Robotics and advanced sensors are leading a “perfect storm of opportunity,” said Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), in a keynote presentation at Auspack’s Processing Forum today.


The Australian research organisation that services the local meat industry was presenting the case for red meat processing companies to embrace emerging technology as a means of increasing their yield and profitability.


“Automation integration, advanced sensing and other information technologies are all leading to a bit of a storm, and it’s a perfect storm of opportunity,” MLA's R&D program manager Christian Ruberg said.


MLA also revealed a number of innovative projects already underway in Australia. One of these is a lamb processing facility that has adopted robotic processing equipment for automated hindquarter and forequarter processing, and in the process, reduced labour and boosted yield and accuracy within its boning operations.


“You look at this technology and you think: ‘wow, that is transformational for this industry’,” said Darryl Heidke, who works alongside Ruberg as an R&D program manager for MLA.


“Our industry, like most export industries, continually struggles with the high cost of labour…we have vacancy of between five and 15 per cent in our industry,” he said.


This means that to compete effectively in global markets, there is a need to become more efficient.


“If you just replace the labour [with technology] it is a five year payback…In our industry if it’s not paid back in 18 months then in most cases it doesn’t get adopted.”


So rather than just replacing human labour, automation and sensing technologies have also been deployed as a means of boosting yield, he said.


“Everybody goes and buys racks of lamb. A rack of lamb compared to rack of shoulder is probably 20 or 30 dollars different in value.”


An operator can only cut within 20mm accuracy on that fourth rib, looking for subsurface features, he said. Using a robotic system with subsurface sensing technologies such as X-ray, however, you can get under 5mm accuracy.


“Multiply that by 29 million lambs that are processed here in Australia and that is where the value is,” Heidke said.


Most recently MLA has been working with a range of partners to adapt these sensing and robotic technologies to the beef processing sector, he added.

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