The completion of a significant automation project by MHM Automation has revolutionised the back-end of operations at Midfield Group’s meat processing plant in Warrnambool, Victoria. Melissa Dwyer reports.
A first-of-its kind solution, delivered by MHM Automation, has automated all processes after product is boxed and barcoded, taking it from boning room to pallet without any manual handling.
Cartons of meat are closed, frozen, sorted, tracked, stored, retrieved, palletised, wrapped and labelled by machines, all with minimal human intervention.
MHM general manager Sales & Marketing, Tony Johnson, says the solution set a new standard for the meat processing industry in Australia.
“This kind of process automation provides the answer to a range of challenges that processing plants are grappling with right now – from labour shortages to the need to reduce their carbon emissions,” he says.
Midfield Group’s objectives for the upgrade included freeing up space for further processing expansion, reducing its reliance on manpower, having the ability to effectively manage inventory for production and sales, and reducing its overall energy consumption.
The custom-designed system was the result of intensive engagement and consultation with Midfield Group.
MHM proposed a custom-designed solution comprising a six-mag lidder, four SSO plate freezer stacks, two automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) and a three-cell robotic palletising system.
The project was delivered in stages over three years, culminating in the commissioning of the ASRS in June 2023.
ASRS – a game changer
Delivered by MHM in collaboration with its European technology partners TGW and Inter, the ASRS automatically sorts incoming cartons from the production line by SKU.
It then transfers and stores them in a space-efficient racking system and retrieves them on demand to assemble rainbow pallets to fulfil individual customer orders.
The two ASRS systems installed at Midfield had one allocated for chilled and one for frozen meat products.
Johnson describes the ASRS as a game changer for the food processing industry.
“With the ability to deal with a high volume of products in constant motion, the ASRS streamlines the movement of goods in and out of storage effectively and efficiently.
“It is ideal for plants producing large numbers of SKUs and needing to combine those products into custom pallets to meet customer requirements,” he says.
The ASRS offers a host of benefits, encompassing comprehensive inventory management and seamless integration with production and sales management systems. Its high-speed elevators and live shuttle system enable efficient order picking. Notably, it eradicates manual handling concerns and ensures impeccable traceability.
Whilst ASRS systems are commonly used in warehouses to handle pallets or cartons of dry goods, MHM’s system is relatively unique in its ability to operate in chilled and frozen environments.
“This makes the technology ideal for food processors,” Johnson says.
Integrated solution benefits
Other equipment in the system also delivered important improvements to Midfield’s operations.
The installation of the lidder and plate freezers in 2021 amplified the plant’s freezing capacity to approximately 25,000 cartons per day.
Well recognised by the Australian meat industry as the preferred freezing system to meet stringent export food safety requirements due to its 24-hour freeze time, MHM’s plate freezers also deliver significant energy savings of up to 30 per cent compared to blast freezing.
Contact freezing between plates ensures the frozen cartons are completely flat, which was important to enable integration with the ASRS and automated palletising system at Midfield.
Added in 2022, the palletising system alleviated labour requirements, which were proving difficult to fulfil in a stretched labour market. It mitigated health and safety hazards associated with manual handling of heavy meat cartons, and also introduced automation to pallet scanning and Meat Messaging label generation, eliminating the need for manual port marking.
A trusted partnership
The integration of advanced technologies has not only elevated Midfield’s operational efficiency but has also ushered in a new era of enhanced capabilities.
Midfield Group CEO, Dean McKenna says the project’s success was the result of a trusted partnership.
“At Midfield Group we are committed to providing superior products and reducing our environmental footprint. We strive to be ahead of the curve when it comes to introducing new technologies that help us achieve those goals.
“MHM Automation understands our goals and works with us to achieve them. We particularly value their ability to provide an integrated, end-to-end solution. They have delivered everything they promised, and more,” he says.
This article first appeared as the Cover Story in the October-November edition of Food & Drink Business magazine.