Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) the public body created to improve the efficiency and profitability of the meat sector in Scotland and the Scottish government are funding the research, which could result in a robotic arm similar to those used in car factories.
The machine will enable processors to test for parameters such as pH, temperature, carcass fat, meat colour, and nutrition as the meat is being processed, said Andy McGowan, head of industry development at QMS.
Although much of the testing equipment has previously been used in laboratories, the Integrated Measurement of Eating Quality project is the first to combine the various pieces into one automated robot capable of working in a commercial abattoir.
"The food industry has been slow to adopt robotics, so we're playing catch-up. There is a similar testing system used in Australia but it is labour intensive. We're looking to leapfrog that," he explained.
The robot will help firms decide which carcasses are high-quality and which need further processing at an early stage. It could also be used in other sectors. For example, the quality of fish could be determined though a simple recalibration of the testing instruments, McGowan said.
Early sorting will allow processors to increase production efficiency and squeeze maximum value out of products going through the facility potentially generating an extra £5M for processors, based on current throughput, McGowan said. He added that producers that provided the better products could also automatically be paid a bonus based on the tests: an incentive for the best ones to continue working with the processor.
Previously, the only way to accurately judge carcass quality was through taste panels or a series of laboratory tests, which was costly and time-consuming. "Plus, once the panellists have eaten the meat, you can't sell it," McGowan added.
The Scottish Agricultural College is leading the consortium carrying out the three-year research project, which is in its second year and is scheduled for completion in March 2013. The machinery is currently being tested at a Scotbeef slaughterhouse in Stirling, Scotland.
Commercialisation following the completion of the research should be rapid, McGowan predicted. The robotic arm is modular, enabling the consortium to roll out components that are ready while continuing to work on the more complex parts.
The modular nature also gives the robot access to a larger sales base. The entire machine requires a significant amount of space and is likely to cost upwards of six figures but processors with less space or money could use individual components, McGowan said.
Meanwhile, don't miss our free video debate on robotics at the Foodex trade exhibition. The live debate, Food industry robotics: the opportunity up for grabs, will be filmed at 12.30pm on Tuesday March 27 at the National Exhibition Center, Birmingham. Watch out for more details.