In one of Scott Technology’s “lamb boning rooms,” a production line of about a dozen robots strips meat from 600 carcasses an hour.
Automated arms clamp onto pieces of raw lamb, while others wield guillotine-style blades or small knives to cut through them. You only need one human to oversee the process.
The New Zealand-based robotics company is developing fully-automated meat processing bots, which can extract different cuts from lamb, pig, and beef carcasses. Many meatpacking companies believe using this type of technology (rather than human workers) will make processing more efficient.
The world’s largest meat production company, JBS, is already investing in it. As NPR reported, the Brazil-based corporation bought a controlling share of Scott Technology late last year, in a deal valued at $41 million.
The robotics company is working with JBS to develop beef and pork processing bots for the US, Scott Technology’s CEO, Chris Hopkins, tells Business Insider. JBS will soon test Scott’s machines in some of its lamb plants in the US, though JBS declined to comment on any specifics.
In Scott’s lamb boning rooms, the robots worth together to form an assembly line. Each one performs one specific step of the process.
The first robot takes X-rays and a CT scan of the carcass, which generate a 3D model of its shape and size. Based on what the system sees in the model, another bot drives rotary knives between the ribs and cuts through the hanging carcass, using the spinal chord as a reference point.
There’s also a bot that sorts the cuts and moves them to specific conveyor belts, and another that weighs them, packages them, and gets them ready for shipping. On average, the bots make the correct cuts and wrap the pieces with 90% accuracy.
Many meatpacking plants use automated machines, but Scott Technology’s automated systems are unique because they use artificial intelligence, Hopkins says. Unlike most machines, which use a pre-programmed carcass outline, Scott’s bots look at the shape of each individual carcass and make specific cuts accordingly. The technology’s algorithms also use deep learning, which means the bots can become smarter over time as they collect data about the carcasses they encounter.
Replacing human workers with this technology could make meat processing lines more efficient, Hopkins says. Two large plants in Australia and New Zealand that use lamb boning rooms each process a million carcasses a year.
Robots also eliminate the costs of human error, so plants can wind up with less wasted meat, more accurate sorting and weighing, and fewer injuries. (Meat workers are injured more often than those who work in other sectors in the manufacturing industry, according to a 2016 report from the US Government Accountability Office.)
While some meat processing plants outside the US have already started using robots, American plants have thus far largely held onto human workers.
That’s partially because companies like Scott are just starting to develop boning technology for beef, so it isn’t as advanced yet as the systems for lamb, Hopkins says. The average American consumes much more beef (about 61 pounds per year) than lamb (about one pound per year), so that’s what most US plants process. The average New Zealander or Australian, by comparison, consumes about 26 pounds of lamb annually, so the majority of Scott’s meat processing bots currently operate in those countries.
Cow carcasses are hard for robots to work with because they’re larger and require more heavy-duty machinery. Cows also have more muscle groups, and it can be difficult for a computer to distinguish between them. But Scott is working on more precise robots for beef. Three types of beef processing bots debuted in 2015, though they’re not ready for a massive international rollout yet.
Another challenge is that Scott’s machinery needs routine maintenance and repairs. The current cost for upkeep of the bots can often be more expensive than employing human workers.
Still, Hopkins expects to see robots in more American meatpacking plants within the next 20 years.
“Our goal is to have them in all the plants for beef and pork worldwide,” he says. “But we’re only going to get to that point if we can continue to improve the safety and the yield — and do it with a lot less people.”
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