Poultry Packaging Automation Lends a Helping Hand to Labor

By Mike Terry

Thief. Job killer. The end of human labor.

We still hear these words being used today to describe the idea of integrating poultry packaging automation in the United States. There still exists a pervasive fear that augmenting processes or replacing human labor with robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation will somehow bankrupt entire cities and leave families destitute as technology optimizes efficiency.

The truth, however, is drastically different.

Automation increases the value of human beings in the workplace. It is intrinsically designed to help alleviate the dangerous, painful challenges of human labor in poultry packaging while simultaneously improving production efficiency, food and plant safety, career opportunities, and overall customer experience.

While packaging automation can reduce the total amount of manual positions across the various phases of poultry production, realistically, the goal of robotic automation systems is so much more. It is about optimizing equipment and employee skills and removing them from strenuous, repetitive tasks that can lead to the soaring levels of turnover poultry production has seen over the last two years.

The High Demand for Human Labor

Workers would have a right to fear poultry packaging automation if the demand for human labor wasn’t so high.

The USDA estimated in May that the average American will consume more than 223.9 pounds of red meat and poultry this year. That is an 8.5% increase over the 204.6 pounds in 2011.

Mass poultry producer Tyson Foods harvested 37 million chickens a week on average in 2021. They aim to increase processing to 47 million birds per week in 2022.

The National Chicken Council seeks to increase processing line speeds to over 175 birds per minute and received temporary waivers from the previous administration to do just that.

Everyone, from mass poultry producers to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), says their number one concern is finding and retaining skilled human labor to package it all.

The simple fact is if people aren’t there, the plants won’t run. But the COVID-19 pandemic, wage inflation, and high turnover rates have made it more difficult to find workers to fill these positions.

Facing this tight labor market, poultry producers have gone to great lengths to entice workers to apply, increasing wages ($22 an hour), offering bonuses, providing better benefits, and close or on-site health clinic access to workers and their families.

Some producers are offering college tuition benefits for the children of their employees. Others are piloting flexible work schedules with fewer weekend days to accommodate worker preferences and facilitate more time at home with family and loved ones.

These efforts are bearing fruit, but it is predicted the labor shortage will affect the industry until almost 2030.

In addition to those efforts, packagers have also addressed continuing concerns of worker health, safety, and improved career pathing by incorporating poultry packaging automation where possible, especially for hazardous, strenuous, or repetitive tasks.

Helping Labor, Not Replacing It

Many of the jobs targeted for automation are undesirable or monotonous to human laborers over time.

Poultry is processed in refrigerated plants, which remain at 28 degrees Fahrenheit on average due to “wet chilling” processing and to prevent the spread of contamination. Poultry packaging work such as picking, placing, loading, rotating, conveying, case packing, and palletizing whole muscle proteins for up to 12 hours per day can tax the body and mind. Humans were meant to think, decide, and adjust in more creative ways.

These areas are ideal for automation.

Repetitive and menial tasks become automatic, allowing employees to enhance their work experience through new opportunities and the system to do more with the same number of people.

Automation stops being about employee layoffs or making current employees obsolete and all about removing the financial burden and associated time expenditure searching for additional workers. Instead, it transitions workers into uniquely HUMAN roles for upward mobility, redeploying them to help the production line run faster, smoother, and better instead of making them a cog in the wheel.

Poultry packaging automation doesn’t even have to mean incorporating complete lines of robotic equipment. Instead, it can be examining the process along the way and incorporating automation to make things as efficient as possible without creating work stoppages or bottlenecks.

Improving Food and Worker Safety

One such example of the cooperation of man and machine is the use of industrial-grade robotics in the infeeding process. Poultry is loaded and conveyed chaotically into packaging machines and requires skilled “eyes” and “hands” to ensure proper alignment, inspection, and quality control.

These advanced pick and place robots align product at high speeds for packaging, executing all the heavy lifting and repetitive tasks for 8-12 hour shifts to increase efficiency and successfully move product downstream.

Meanwhile, human laborers work alongside these machines, overseeing and supervising production to ensure safer, more efficient conditions. They operate in harmony with automation, learning the systems, and elevating their capabilities to take on new roles in the process.

Robotic automation systems also decrease overall food and worksite contamination, minimizing the number of human hands (and bacteria) that touch the product at the work cell level. Their hygienic design (washed down once a day) helps create a healthier COVID-free environment and lets packagers ship better poultry to customers to build trust and repeat purchases.

Eliminating Repetitive Motion

In many instances, boredom and injury from tasks deemed menial and repetitive can lead to the highest levels of employee turnover in poultry packaging.

Traditionally, four to five employees stand side by side at the conveyors, picking, counting, sorting, and loading poultry into different packaging formats. The physically demanding work has employees making the same motions tens of thousands of times per day, increasing their risk for negative afflictions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and musculoskeletal issues. With the increase in line speeds, these dangers can elevate to permanent nerve damage or worse.

Today’s modern automation eliminates those labor challenges and safeguards employee health by conducting those same motions at primary, secondary, and palletizing stages, from the moment they are engaged to the end of shift. Their advanced sensors and grippers accurately and reliably retrieve product and place it in various configurations on the conveyance systems at high speeds without ever shutting down – every shift, every day.

Integrating this type of automation not only offers a 30-60% increase in uptime and output (depending on system goals) without the need for redundant labor, but it also allows employees to focus on more important tasks such as oversight and the next step in the production process.

Minimizing Labor Intensity

Once product is arranged and fully packaged in a specific format, it moves in a continuum to secondary case packaging and cartoning. At this stage, manual workers would need to inspect, reorient, align, and group product from the machines by hand before loading them onto conveyors for further packaging.

Consistency is paramount for this phase of the process.

However, human beings can’t be expected to perform the same tasks the same way every single time. With faster line speeds comes higher intensity. Therefore, the product variations and exceptions that get past human quality control supervisors may not be ideal for your customers.

Automated package inspection during secondary packaging and cartoning uses sophisticated camera equipment to detect, reject, and sort defective products at the highest production speeds for 100% of the packages. Along with the apparent health benefits from social distancing, human workers can rely on advanced camera-based automation to minimize the stress of accidentally releasing defective or irregular products from their stations.

Preventing Injury

At the palletizing or tote management stages, automation allows more product to be loaded without the heavy lifting and height constraints of a manual pack out. By automating the palletizing process, there is no risk of injury from dropped cartons, or muscle pulls from twisting or lifting, which accounts for more than 30% of workplace injuries. Human labor may still oversee the process – adding necessary packing slips or documentation if these steps aren’t automated, but the selection, erection, and replenishment are strictly automatic.

Opportunities for Growth & Better Working Environment

Process and performance data are king in the poultry packaging industry. Poultry packagers use automation to constantly collect data from every packaging phase, minimizing human error, eliminating bottlenecks and repetitive tasks on production lines, and improving overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Through these incremental improvements in technology, automated robotics becomes less expensive to produce, operate, and maintain, leading workers to better opportunities for growth in management, engineering, machine servicing, and more.

In addition to elevating workers, automation also impacts the working environment. Plants transform from the noisy, unsafe, manually driven workspaces of yesteryear to brighter, cleaner, high-tech spaces focused on safety.

Fresh Talent in Poultry Packaging

This metamorphosis also attracts top, young talent to replace an aging baby boomer population. The next generation of workers is growing up in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and sees automation as an expectation to make their lives and jobs easier. They want a lucrative career in a growing business without the burden of college debt and the technological innovations to make perks like working from home possible.

Companies willing to invest in packaging automation and mentor their employees won’t have to search for 30-year veterans with the “guts” to stick it out under the worst working conditions. They will have already created a working culture that adopts and appreciates modern technologies and new ways of working.

Offering an Ideal Customer Experience

Automation also benefits labor through improved customer experiences. When customers know their packaging is coming from an automated system, they warm to the idea that there will be no human errors, irregularities, or tampering. As a result, they feel like their unique needs are being met and wait times minimized.

This trust between customer and company can’t be bought. It must be built over time through process improvement and increases in both customer service and satisfaction.

Discerning what production stages can be automated equips your workers to focus on value-add services. They can jump in at critical moments to facilitate better customer acquisition, conversion, and loyalty and deliver a customer journey that is faster, more convenient, and, most importantly, repeatable.

Poultry producer Tyson Foods understands this correlation intimately. They are taking steps to make it a reality across their production lines with an investment of more than $1.3 billion in automation over the next three years. This effort to satisfy increasing customer demand while answering lingering labor questions is predicted to save them almost $450 million by the fiscal year 2024.

Making Better Choices about Automation

Labor is a strategic challenge that requires a lasting solution going into the future. The poultry packaging sector is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 6% through 2022 and beyond. Customers want more production, higher quality poultry packaging, and lower prices.

It is futile to ignore industry progress or the demand from laborers to improve working conditions in poultry packaging and processing centers across the nation.

The focus should not be eliminating jobs or preserving the physically draining, repetitive, and mind-numbing jobs of the past but helping employees adjust, train, and leverage what makes their work human.

Product-to-pallet automation offers a multi-faceted solution to labor questions both during and after macroeconomic events like the COVID-19 pandemic. It not only makes plants more efficient, profitable, and attractive; it liberates human workers from the often-unfavorable conditions in which they work and gives them a safer, more fulfilling career.

Industry 4.0, a time characterized by the integration and fusion of robotics, AI, the internet of things (IoT), and automation, is upon us. Producers can either continue to tinker with old tools in a time of limited resources because they have always done so, or make their business lean and profitable by investing wisely in automation and great people to make it run.


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