May 21, 2012      

As it was for all of 2011, volatility in grain markets still clouds the poultry outlook in 2012, reports Gary Thornton for PoultryUSA. Corn and soybean meal account for about 45 percent of the production costs associated with growing live chicken, so feed prices will most likely continue to squeeze margins for the foreseeable future. The industry must look elsewhere for sustainable margin relief.

If better margins are to be attained and maintained, then innovation on the poultry processing end offers the best opportunity, recommended industry executives at last October’s National Chicken Council’s 57th Annual Conference. However, innovating a traditionally difficult-to-innovate manual or even semi-automated process does not present the poultry industry much in the way of significant relief to its already razor-thin profit margins. And if unpredictable grain prices ramp up another fifty cents, they could very well wipe out any marginal gains realized through innovations in processing.

Big-bang innovation in poultry processing

Big-bang innovation in poultry processing may hold an answer; big bang meaning revolutionary, disruptive change, something that redefines the productivity landscape of today’s annual 50 billion pound, $23 billion poultry processing industry. The Japanese developer Mayekawa, best known for its industrial freezers, compressors, heat pumps and cooling systems, recognized the difficulty of automating meat processing and delivered up a robotic solution.

Mayekawa robot deboner

Mayekawa’s TORIDAS robot deboner and YIELDAS-EYE robot chicken breast remover–each with a built-in vision system that gauges when and where to make their surgical cuts–are slowly entering the poultry processing workforce.

To date, over seven hundred units have sold worldwide, mainly in Japan, Europe and Brazil (twenty in the U.S.). Each machine carries a sticker price of $570,000–not including replacement parts and a service contract. Expensive, yet the amazing jump in productivity may well be worth the investment.

1500 vs. 150 per hour

Deboning close-up process

Martin Yan of TV’s “Yan Can Cook” can debone a chicken in 18 seconds. A Mayekawa robot deboner, however, can ditto Yan’s efforts in less than 2.5 seconds. Imagine for a moment, gangs of these deboning champs employed at some or all of the 175-plus poultry processing plants in the U.S., where annually 8.7 billion broilers become, principally, boneless breasts for America’s supermarkets.

Do the math: 1500 deboned chickens per hour vs. 150 per hour for the fastest human–ten times faster. That’s a staggering gain in productivity; it might well be the National Poultry Council’s sought-after, big-bang advance.

See for yourself: RoboButcher in action.

The ongoing financial recession is not helping the poultry industry. In 2010, per capita consumption of chicken in the United States was estimated at more than 83 pounds (compared with approximately 60 pounds for beef and 47 pounds for pork), sliding back from a high of 86 pounds per capita in 2006. Recession put a crimp in the otherwise rosy prediction from the USDA’s World Agricultural Outlook Board, which predicted per capita consumption to increase gradually from approximately 83 pounds to over 90 pounds by 2019.

A good example of the market pounding of 2011 and then the beginnings of recovery in 2012 can be seen in the unpredictable journey of Pilgrims Pride, the largest poultry processor in the U.S., which reported a net loss of $248.9 million for the first six months of 2011, including feed-ingredient purchases through the same six months that were more than $400 million higher than the previous year.

Valuing the whole bird

First quarter 2012 was a different story as the company recognized net income of $39.6 million. “The best results we have had in the first calendar quarter since 2005,” stated Bill Lovette, Pilgrim Pride’s CEO. He credits, in large part, improvements in operations and in “valuing the whole bird and not relying on high breast meat prices to carry the margin.” For Atsushi Suzuki, Mayekawa’s sales manager, valuing the whole bird is essential, and that’s why they developed both the TORIDAS robot deboner and the YIELDAS-EYE chicken breast remover.

The recession, feed costs and reduced consumer demand have put the industry into distress, claims Focus Management Group’s recent Poultry Processing Economic Review 2012. “Bankruptcies, liquidations and consolidations are becoming ever more frequent,” it warns. “The survival of the industry’s participants will depend upon their individual ability to maximize efficiency and minimize cost until equilibrium can once again be achieved between feed costs and poultry prices.” Again, the speed of robot power is seen by some as a chance at regaining lost equilibrium.

Eliminating worker injuries

Another big advantage for RoboButcher in cost containment would be recognized in eliminating worker injuries, which according to the U.S. Department of Labor are 100 percent above those in general manufacturing operations.

All but immune to injury, excepting mechanical breakdown, RoboButcher would definitely have a positive impact on worker safety. The USDA-mandated (U.S. Department of Agriculture) maximum production line speed up from 70 birds per minute in 1979 to today’s 180 birds per minute, driven by increased product demand, also created demand for faster processing machinery. Speed causes injuries.

Faster line speed and faster machinery resulted in increased worker injuries: the cumulative trauma disorders among poultry workers, reported by the U.S. Department of Labor for carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, were 16 times the national average. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined that 49 percent of the workers in one plant’s deboning line sustained injuries to their upper bodies. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that one in every six workers will suffer some sort of on-the-job injury, compared to a rate of one in twelve for the manufacturing industry in general.

Disease control and RoboButcher

Controlling the spread of disease–and thereby maintaining consumer confidence–will always be a major challenge in the poultry industry. A contamination scare in 2002 caused Pilgrim’s Pride to institute the largest meat recall in U.S. corporate history when it removed 27 million pounds of poultry from shelves due to a suspected listeria pathogen.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revamped its meat inspection system to ensure a high standard of safety. The new system, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), mandates scientific tests and modern technology to supplant the former system, which relied on the inspectors’ abilities to perceive contamination themselves. The use of hygienic, easy-to-clean machines like robots in any food processing environment seems only natural, a virtual no-brainer if they can withstand the standard 1,000 psi wash down, which RoboButcher can–minus its fancy electronics.

One percent loss in yield represents $2 to $3 million

There have been non-robot automation solutions in poultry processing going back forty years, all have a human in the process somewhere, and all came with a cost in yield, points out Gary McMurray, principal research engineer for Georgia Tech Research Institute’s intelligent deboning system. In some cases, the additional loss in yield was 5 percent, depending on the worker’s skill.

“Processors were willing to tolerate those losses in good times, when labor scarcity made automation a more attractive alternative. But labor is readily available today, so the focus is back on yield.” That 5 percent loss can be very expensive, says McMurray: “Breast meat commands the highest commercial price, of course, and each 1 percent loss in yield represents $2 to $3 million for a plant.”

The “depending on the worker’s skill” part has been the crucial dimension. He points out “a worker has less than one-tenth of a second to identify where the meat, tendon and bone are, and then one-seventh of a second to complete the cut through to the shoulder.” That’s like asking a human to do a machine’s job, which McMurray readily admits. That’s partly the reason why Georgia Tech is building its own RoboButcher–using a KUKA stainless steel robotic arm?in collaboration with Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods and Wayne Farms and university-affiliated researchers.

It seems the stars are quickly aligning for RoboButcher’s ascendancy to top poultry processor; and it’s a “when” and not an “if” situation. Whether the ideal robot comes from Mayekawa, which has early market edge, or from the research labs at Georgia Tech or quite possibly from somewhere else, RoboButcher is only the beginning of totally automated poultry processing plants. They are somewhere in our future, and maybe nearer than we think.