Opinion

Automation to help meet demand for alternative proteins

By Lee Coffey

- Last updated on GMT

Coffey: 'Many companies are finding that automation and information solutions are now essential components for them to achieve their desired outcomes'
Coffey: 'Many companies are finding that automation and information solutions are now essential components for them to achieve their desired outcomes'

Related tags: plant-based, IoT, Industry 4.0

With demand for alternative proteins on the rise, employing automation and digital solutions are key to keeping up argues Rockwell Automation strategic marketing manager Lee Coffey.

Why alternative protein? 

The alternative protein market is booming, and for good reason. Many consumers and investors are attracted to plant-based meat due to its more sustainable and green profile.  

Some even believe it holds the ability to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions. Other consumers are driven by its health benefits and reduced saturated fat content. 

As consumers gravitate toward alternative proteins, we’re seeing a rise in new start-ups as well as traditional meat processing companies beginning to expand their capabilities and portfolio to capture some of this growth.  

During this process, many companies are finding that automation and information solutions are now essential components for them to achieve their desired outcomes.  

How does automation tie in? 

Leading CPG manufacturers recognize the impact that automation can have on their operation – from product consistency, safety and traceability, to cost savings and the necessary flexibility to keep up with changing global consumer demands.  

However, plant-based meat companies can especially benefit from automation because of the challenges that are unique to them.  

A key difference between traditional meat processing and plant-based is the number of ingredients used. Plant-based meats typically require binding agents, texturizers and stabilizers to mimic the taste, texture and appearance of traditional protein.  

As traditional meat processors make the jump into plant-based meats, their day-to-day responsibilities will expand to now also include ingredient procurement, storage, handling and batching.  

Automation solutions like a manufacturing execution system (MES) can provide the necessary visibility to meet front-end ingredient requirements by building in ingredient tracking, tracing, quality and recipe management. 

Also, as more companies utilize the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology to connect assets throughout their organization, they’re able to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.  

These high-powered algorithms can enable better, more informed, real-time decision-making to improve yield, productivity and quality. 

Lastly, alternative protein companies are finding that automation and information solutions provide the tools to reduce cost to a point that allows for a closer price parity with traditional meat – a declared goal by many plant-based meat companies.  

What makes alternative protein manufacturing different? 

A striking difference between plant-based meat versus traditional meat is the process.  

Traditional meat processing has long been a labour-intensive process with many employees placed in close proximity, working to disassemble a carcass down into primal and subprimal cuts.  

Conversely, plant-based meat manufacturing is done via a building-up/assembly process, usually with fewer employees and more automation to help ensure precise batch management and process control to achieve and deliver manufacturing consistency.  

Another difference is that, for traditional meat processors, each animal has a unique shape, size, and weight. This can make it more challenging to implement with automation, but technologies such as machine vision and robotics are emerging that allow processors to overcome this obstacle.  

While plant-based meat manufacturing does not have to worry about non-uniform sizes, they do have more ingredients to procure, store and optimize. 

Are there any benefits to alternative protein manufacturing versus traditional? 

With a long and complex supply chain, traditional meat processing can be expensive and take time. Even before an animal arrives at a processing facility there are many parties involved including farmers/ranchers, feedlots, veterinarians, and more – all which take a cut along the way.  

There is also a risk of livestock disease, which can decimate supply and, drive up cost. If managed effectively, plant-based meat companies may actually achieve a cost advantage over traditional meat in the long run.  

Also, as the traditional meat industry matured, it has undergone significant consolidation. This has resulted in fewer companies producing a larger share of the overall meat supply, which could increase risk to consumers if a plant or company suddenly were to halt operations as was seen with early shutdowns caused by the pandemic.  

By comparison, the alternative protein industry is seeing new start-ups and rapid investments around the world, resulting in more companies and a more evenly distributed supply across the industry.  

Related topics: Industry 4.0

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