Automation Will Be Key for Industrial Facilities In the Post-COVID-19 Era

June 17, 2020 - 8 minutes read

IoT app development

Warning: This article serves as an industrial use case study for how meatpacking facilities are applying automation to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Consequently, many of the images in this post contain depictions of these meat processing operations that some would consider graphic. If this statement leaves you feeling squeamish, you may want to skip this one!

Grocery shoppers from Los Angeles to New York have noticed a decrease in meat on the shelves combined with higher prices for anything that’s in stock. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit meatpacking facilities hard, with thousands of workers getting sick and more than 30 dying. These facilities are cold, humid, and cramped, requiring workers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder working so fast that washing hands to adjust a face mask isn’t even possible.

With the help of the Internet of Things, an innovative technology that’s already improving business operations in industrial facilities all over the world, meatpacking factories can start to automate processes to reduce the number of employees needed on the floor at any given time.

Business As Usual During Uncertain Times

During the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of meat processing facilities have closed or slowed down operations. Grocery stores are now rationing meats. A Milwaukee-based sausage factory stopped manufacturing its hot dogs completely. But in Europe’s biggest pig slaughterhouse, the factory floor is completely automated. Robots do most of the work while being overseen by humans.

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At this facility, everything is business as usual. Pigs come in on trucks around 5:30 AM. Workers herd the pigs into temporary pens on the 90-acre facility. A few hours later, a few pigs are nudged out of the pens and into CO2 gas chambers. The gas knocks them out, and they’re put onto a belt that helps position them for a worker to cut off each pig’s rear feet. From there, the pigs are transported to a moving production line. A worker cuts the pig’s carotid artery, and a vacuum is placed at the cut to lap up all of the blood.

After that, it’s up to the robots to finish the job. A laser-enabled robot measures the pig’s dimensions. Using those numbers, another robot cuts a 4-inch hole around the pig’s tail with a customized artificial intelligence (AI) application. It then reaches into the pig to take out any excrement that’s left inside the carcass. A bladed robot then cuts the pig from top to bottom before a robot mechanically removes organs, slashes tendons, and splits the spine.

The robot portion of the pig’s journey takes only ten minutes. At the end of the working day (midnight), a total of 18,000 pigs have been slaughtered, cleaned, excavated, and packaged.

Modernizing An Age-Old Process

This facility is one of the world’s largest, most modern, and most transparent meat processing facilities in the world.

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In fact, many Danish slaughterhouses are heavily automated using IoT applications, and it’s helped them prevent becoming hotspots for COVID-19 infections. Out of 8,000 of the company’s Danish employees, less than 10 have tested positive for the virus. In stark contrast to America (and the rest of the world), none of the Danish slaughterhouses closed down or slowed production.

Meat scientists say that others in this sector and other industrial markets should take note of the Danish slaughterhouses. They’re a prime example of how to physically and technologically set up a facility for long-term success. Robots, IoT, and AI work together with humans to make meatpacking safer and more efficient.

Jayson Lusk is a food and agricultural economist at Purdue University. He says that the cost of not investing in IoT has come back as a bad consequence of failing to implement emerging technologies. According to Lusk, the US government doesn’t provide economic incentives to automate meat processing plants.

IoT app development

As a result, meat facilities have employed undocumented workers instead of investing in new technologies. In the US, staying competitive as a meat facility depends on how many workers you have tending to the production line.

Progressing Forward Faster

Labor shortages are forcing meat facilities to change their business operations from the ground up. Poultry facilities in the US have become more automated for the last few decades; it took an hour to process 3,000 chickens in 1970, and we can process 15,000 chickens per hour today. But because chickens are much smaller than pigs and cows, the investment to automate is a lot lower.

In the past decade, pork and beef facilities have started introducing more automation into their factories. In 2018, a new pork facility in Michigan opened with automation and robots. It helped the company cut 300 employees while increasing output. The plant has been able to stay open through the pandemic, but it’s slowed down production because it ordered new protective equipment to install.

IoT app development

Last year, Tyson Foods start investing heavily in robots for its pork facilities, in an effort to reduce the negative effects of labor shortages.

Preventing the Inevitable

Even if every meat plant in the world automated their production lines and installed robots overnight, it might still not prevent pathogens like COVID-19 from spreading throughout the factory.

Without a strong healthcare system, it’s impossible to prevent a contagion like COVID-19. Workers need to be able to work from home or stay at home when they’re sick without any worry about losing their job and health insurance.

It’s also extremely important that the government moves quickly when a pandemic or any global problem occurs. In the US, President Trump signed an executive order that made meat a critical and scarce “material essential to the national defense”. It meant that meat facilities stayed open while facing less legal liability, even if their workers got sick.

Prioritizing Worker Safety Is a Must

If lowering the number of people in a factory can lower the risk of infection, installing a few robots can help bring down the number of cases.

IoT app development

But automation takes time to implement and optimize. So, in the meantime, factories need to invest heavily in their employees, all of whom keep the factories running at full speed at the risk of their own health and lives. Without more value placed on worker safety and lives, it seems that robots may not help prevent the next pandemic at all.

Hopefully, other industrial facilities examine and learn some insights from the precedent set forth by Danish Crown’s meat processing facilities. What do you think of IoT-fueled automation? As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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