Robots improve safety at abattoir

Robotic Automation in the Meat Industry ensures operator safetyMeat processing is a labour-intensive, hands-on industry that requires extensive safety protocols to protect the health and safety of operators – not to mention the health and safety of consumers. Recently, an international meat processing company, based in Australia, needed to raise its operations to a safer and more productive level.

The company sought help from Machinery Automation & Robotics (MAR), a firm that designs, builds and integrates automated manufacturing and industrial solutions across a wide range of industries. The meat processor hoped MAR could address not only its occupational health and safety issues, but also the lack of skilled labour (particularly in the area of brisket cutting) that was threatening the company’s ability to stay competitive.

MAR’s team of experienced engineers analysed the abattoir’s production and came up with three innovative solutions that have transformed productivity, safety and sanitation at the facility.

Explaining brisket cutting, Clyde Campbell, CEO at MAR, said: “Traditionally, this part of meat processing requires a person to operate a heavy, industrial-size hydraulic knife device called a brisket shear,” he says. “This practice combines a dangerous tool with a physically demanding task that commonly results in wrist and back injury. Our solution eliminated the need to endanger employees altogether.”

MAR’s robotics installation features an IRB 4600 robot from ABB and an advanced sensing system to ensure accurate, reliable operation. A circular cutting saw, fitted with a dustless micro-toothed knife blade and centring guides, makes one clean cut at the centre of the brisket. This has dramatically improved quality with fewer instances of internal organ puncturing and other damage, thereby simplifying downstream processing. Consistent submerging of the blade and guides after every cut also sterilises them more thoroughly and prevents cross-contamination.

Contamination that spreads from a sheep’s pelt to the carcass costs the industry in terms of product quality, extra processing and yield loss. The way the meat processor had addressed this earlier was with a manual process in which personnel operated a Sani Vac wand. This solution put employees at risk for repetitive strain injuries, limited yield through various inefficiencies, negatively affected product quality and required extra processing.

The second solution MAR, therefore, provided was front and rear Sani Vac systems – essentially steam sanitisers with vacuums attached to IRB 140s – to clean areas prone to contamination before cuts are made. With accurate sensing and programming, the wand delivers steam to loosen soil, kill bacteria and remove contaminants – and removes them via vacuum.

Additionally, Campbell points out that having both the front Sani Vac and the brisket saw robot in the same guarded cell reduces the amount of guarding on the process line.

Last, but not least, the third solution that MAR provided involved kidney fat removal from sheep carcasses. Like the other two installations, MAR’s automation saves workers from a repetitive and strenuous task best left to robots; it interfaces an IRB 4600 robot with a specially designed fat extraction wand connected to a vacuum system.

“The heavy vacuum that operators handled in the manual process caused all kinds of repetitive strain injuries and serious back and shoulder problems,” says Campbell. “Also, there was a high risk of cross-contamination from one carcass to the next. The carcasses travel pretty fast on the chain, so you need a very competent operator to make sure fat is removed consistently and sterilisation procedures are completed thoroughly – every time.”

At the very least, MAR’s improvements to the meat processor’s work have achieved the most important goal of all: there have been no injuries reported since the installation.

CEO Clyde Campbell says, “Our association with ABB provides us with equipment that serves as a basis for us to develop innovative solutions for industry. With robotics, we can improve productivity levels, streamline manufacturing processes and provide safer working environments.”