Automation Makes Meat Cutting Faster, Safer

April 18, 2019
From simple machines to vision-guided robots, automation speeds meat-cutting lines while enhancing worker and product safety.

Food processing comes closest to discrete manufacturing when animals are “disassembled” into meat. That’s also when it comes closest to danger.

Meat cutting is one of the most hazardous operations in food manufacturing, for both worker and product safety. This is especially true as lines speed up, which has been a contentious issue in the past few years. The USDA is considering an end to mandated limits on line speed for pork processing, which currently is capped for almost all plants at 1,106 hogs per hour. In September, the USDA increased the cap on poultry line speeds, for plants that met certain requirements, to 175 birds per minute from 140.

As with many aspects of food production, automation has the potential to increase both safety and efficiency in meat cutting. Even rudimentary cutting machines improve safety and throughput compared to hand-cutting.

“For the most part, our equipment is the improvement in the throughput,” says Jason Vana, marketing director for Fusion Tech Integrated (www.ftiinc.org).

Fusion Tech designed this cutter for a customer that wanted higher, safer throughput for meat sticks.

Fusion Tech recently introduced a rib and brisket saw to its lineup. As with many of its machines, this was originally designed for a single customer.

“This customer that initially purchased the rib saw, they were cutting it by hand and needed a better way to increase throughput but also increase safety,” Vana says. “Because if you try cutting through bone by hand, you either can’t do it or it’s very unsafe.”

On the most basic level, cutting equipment increases safety over hand-cutting by imposing safeguards between workers and blades. Often these are cutoff switches that stop operation in hazardous situations.

Speaking of the rib and brisket saw, Vana says, “Even if for some reason you were to stick your hand in there, the conveyor is [shut] off, the blades are off, so it couldn’t injure you in any way.”

Similarly, MPBS (www.mpbs.com) introduced its Pro-Saw meat bandsaw about three years ago. The operator secures a cut of meat with a clamp and activates the machine with a control panel “so the fingers will be way away from the bandsaw,” says marketing manager Maricel Salvacion. Sensors provide an additional measure of safety, she says: “If the meat cutter goes near the machine, the sensor shuts it down.”

Urschel Laboratories (www.urschel.com), a supplier of slicers and other size-reduction equipment, tries to make its equipment “inherently safe,” says Dan Banowetz, senior design engineer.

Senior design engineer Dan Banowetz of Urschel Laboratories says cutting equipment should be safe enough to use without special training.

“As much as possible, the machine operators should not have to rely on training or following procedures to stay safe,” Banowetz says. “We try to ‘design in’ safety so we don’t have to rely on safe operations being taught. This includes machine guard designs that make it impossible for operators to reach into the dicer, and interlocks that prevent those guards from being opened when the machine is running.”

While ensuring safety, these guards must also be easy to work with, so there is no temptation for workers to remove them to expedite operation, he adds.

Meet me in St. Louis

Fusion Tech’s rib and brisket saw was designed to cut hog carcasses into St. Louis-style ribs, an increasingly popular variety. St. Louis style involves removing the hog’s sternum bone, cartilage and rib tips to create a rectangular rack that makes for an appetizing presentation.

Vana says that, as a custom manufacturer, Fusion Tech often has to design equipment that helps customers respond to meat industry trends, like the surging popularity of bacon. Its belly end saw has twin rotating blades that cut off the ends of a pork belly before it’s sliced crosswise into bacon. Power bars guard the blades, shutting off the machine if an operator’s hands get too close.

A more recent Fusion Tech development is a cutter that is helping a customer meet demand for meat snack sticks. The customer had been cutting jerky by hand; workers would drop product into a miter box and draw a knife back and forth through the grooves.

The process was safe enough but labor-intensive, and the customer was looking to ramp up production. The need became especially imperative when California raised the minimum wage to $12 per hour (and more in some areas), making hand-cutting less cost-effective.

“They came to us and said, ‘We need something that isn’t overly expensive, we don’t want to pay $120,000 for this thing, and we need it to be safe so our employees can’t get their hands in there. [It needs to keep them] nowhere near a knife, and it needs to increase the throughput of the product,’” Vana relates.

Fusion Tech designed the machine, which features knife blades adjustable in half-inch increments, protected by a safety cover that cuts off power if opened.

“In order to do what our machine can do in an hour, they would have to hire five or six people to even get close to what the machine could do,” Vana says. Within a week of putting it on the company website, Fusion Tech received more than 50 queries, he says.

Computerized cuts

The next step in automation is computer-aided motion. When dealing with pieces of meat that are similar in size and shape, it’s possible to program the cuts into the saw or slicer, enhancing worker safety and ensuring uniformity.

The Pro-Saw meat bandsaw, introduced by MPBS about three years ago, cuts up especially challenging pieces of frozen meat like bone-in spareribs. Its cutting action is programmed by the operator.

The Pro-Saw from MPBS features sensors that cut the power when an operator’s hands get too close to the blade.

“You can tell the bandsaw how to cut the product,” Salvacion says. “When you cut the leg of a turkey, you can program [so that] for the first four cuts, it would be like a centimeter, and then after that, it would be like an inch.” For products that tend to have more variation in size, like hams, the operator can vary the cutting as needed, she says. “If it’s a consistent size, he doesn’t need to program it differently, but if it varies, he does.”

Poultry, especially chicken, has experienced perhaps the greatest progress in automated and semi-automated cutting, due in part to its high throughput and the relative uniformity of the product.

In its most basic form, semi-automated poultry dismemberment involves a system like the one from Marel (www.marel.com). Gutted birds are impaled upright on cones that carry them past workers, each of whom is responsible for cutting off a portion like a wing, breast or thigh. Such systems can reach output speeds of 2,000 portions per hour, depending on the application, according to Marel.

Systems like this have the potential for various degrees of automation. The simplest involves stations that cut off wings or other portions as the birds go by. More complex modifications include loadcells and vision technology that can sort birds by size and quality, shunting them to lines dedicated to various purposes, like whole birds or parts.

Robotic cutting

Beyond automated cutting lies robotics. In meat cutting, robotics has high potential to automate the dismemberment of larger animals, like hogs and cattle, that are too big to undergo the sort of fixed-station automated cutting available for poultry.

“When you think of cutting a carcass, it’s a dangerous and difficult operation, one that can be done by robots,” Jorge Izquierdo, vice president for market development at packaging trade association PMMI, said in a press conference at the ProFoodTech show in Chicago in March. Automation in meat cutting becomes especially versatile when robotics combine with machine vision and other sensing capabilities that can automatically gauge fat and other structural aspects of a carcass.

Marel has one of the most advanced robotic systems in carcass processing. The M-Line for hog slaughter operations can process up to 1,280 hogs per hour using articulating arm robots.

The basis for the M-Line is three-dimensional scanning of the carcasses, synchronized with line speed. This enables the robots to perform the major operations of carcass cutting: separation of the pelvic bone, carcass opening, breastbone splitting and neck clipping.

One aspect of the M-Line that enables high speeds is Marel’s “TwinTool” concept. Each robot has a double-acting tool, meaning that when one tool is in operation, the second tool is being sterilized.
The M Line confers the usual advantages of automation: less labor and increased safety, for both workers and product. In addition, it increases the yield of both St. Louis-style spareribs and extra bacon bellies.

Investing in equipment to make cutting faster and safer makes sense, especially when it helps end users meet demand for specialized cuts and products. Safer and more consistent product, processed more safely by workers, represents a win all the way around. 

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