Automation Driving Sustainability and Productivity for the Red Meat Industry

As the popularity of Australian red-meat has increased over the past decades, the supply chain has been challenged to adapt and innovate in order to maintain the throughput required by customers – both domestic and international.

Other challenges for the industry include a shortage of labour and a more recent focus on achieving a carbon neutral food red meat supply chain by 2030. Added to the mix, many medium-sized abattoirs have aging plant and machinery which needs to be upgraded in order to maintain or exceed current production levels.

According to Ross Derbyshire of engineering consultancy Beca Australia, these factors are at the front of mind for the industry when considering what technology could be used to drive productivity while also reducing its carbon footprint. 

 “The industry is looking at smarter ways to produce power. This includes solar farms and producing biogas off their waste and other materials for reuse to generate power,” he said.

“Boilers are being changed to biogas coming from onsite treatment ponds. Capture and reuse of this biogas is offsetting use coal-fired boilers.”

A reduction in energy consumption comes with a quick return on investment, with the use of artificial intelligence of particular benefit in refrigeration. Renewables and biogas present a longer term payback term.

“Typically, meat industry plants are of medium scale and can be challenging in terms of energy offset capital investments,” said Rhys Davies, Beca Australia’s business director.

As a vast country, gains from improving efficiencies in refrigeration represent a significant opportunity for the Australian red-meat industry. Rather than the movement of different formats of meat – carcasses, large cuts and smaller goods – the industry has focused on store-ready cartons packed with goods that are consumer-ready. 

“This change, together with aggregation of manufacturing plants, has allowed enormous improvement in the efficiency of cold storage, handling and automation.”

And its automation that has the potential to be one of the biggest efficiency drivers for the industry.

While the production of meat will always have a labour intensive component – particularly at the carcass processing end – automation will streamline other processes, particularly logistics.

“In the old days meat was once put into a 24 kilo carton, and handled three or four times before it got to the end user. Now it won’t be touched once because it is fully automated,” said Darbyshire.

“The labour at the back end has been replaced by robots and is fully automated racking.”

While investment in automation is significant, energy efficiency gains, production gains and a reduction in labour costs make the expense worthwhile.

“The larger operations are investing in automating the meat carton in terms of handling, assembling and cold storing ready for  despatch for exportation overseas,” said Davies.

“You need the volume to support that investment, but once you are there, you are  efficient, and have enhanced your national and global competitiveness. You know where stock is, coding out is minimised, and you are maximising shelf life.”

“The reality is having made the investment in automation, it’s harder for others to catch up.”

Sources: Food Magazine
Image: “File:Live export – cows from australia in Zofar quarantine in Israel.jpg” by Anat Refuah is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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