Robots help US meat industry keep up with demand during COVID crisis

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Nearly a year on since opening a new, state-of-the-art facility designed to help develop more automation and robotics for its food production plants, US food giant Tyson Foods Inc has good reason to be pleased with its investment. The Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center (TMAC) located in Springdale, Arkansas, first began operating back in August 2019, long before the global COVID-19 health crisis.

The centre provides space for the development of new manufacturing solutions and collaboration with the company’s information technology team and equipment suppliers. It also serves as a location for team member training on new technology. The two-storey, 26,000ft² facility features four main areas: a machine vision technology lab, a lab that simulates a food production environment, training classrooms and space for team members to train in automation and robotics technology.

At the time of its opening, the company said it had spent more than US$215 million on automation and robotics over the previous five years. Such investment has proven particularly prudent during the current pandemic, which has further accelerated the switch from people to robots on the production line.

The virus has taken a heavy toll on workers in the US meat industry: In April and May of this year, some 16,000+ meat and poultry processing workers in 239 facilities across 23 US states were infected, with 86 fatalities recorded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent Wall Street Journal report suggests the company sees further automation as a solution. In the report, Tyson Foods CEO Noel White confirmed TMAC continues to refine an automated deboning system for chicken, and that the company plans to ramp up robotic processing in response to the coronavirus, to allow more spacing between workers.

The WSJ article includes the views of some of Tyson’s rivals, which are also investing in more automation on the production line. “They [meat processing robots]are much closer to what the person can do than seven years ago,” said Andre Nogueira, CEO of JBS, another major US meat producer. “One day we will be there, but we are not there yet.

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With over 20 years experience in editorial management and content creation for a broad spectrum of market-leading B2B magazines and websites in the transport and technology sectors, Anthony has written news and features covering everything from airport security to autonomous vehicles, and stadium design to sustainable energy.

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