Automating small to medium meat processors – stepping into the present


Small and medium processors in the meat industry are confronted by many challenges which currently include attraction and retention of staff, safety, and cost competitiveness against increasing automated larger producers and processors.

Knowledge consultancy group, NIRAS, has valuable global insight and local understanding of the challenges facing the meat production industry and their impacts on product output and cost competitiveness.

NIRAS Market Leader, Food & Fibre, Glenn Jacobsen, said the meat industry had undergone minimal automation and operational changes in his three decades in the industry, especially when compared to other manufacturing sectors, placing small and medium manufacturers at risk of increasing pressure from their larger competitors.

“It’s one of those things where when you look at all other areas of manufacturing, and the step changes that have occurred in the last 30 years in industries such as clean manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, electronics, even other FMCG, and then you go into small to medium businesses and they are dark cold rooms with guys in thermal jackets manually palletising product and it’s amazing to see how nothing has changed in such a long time,” said Jacobsen.

While larger players are investing in material handling, labour saving and safety improvements such as automated palletisation, carton handling systems, and buffering systems, like a multi-shuttle or ASRS systems, smaller producers, with limited resources, struggle with capitalisation, however NIRAS are seeing a tipping point where these small producers are no longer competitive due to lack of labour and the inefficiency of non-automation.

Price of entry to automated solutions has decreased significantly in recent history and can for example reduce pallet handling costs anything from $70 per pallet down to $10-12 per pallet.

It is also increasingly challenging to find and retain labour to service material handling areas let alone remain competitive.

“More than 80 per cent of the companies we have spoken to in the industry have highlighted staffing as a major issue,” said Jacobsen. “To be frank, those backend areas like carton loadouts, and palletising are the hardest areas to work in the meat industry with cold environments and the heaviest lifting.

“We also saw within that area there was a significant high instance of near misses in terms of work cover and time lost.”


This investment can be confronting given the relative technical complexity, and shortage of quality independent advice available, however NIRAS are working with industry and industry groups to find cost effective and staged solutions to start small to medium producers on the technology trail . There are significant opportunities to looking at incremental solutions like exoskeletal suits, and site automation around lifting as very few small processors can afford to invest in fully automated solutions.

The difficulty in attracting and retaining a dedicated workforce demonstrates the essential nature of adopting more automation just to survive.

The red meat industry has reached a threshold, which sees the small and medium enterprises having to make big decisions to survive and thrive going forward.

Realistically one of the major hurdles to automation in the meat processing industry is the lack of uniformity, by its nature, which puts it at odds with many other industries where product is far more uniform.

“The difference from most other manufacturing is you take a whole lot of components and assemble them into a single product, so you end up with a consistent stream of products at the backend of the process, because you might be doing a thousand boxes of one product before moving to product B, product C, and so on, and the process is set up to cope with that,” said Jacobsen.

“Whereas meat processing is very different. You have a component you bring into the process and breakdown into a series of smaller ones, so  what you then have coming out of the processing area is this randomness that is unlike most other industries. You have randomness of products coming into the carton handling area so where that becomes difficult for a small to medium processor is that investment to automate  is substantial. Effective automation requires consistency and repetition.”

The challenge from an industry perspective is how to get effective solutions for small to medium players. It is estimated that the majority of smaller operators are nowhere near positioned to be able to invest in automating the backend of the process.

Many smaller producers and manufacturers have already been acquired recently  by larger Companies and NIRAS expects that trend to continue.

Everything from the production process to logistical capabilities will require changes in order to keep up with the larger competitors and NIRAS is a company which is helping those clients come up with affordable, and viable, solutions.

“When we actually look at  the whole logistics and  distribution equation, the small guys will continue to struggle, and we will probably see more businesses  start sorting and storing off site,” said Jacobsen.

“I think there is opportunity for businesses to  take away that risk for them, randomly palletise their product and it goes to a third-party provider who will sort, palletise, handle, store, and distribute. Some of the main issues these sites are having around staffing shortages, truck drivers, delivery windows, loading containers, it’s massive and is incredible how much of a cost it has on the business while not adding any appreciable value.”

These investments  have quickly become a necessity, rather than a choice, as the gulf between small and medium producers and the larger ones is increasing daily.

There have been two fundamental shifts from a technology provider perspective, we have seen other FMGC sectors being busier than ever and we have seen massive investments in large scale warehouses, both placing tremendous demand on the technology providers.

This has saturated the technology suppliers and allowed them to be very selective in regards project portfolios, and reduced tendering competition, with technology providers focused on the larger producers and accounts.  Ften now not even interested in tendering smaller projects such as a 2,000-carton sorting system.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jacobsen. “The amount of equipment suppliers at the moment that are happy to say they are too busy to tender; in 30 years I have never seen equipment suppliers so busy in the big end of town.”

NIRAS has deliberately focused on this sector in order to support those smaller producers and manufacturers continue to compete.

“I think it will get to the point where someone externally, which is where NIRAS helps, is finding alternatives to standard players in the market and we are a global organisation with offices around the world and we are able to tap into our network and find other technologies and see what is being used successfully,” Jacobsen continued.

“We see a lot of technology that starts to get adopted by red meat is a cross-pollination from other large capital industries that can afford those changes. Our unique advantage is our exposure to solutions across a broad range of industries globally” said Edward Lynch, Managing Director of NIRAS Australia.

“The ability to compete with the same technology in meat processing had reach an end” said Edward Lynch. “It has become a necessity, and interestingly, we persisted for six to nine months thinking it was backend COVID scenario, but we had a client say it’s been the worst they’ve ever had, and it is because of lack of availability of staff,”

“The employee schemes aren’t filling the gap and going forward it looks like this employment crisis will continue because the people just aren’t there.”

However, the same workforce issues aren’t exclusive to the processing sector as similar impacts are being experience by the technology providers themselves.

“We have a couple of projects now where three years ago the same company delivered a particular piece of equipment in 39 weeks and at the moment, we are talking 80 weeks for total delivery time, it has doubled,” Jacobsen added.

While the future will undoubtedly see continued reduction in the cost of installed technology, the benefits are there now to be realised by small to medium producers who can implement capital smart solutions tailored to their specific businesses, at the same time alleviating the new world challenges of acute labour shortage.


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