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Sharpening up the meat industry

How one UK systems integrator is modernizing meat processing

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The ancient art of butchery has been around since the time that humans first domesticated livestock some 10,000 years ago. It’s all the more surprising, then, that in the last two decades the meat pro-cessing sector has been slow to modernize, while industries such as automotive continue to push the boundaries of digital technology. One UK meat-machinery system integrator, Cutting Edge Services Ltd, sought to change this when it partnered with ABB to sharpen up processes in the meat industry.

It’s no secret that the meat and poultry industry has faced challenges to adapt in the last two decades. The advent of supermarkets and large food-retail chains since the 1970s offered the convenience of refrigeration and packaged meats in a variety of cuts and sizes. However, this also forced local butchers and meat providers out of towns and cities, and butchery into abattoirs and large processing sites often situated in hard-to-reach rural locations.

Not only did the competition from large retailers force down the price of packaged meats, it also raised the people-costs. A lack of skilled labor in rural areas, combined with the cost of transporting workers to those areas, created a need that has been filled over the last ten years by migrant labor from EU countries. Now, the continued squeeze on prices from retailers and the upward pressure on wages is driving up production costs in the meat processing sector.

To meet demand and remain competitive, meat suppliers import a percentage of meat from outside the UK. According to the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), “British consumers tend to eat a limited range of meat cuts (for example, chops and steaks). When producers process a carcass, they have excess meat, which can’t be sold in the UK market and needs to be exported.

“However, popular cuts of meat still need to be imported to meet the UK’s needs. Meat processing companies rely on imports for 26% of their supply, with the rest coming from UK farms. Beef makes up nearly half of all meat imports to the UK with pork accounting for just over a third and lamb around 20 percent.”

 

Outdated processes

For one UK solutions provider, the answer is to rethink the outdated processes used by meat processing facilities. Cutting Edge Services is a supplier of food processing machinery and knife sharpening services based in Chorley, UK. The company has been operating for 25 years and has adapted to face many of the industry’s challenges over that time.

“Looking back over the last twenty years, the meat processing industry has taken a very traditional approach to deconstructing naked products such as meat and poultry,” explains Sam Tinsley, managing director of Cutting Edge. “Even today, abattoirs and meat processing facilities use manually intensive processes that require workers to handle very sharp cutting tools and machinery. Much of this machinery lacks the intelligence to provide digital insights into how processes can be made safer and more efficient.

“What’s more, because meat processors are under pressure from their retail customers to deliver products around the clock, in the past they’ve taken a short-term view on return on investment for their legacy equipment, favoring a payback period of twelve-months or less. Because of this, business leaders have been reluctant in the past to invest in digital technology that paid for itself outside this timeframe. However, the squeeze from retailers and from the labor market means that they now have to look beyond this.”

As one of very few female leaders in the heavily male-dominated meat processing industry, Sam sought to not only challenge the gender bias, but also change the culture of technological reluctance in the industry. When she was appointed managing director in 2017 by the company’s founder and chairman David Mook, Sam began a process of moving the industry away from its traditional image of using legacy technology, which is labor intensive and high risk. Instead, she put forward a vision for an industry that’s safe, efficient, clinical, and uses the latest intelligent technology.

“While manufacturers now understand that adopting digital technologies is crucial in bringing about a sustained benefit to their business, there is a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and fear about what steps they need to take,” continues Tinsley. “This is why we wanted to collaborate with a trusted technology partner that could help us achieve our customers’ vision.”
Sam Tinsley, managing director of Cutting Edge

“While manufacturers now understand that adopting digital technologies is crucial in bringing about a sustained benefit to their business, there is a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and fear about what steps they need to take”

A meeting of minds

Cutting Edge met ABB at PPMA 2017, the leading packaging machinery and manufacturing trade show in the UK. Despite their differences in size and scope, the two companies bonded over their shared values and vision for the benefits that digital technologies can bring to the meat processing industry.

“We do more than just shift boxes of products,” explains Tinsley. “For us, it’s about helping our customers bridge the digital gap between where they are now and where they want to be in five to ten years’ time.”

“ABB understood this. The company also recognized that the UK meat and poultry industry is much smaller than it is in places like the US where they may process three to four thousand cattle per day on so-called super farms. Here in the UK, we only achieve that kind of volume in a week. This means we need to introduce technologies on a scale that will allow UK food processing businesses to confidently take the first steps to digitalization.”

The relationship between the two companies was mutually beneficial. For Cutting Edge, it provided a way of accessing ABB’s advanced digital technologies, network of resources, and contacts. For ABB, it was a good opportunity to help develop Cutting Edge into a leading systems integrator and tap into the company’s wealth of experience in the meat and poultry sector.

“ABB works with some great systems integrators across many industries in the UK,” explains Renata Bartekova, business development manager at ABB. “These integrators play a critical role in developing and modernizing the industry and because Cutting Edge knows this industry so well, we were keen to collaborate.”

Sam Tinsley, managing director of Cutting Edge

“We do more than just shift boxes of products. For us, it’s about helping our customers bridge the digital gap between where they are now and where they want to be in five to ten years’ time.”

Smart tech

Two new technologies Cutting Edge is using to introduce digitalization are ABB’s Smart Sensor for motors and pumps, and its Orange Box, an industrial IoT solution for brownfield installations.

“ABB’s Smart Sensors for motors and pumps makes machine data available in real time,” explains Tinsley. “We have access to data such as machine stoppage times, cycle times, production uptime and, crucially, when a machine needs maintenance to prevent a potential breakdown before it happens.

“Because most of our customers hire machinery from us, we service hundreds of machines on an ongoing basis. By using smart sensors, we can tell our customers exactly when they need to be serviced, saving both parties time and money.”

Meanwhile, the Orange Box allows Cutting Edge to consolidate data across new and legacy equipment that previously lacked intelligence across multiple protocols and platforms. By doing so, they can build a big picture of their entire process plant.

“This is crucial in finding efficiency bottlenecks and safety improvements,” continues Tinsley. “If, for example, we see a spike in bandsaw stoppages four-hours into a shift, we know that we need to rework our shift patterns to avoid worker fatigue. Machines like bandsaws are particularly dangerous, so we want to maximize safety while keeping the line running.”

The introduction of smart technologies into its portfolio has allowed Cutting Edge to recruit two data scientists. The new recruits help to develop algorithms and perform analytics that provide insight and value to Cutting Edge’s customers.

Future plans

Cutting Edge wants to build on its collaboration with ABB and is already working on developing the next generation of technology for meat processing. Butchery may have moved on in the last 10,000 years, but that pace of change is nothing compared to what ABB and Cutting Edge expect to see in meat processing in just the next ten.

“We’re working to combine things like advanced machine vision systems, X-rays and other forms of scanners with advanced robotics and artificial intelligence systems to revolutionize the industry,” says Tinsley.

“We’ve seen robots in other industries allowing surgeons to perform human operations remotely from the other side of the world. This is something we could adapt for use in this industry.”

The company wants to scale the technology into cost effective solutions for the meat processing sector, helping to modernize it and position it as forward-thinking.

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