PROCESS EXPO 2015 is almost here! To prepare for the show and to highlight the innovation and contributions of the companies that will be there, we've been exploring key trends in various food processing sectors.

Previously, we interviewed leading members of the bakery and prepared foods markets to learn what's happening in those industries. In case you missed them, here are the quick links:

In this article, we explore current issues in the meat processing industry, including how new technologies, automation, and robotics are shaping the present and the future. Our industry perspective for this article comes from Bob Grote of Grote Company, a proud family-owned business and longtime leader in slicer and applicator technologies.

New Technologies: It's All About the Data

In every industry, a main reason companies adopt new technologies is to improve efficiency. In the meat industry, companies are seeking to accomplish this goal through better data collection and more control over their machinery.

Grote told us, “In general, we're seeing a lot more data collection, more ‘teching up the machines.'” He noted that this trend is not new, but lately it has been happening at a greatly accelerated pace. Customers today want more information from the machines in their facilities. For example, they want to be able access the machines remotely and to diagnose any problems online.

Grote Company is responding to the need for more data in several ways, such as adding sensors to deliver feedback and increasing capabilities on the human machine interfaces (HMIs), which allow the monitoring and control systems to be visualized. Grote said: “The machines are almost self-contained now. We're loading our service documents into the systems so you can access them right at the source. You can easily access anything you want to know about the machine or how to fix it in real time.”

These improvements make the technologies easier to use and service, and more affordable, for food companies. They also help to decrease any problems associated with changeovers.

Automation: How Fast Can You Go?

The meat industry is also experiencing an uptick in the adoption of automation solutions. As we've mentioned in previous articles, compared to other industries, food and beverage has been slow to adopt automation.

This is due to a number of factors. Food companies realize lower margins than companies in other industries, like automotive, which is a leader in technology adoption. In addition, the raw materials (i.e., animal carcasses) used in food products have a high degree of variability, which makes developing effective automated solutions a challenge.

Resistance to new technologies is also frequently the result of a traditional mindset. Last year, Mark Seaton of New Zealand-based automation company Scott Technology told “[Automation is] quite a mind shift for meat processors. They're not used to expensive equipment. Despite good returns, it's a big change. There has been a lack of awareness of the skills and technical people needed for this change. Companies see [automation] as a risk.”

But that mindset is changing. Grote pointed out that the need for faster line speeds is “pushing the limits of human interaction,” making automation necessary to achieve the desired results. The result has been the expected increase in efficiency coupled with a whole new set of challenges.

Like aerodynamics.

Grote told us that they now have to take the air itself into account when placing sliced items on a moving target, such as a pizza. Grote Company has long been a leader in pizza technology. In fact, it was the success of the Peppamatic, the first machine for slicing and applying pepperoni, that inspired Jim Grote to found Grote Company in 1972.

Over time, line speeds have increased so that Grote Company now slices and places pepperoni at a rate of 110 feet per minute, which Bob Grote points out is “fast for a half-ounce piece of salami.” At this speed, airflow becomes a factor. To keep the pepperoni from taking flight, Grote's machines are configured so that the slices are never free in the air, but rather touch the target prior to being released. Checkout the Visa Air Ticket Booking website

Safety is another motivating factor for automation. A March 2015 article on explored how advanced imaging capabilities are making automation more feasible for meat and poultry production, as well as making the whole process safer.

For example, removing the spinal column from beef cuts is particularly dangerous because of the proximity of workers' fingers to the band-saw blade. Steve Dunivan, the owner of Midwest Machine, noted that “almost every person can show you a scar.” The company had spent four years trying unsuccessfully to automate the rib cut before joining forces with 3D vision system company Hermary Opto Electronics. The result of the collaboration was a machine that takes 200 3D scans per second, resulting in a good cut 99% of the time and a massively reduced chance of losing a finger.

Robotics: From Meat Packaging to Meat Processing

Finally, the robots are coming. The popularity and capabilities of robotics have ballooned in recent years. According to a 2014 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 59% of manufacturers currently use robotics technology of some sort. While the robotics market is still dominated by the automotive industry, robotics use in food and beverage is on the rise. In 2014, 7% of North American robot orders were from food and consumer goods companies, compared to only 3% in 2005.

Different sectors of the food processing industry have adopted robotics at different paces. As with other technologies, the meat processing sector has been slower to adopt robotics. There are several reasons for this, most notably, sanitation.

Robotic components aren't always compatible with the sanitation requirements for surfaces that come into contact with food. However, the FDA recently approved wash-down robots and end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) for use in direct food contact, which has spurred interest and investment in robotics. In particular, these approvals have helped move robotics into the meat processing industry, where they improve food safety and sanitation by eliminating human contact with the food product.

Grote said: “We're finally seeing robotics dip its toe outside of the packaging area and into the manufacturing side of food processing.” For example, he noted that robotics are now being used in equipment loading, where meats, breads, and other products are being auto-loaded into machines for further processing. Robotics are also being used is in component assembly. For example, robots can assemble a frozen sandwich, like a hamburger or a breakfast sandwich.

As the design and capabilities of robots improve, we can expect to see them used in a wider variety of food and beverage applications. To determine whether your company is ready to adopt robotics in your manufacturing processes, explore the PricewaterhouseCoopers report. Page 13 has a series of questions that PwC recommends as a “robot-ready self-assessment.”

What Will the Future Bring for Meat Processing Technology?

As we do with all of our interviewees, we asked Grote to predict what the next five years might look like for the food processing industry. Overall, he expects to see some pretty major technological advances. In particular, he predicts we'll see the following three current trends continue to expand and improve.

Machines will become more compact.

This is already happening, and it is reducing the footprint of food processing equipment. Grote said: “Technology's allowing us to make the machines smaller, which is always important, especially as suppliers seek to compete in overseas markets.”

Machines will become smarter.

Food processing equipment and machinery will get even more brain power. “It's amazing how much we can store in machines today. I expect this trend to continue.”

Lines will incorporate vision, enabling automated quality control.

Human quality control inspectors may be a thing of the past. Vision, such as in the form of X-rays and advanced imaging technology, will be incorporated into food processing lines. This will provide the capability for “go/no go decision-making in the food assembly portion of the line.”

This technology has already proven successful in other areas of manufacturing, and some poultry processors are starting to experiment with it. For example, John Daley of the Georgia Tech Research Institute developed a way to use 3D imaging to determine yield loss in poultry processing. His machine does in a few seconds what it used to take humans five minutes to do. It provides instant feedback to human operators, who can adjust their performance to minimize waste.

3D imaging is also being used to improve the detection of bone fragments in protein foods, and some companies use X-rays to analyze the fat content of meat products.

While Grote didn't give us any details, he did say that Grote Company is actively contributing to the future via major investments in research and development to develop better machines and equipment. Grote said: “We aren't sitting back, saying, ‘We have this answer and it's great.' We are looking forward to the next new thing and what comes after that. We're also increasing our diversity by expanding into additional markets.”

Challenges Going Forward

When asked about the biggest challenges facing the the food processing industry, Grote echoed the other experts we've talked to with his answer, “People, people, people. Our biggest challenge is finding skilled labor to assemble and run the high-tech equipment. Our workforce is not properly trained coming in, so we need to do our own training.”

The manufacturing skills gap, which is reverberating through the entire food and beverage industry, will only be complicated by the increased adoption of technology.

While many people view automation and robotics as taking away jobs, studies have found that that isn't exactly true. Instead, the technology trend is creating a different class of jobs. The PwC survey found that while 28% of U.S. manufacturers expect robots to replace humans in some jobs, 35% expect they will open up new job opportunities for highly skilled workers. In the food and beverage industry, those workers are the technicians who assemble and maintain food processing machinery. These technicians now require knowledge of electronics, electric drives, and programmable logic controls, in addition to mechanics, hydraulics, and pneumatics.

Needless to say, the challenge of finding qualified workers isn't a small one. Grote Company attempts to meet this challenge by encouraging local and regional politicians and school systems to invest more money and energy in training programs. They work with the career centers at local schools to supply more training in core skills like welding. Grote Company also invests directly in the careers of promising technicians. “If someone demonstrates aptitude, we'll train them. We need talented workers, so we'll spend the money to teach them.”

Closing Sentiments

Despite the challenges, Grote also echoed our other interviewees in emphasizing what a great industry food is to be in right now:

“I'm excited about our business and I'm excited about our industry. We are helping to feed people worldwide. It's amazing to think that not that long ago we worried about feeding 3 billion people. Now we're feeding 7 billion. I'm excited because every day, I get to play a little part in feeding the world.”

Whatever part of the food industry you're in, we'd love to hear your thoughts about these trends and others you have observed. Join the conversation on Twitter: @PROCESSEXPO.