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Robots: the future of meat processing?

If he could find 20 people who are ready, willing and able, Geoff Propp would hire them immediately.

Propp is vice-president and general manager of Harvest Meats, which makes sausages, hot dogs, sliced meats and other products in Yorkton, Sask.

Harvest Meats has about 300 employees and there’s sufficient work at its plant for 20 more people. However, recruiting and retaining workers is difficult in rural Saskatchewan.

Harvest Meats posts help-wanted ads on websites like, and the competition for workers is intense. A quick search on Indeed with the word “Yorkton” produced a list of 324 available jobs.

That’s a lot in a city with a population of 20,000.

It’s become so onerous to find and retain workers that Propp is seriously looking at robots and how they could be used at Harvest Meats.

“We started down a path with an engineer to use a robot to load our microwave with frozen blocks of meat,” Propp said in early September .

“We’ve got two people, standing there all day. One guy loads the block on one end, the other guy takes it off…. It’s a perfect application for robot loading.”

The task may be well-suited for a robot, but finding a robot is not easy.

The companies with the know-how and technology to automate meat processing are overloaded with inquiries.

“I’ve been trying to talk to someone for two months… to get it going,” Propp said. “They’re inundated with guys like me, knocking on their door. Getting someone to just phone you back is almost impossible.”

Propp is competing for attention because most meat-packing plants in North America have similar problems with a shrinking labour pool. Many firms are considering automation or have already invested in automation.

“There are people working on components of it very aggressively right now,” said Bob Delmore, an animal science professor at Colorado State University, who specializes in meat science and meat processing.

In April, Delmore helped publish an issue of the journal Animal Frontiers that focused on automation in the global meat industry. The issue included articles on robotic meat cutting and using artificial intelligence in meat processing.

Delmore explained that meat processors are hoping to automate certain tasks in their plants, much like Harvest Meats and its ambitions of using a robot to load meat into an industrial microwave.

The technology doesn’t exist to operate an entire packing plant with robots.

“A turnkey system, where you could just automate big portions of the slaughter process for beef, pork or even poultry and lamb … we just don’t have that.”

Plus, it isn’t easy to automate beef processing because cattle are not always the same size.

One animal might be 100 pounds larger than the next.

“Poultry and pork, because of the uniform size of the animals, lend themselves more effectively to the use of automation…. In our country, we have a fair amount of automation associated with poultry and there’s a concerted effort to provide (more),” Delmore said.

He added that Denmark is using automation in its pork processing plants, and Australian firms are using robots to process sheep.

In some cases, robots are doing more complicated tasks than loading meat into a microwave. They are cutting carcasses into pieces.

“This is often performed by people using hand-held powered tools or bandsaws. The use of robotics achieving the same outcome, duplicating the skill capabilities has been achieved and operational in existing plants. The systems use imaging (computer vision) to determine cut paths that a robot, carrying a tool, can follow to perform the cuts,” says an article in Animal Frontiers.

In Canada, the federal government has recognized the need for automation in the meat processing industry.

In 2019, the feds provided $49.5 million to create the Canadian Agri-food Automation and Intelligence Network. In March, agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced $5 million in funding for a beef and pork primary processing automation and robotics program at CAAIN.

“This initiative will provide the red meat industry with cutting-edge, transformative technology that will help beef and pork processors address supply chain and labour issues, while ensuring they can continue to deliver high-quality food across the country,” Bibeau said at the time.

Starting in March, CAAIN asked companies and non-profits to apply for the funding, which will support adoption of robotics and automation in meat processing. CAAIN is expected to decide on approved projects this fall.

Accelerating the adoption of robotics in meat processing is useful, but companies like Harvest Meats need immediate help with labour.

The company is expanding its plant by 8,000 sq. feet to satisfy strong demand for its products. The expansion will require more employees, so Harvest Meats may rely on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to recruit workers from the Philippines and other nations.

That’s the short-term challenge for Harvest Meats. In the longer run, over the next 10 years, Propp accepts that robotics and automation will be needed.

“The shortage of labour will push the price of labour (higher),” he said, which will push meat processors toward automation.

Robots will likely become part of the workforce at meat packing and processing plants across Canada, but a future with dozens of robots and zero humans on the plant floor is extremely unlikely.

“There’s really not a way we could put a robot in place that’s going to mimic all the jobs that a human would do…. This (automation) is not meant to create a system where we eliminate a bunch of people from the plant,” Delmore said.

“We’re going to take people off jobs that can be done with a robotic approach … and put them in other places in the plant.”

Par: Robert Arnason (15/09/2022)

Source: (The Western Producer)


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