 minutes to get a batch into crates of 1kg packs. The product is held at -1°C until it is protected by a modified atmosphere, after which it is maintained at below 4°C. This is instrumental in the product reaching the supermarket with a nine-day shelf-life.

Even though the advantages look tempting, full automation will not suit every business. First, finding the money to invest up front may be an issue, and that has certainly been the case in recent months. "The big guys have had to keep investing, but even they tell me they're shortening their payback times," says Reiser. "Small companies are now starting to invest again, but 18 months ago they weren't even investing in parts and spares."

Knowledge gap

The second issue is a lack of knowledge and experience in a naturally conservative industry. "Unless they have a supplier that can provide a complete solution, customers will be nervous about being able to implement and run an integrated line," says Torsten Giese, marketing manager for Ishida Europe.

Some companies are also nervous about the disastrous consequences if something goes wrong. If a person goes off sick, other members of the team can cover, but if a high-speed inspection machine malfunctions, the entire operation can come to a grinding halt because the people who would previously have carried out the checks simply won't be there. "If a person doesn't turn up for work you can get round it by everyone mucking in, but you can't do that with a machine. So companies need high reliability and performance guarantees from the supplier," says Giese.

This can push companies to look for a one-stop shop, so they know who to turn to if anything goes wrong. "If companies are taking the risk they want one supplier to carry the risk for performance. They might split the line into processing and packaging sections, but if they use separate suppliers for each then they'll want them to co-operate. The other option is to hire a project management company. They don't provide machinery but supply the expertise. Of course, it costs more money because you're bringing in a third party," says Giese.

Most firms will ultimately find that there is a balance to be struck between automation and the human touch. "Now more companies offer automation there's a comfort zone established you can always go for partial automation and redeploy people to less mindless jobs," he says. "People are far more flexible than machines, but then machines don't catch swine flu or have a smoking break." FM

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