Fish and seafood processing in focus: Joined up thinking

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Fish and seafood processing in focus: Joined up thinking

Related tags: Seafood, Automation, Fish

The drastic depletion of fish stocks means that manufacturers must find new ways to maximise processing efficiency. John Dunn reports

According to a report from think-tank The New Economics Foundation, Europe cannot feed itself on fish caught from EU waters for more than 189 days a year. If we had started out this year eating only EU fish stocks, then we would have run out on July 8.

Worse, the rest of world is running out of fish, too. Experts have suggested that global populations of all large fish such as cod, halibut and tuna, are down by at least 90% compared with 100 years ago.

Fish is becoming a precious commodity, says John Graham, business development manager at Systems Integration, which supplies its Integreater system to processors to help them improve eficiency. "It is as expensive as meat now." The result, he says, is that seafood processors are increasingly looking to automate and thus maximise their yields, increase efficiency and minimise give-away. Also, the EU is now implementing regulations requiring more traceability for fish products, says Graham, so there is additional pressure on seafood companies to ensure their information systems are 'joined up'.

As an example of this, Systems Integration has been working with a major UK seafood processing company to implement new systems for weighing, labelling and maintaining the traceability of raw fish through to retail packs primarily packs of salmon. (According to Seafish in Grimsby, the UK's seafood authority, the most popular fish in retail is salmon. We spend nearly £600M a year on it.)

"Initially they called us in to look at end-of-line weighing and labelling," says Graham. "They wanted faster labelling, ease of product selection, and the linking of traceability and date information with the outer case label."

Systems Integration supplied outer case marker (OCM) units with touch-screen terminals coupled with a printer for producing the outer case label. The system displays real-time information on the product going through packs per minute, packs per line. "They are getting information for their key performance indicators and their overall equipment effectiveness (OEE)," says Graham. Integreater also allows the company to identify who was working at a touch screen at the time or working a scale at the time. "There is more accountability now," says Graham.

The OCM units have now been linked to the retail weigh-price labellers so that the chances of getting the price wrong or the date wrong have been reduced, says Graham. Currently, Systems Integration is implementing a purchase order system for the client so that buyers can raise purchase orders and associate them against traceability information.

Joined up information

"It's all about joining up information," says Graham. "It's about being able to manage information through the system from one process to the next without operators having to re-key information."

According to Michaela Archer, research and development manager at Seafish, most seafood companies are focused on getting the maximum yield. But the industry, she says, is a real mix of manual processing and automation. "You've still got your traditional filleters at fillet benches as well as companies that are doing high-volume production using much more mechanised processes."

There used to be a trade-off between automation and quality, she suggests. "With manual processes you would get a better product, but the trade-off was lack of speed and throughput. However, there is now some very good equipment that can produce a very good product. The machines have improved so much that the mechanised processes are now as close as you can get to the manual process. There is now only a very small trade-off on certain products such as prawns."

Torsten Giese, marketing manager for Ishida Europe, says levels of automation are increasing. For example, more seafood can now be automatically weighed. "We can now weigh sticky products, ie marinated seafoods or anything with a sauce. And we can now automatically weigh fragile products such as prawns in their shell without breaking off their antenna or the shell body. That's important for their appeal in a supermarket."

Today, a lot more seafood is packed by fixed weight and in smaller portions, says Giese. This lends itself to automated weighing and the use of multi-head weighers instead of graders, he says. Another trend is the increased use of computer systems to improve efficiency and reduce downtime. "We can do this by using a check weigher. We connect the check weigher to the data capture system and it gives the customer full control because they can see how many packs are rejected; how many are good packs; how many packs are reaching the final packing stage; and what is the actual average speed. From that you can determine what is the OEE."

For many seafood firms, the first step on the road to automation should be to automate the weighing system, says Giese. "You can easily win here you can reduce give-away, reduce labour costs, increase consistency. Then once you have achieved this you can then start looking at the packing side. Packaging machines now are mostly fully automatic.

"OK, so I am now weighing and packing automatically, but I still need 20 people to put the product into cases. How can I automate this?" Giese's answer is to invest in automated palletising and case packing. But he has one word of warning. If do you automate your case packing, you will also need to automate your end-of-line quality assurance (QA) system as well. Don't forget, he says, that those 20 people were your final quality check. They would spot a label with the wrong sell-by date or the wrong product name. If you automate them out of a job, who or what is going to do that final QA check?

Factory of the future

So assuming there are still fish to fry in a few years' time, what will the seafood processing factory of the future look like? Kristinn Andersen, manager of research and technical development at Marel Food systems in Iceland, believes four technologies will dominate.

"Number one is superchilling. Superchilling is a new method for processing fish fillets in which we can cool the core of the fish down below zero without freezing them. This gives the fillets more strength as you process them. When you de-skin the fillets they won't tear as easily as they would before. And they retain the cold temperature longer. So basically you don't need so much ice, or you can pack them without ice." In superchilling, the fillets first pass through a cooling tank containing weak brine for seven to eight minutes. This chills them down to -1.5°C without freezing them. The liquid inside the fillets semi-freezes without damage from ice crystal formation. The fillets then pass through the Marel SuperChiller for eight to 10 minutes where they are cooled down further.

Technology number two is the ability to detect tiny fish bones with X-ray technology, according to Andersen. "We have a new machine, the SensorX, that can scan fish fillets and detect fish bones down to around 0.5mm, quickly and in real time." Fillets pass through the X-ray system and if it finds a bone, a 'flipper' at the end of the machine discharges that section of the fish on to a different conveyor. The conveyor goes back to the processing line where the bones are taken out manually, says Andersen.

"The third technology is the intelligent trimming machine (ITM). There is a stripe of fat and fins along the boundaries of a salmon fillet that is trimmed away manually. Now we have a machine that can do that. It has a camera that takes a picture of each fillet as it enters and recognises where it has to cut to get this strip of fat away. And it trims each fillet individually." Marel says the ITM can increase yields by 11.5% and cut labour costs.

The final piece of technology that is set to shape the future of seafood processing, according to Andersen, is software. "A fish factory typically has weighing machines, a conveyor system, portioning systems, X-ray machines and so on all across the factory floor. We have developed Innova a software system that links each of these machines to a computer in the supervisor's office. The computer accumulates all the data from each machine so that Innova can display at any time how much throughput has gone through the factory; how much has been processed in this line or that line; plus the quality information and statistics."

The colour purple

So assuming we will continue to have fish to eat, how do we get kids to eat it? "Ugh. Don't like the smell. Ugh. Doesn't taste nice." Researchers in Norway believe they have an answer. Colour it purple.

In tests on 75 kids, researchers at Norfima, the Norwegian aquaculture research centre, offered them a choice of a fish pudding made from minced Saithe and a similar one that had been coloured purple with blackcurrant. The kids went for the purple pudding, despite it tasting the same as the white pudding. The scientists are now looking at fish burgers made from Saithe. But they don't say what colour they might be! FM


  • Cabin Plant - 00 45 24290570
  • Ishida Europe -0121 607 7700
  • Marel Food Systems UK - 0844 499 3111
  • Norfima - 0047 77 62 9000
  • Seafish - 01472 252300
  • Systems Integration - 01543 444555
  • The New Eco. Foundation - 020 7820 6383

Related topics: Meat, poultry & seafood

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