Robots rock killing floor

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

MLA general manager for livestock productivity Alex Ball gave sheep producers a window into the future of robotic abattoirs at the producers forum in Esperance last week.

Dr Ball said the industry could look forward to stainless steel robotic devices taking the place of humans in this inherently labour-intensive industry.

That's exactly what's happening at JBS Australia's 8000-a-day Bordertown lamb plant in South Australia, where a jointly funded R&D project is providing a window into the future of meat processing in Australia.

Robotics and automation are increasingly being seen as a means by which Australian processing can address its lack of competitiveness in processing and labour costs, often quoted as being at least 50 per cent higher than those in the US and perhaps double those in Brazil.

Dr Ball said the seemingly hefty price tag of about $2 million a robotic module could pay for itself in only a few years of production. He said the custom-built, dedicated automation products installed in the plant trial recognised the unique characteristics of the lamb processing industry.

The equipment adjusted to the most extreme carcase variations, Dr Ball said. He said lamb was a premium product and automation added to the "per carcass" bottom line, minimising waste and improving cut accuracy beyond human capabilities.

"The plant is has recently had a dual-emission X-ray analysis unit installed," Dr Ball said. It takes two-dimensional and three-dimensional skeletal images, which will calculate cutting parameters for the carcase taking in bone, muscle and fat.

Dr Ball said the use of circular cutting blades, rather than bandsaws, to minimise sawdust waste, improved hygiene, and automated visual and X-ray systems positioned cutting lines precisely to deliver greater yields and improved cut accuracy.

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