Moving forward with automation despite the pandemic

The Q-Wing is a chicken wing part grading system that allows for higher yield and less manual labor.

In today’s highly competitive poultry processing industry, automation is a necessity for businesses to thrive. Nevertheless, small and medium enterprises remain hesitant to invest. Equipment suppliers such as Marel are helping processors adjust and move forward, writes ISA Q TAN.

Even before Covid-19 hit, poultry processing companies in Southeast Asia have begun automating, albeit at different paces.

The pandemic, however, put a temporary halt on everything. Lockdowns and movement restrictions led to closures of markets, including the food service sector, a major consumer of processed chicken. 

Many set aside plans for upgrades and expansion. Still, there were industry players who saw opportunities amid the crisis, choosing to improve internal efficiencies to prepare for the time when normalcy returns.

Adjusting to the pandemic

For Marel, an equipment supplier in Southeast Asia, the pandemic caused disruptions, particularly with travel. But by adjusting its operational style, the company managed to continue providing service.

Manuel Van ‘t Sant

“Our sales staff have not been able to have their usual regular face-to-face contact with processors but had to go online, using tools such as Microsoft Teams,” Manuel Van ‘t Sant, Regional Sales Director told Asian Agribiz.

Another drawback with online was that processors could not see how the equipment they were considering works in real life.

Fortunately, Marel has demo centers in Europe, the US, and Brazil, which can back up online explanations of the advantages of a machine or process.

“While this is not as good as seeing the equipment in operation, under difficult circumstances, it is a creditable second best,” remarked Mr Van ‘t Sant.

Travel restrictions also affected installation, commissioning, and training activities. Again, Marel turned online.

“Where formerly a EU-based manager or product specialist would travel to site to ensure successful progress, his contact is now via the internet, often involving the sharing of videos and drawings.

“The installation of webcams in relevant departments to monitor progress and equipment performance also occurred, providing valuable feedback,” he said.

Marel also relied heavily on local engineers and processing plant technicians. Experience with projects in Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam shows that this setup works surprisingly well.

Addressing concerns

Worker safety is a big concern for many poultry producers. Processing plants worldwide, particularly in Southeast Asia, typically employ many people, especially in secondary processing.

As cutting, de-boning, and packaging staff usually work shoulder to shoulder, one infection could lead to a rapid spread of the virus. Many plants have had to close as workers fell ill.

Marel said the way to address this is through automation.

“In most processing plants, the secondary process accounts for the bulk of line workers. Manual cutting and de-boning operations are people-intensive.

“The more carcasses cut and de-boned, the greater the number of people needed to cut and de-bone them. Thus, it makes increasing sense to automate,” said Mr Van ‘t Sant.

He added that automation would also allow for future growth. All Marel cut-up and de-boning systems are modular and can grow with the processor. The presentation of machine-cut portions and de-boned meat is up to the best manual standards, sometimes even better.

In primary processing, harvesting giblets by hand, particularly at higher hourly throughputs, is labor-intensive. Marel can help with its automatic giblet harvesting system, which automates the process hygienically while lifting yields too.

Help with in-plant logistics

The pandemic also brought with it changes in how people consume chicken. Eating at home replaced dining out. In Southeast Asia, this means sale of more whole products and fewer cuts.

Mr Van ‘t Sant said Marel’s logistics specialists can advise processors on ways of adapting secondary processing layouts, even temporarily, for changes in the product mix.

They can also advise on automatic equipment to reduce headcounts, allowing processors to capitalize on future growth in the market.

Time ripe for investments

Even as Covid infection reduces, a new normal will have taken over, forcing some changes to become permanent. Those who are ready will reap the benefits.

“The right time to invest is when the going is tough. Companies doing this will be in pole position to take advantage of the inevitable upturn. Investing in automation saves labor, increases processing efficiency, and paves the way for further growth,” he stressed.

The hospitality and food service sectors will eventually bounce back, and with it the demand for cut, de-boned, and further processed chicken meat products.

Pandemic-related travel restrictions affected every aspect of Marel’s business, but Marel continued to provide support to customers remotely.

Gently does it

Marel understands that many small and medium players may not have the funds to invest in large automation projects. Further, adapting to new ways of working, especially in the secondary process, may involve costly and far-reaching layout changes.

“Automating in manageable stages is the obvious answer. Processors should go for equipment which can pay back quickly,” said Mr Van ‘t Sant.

This situation calls for ‘plug and play’ solutions. During the pandemic, demand for sized, whole products to eat at home suddenly soared. Many plants did not have the grading capacity to cope with the increased volumes.

“Marel’s Compact and Smartline grader, have just the right tools. Both are quick and easy to install into existing layouts,” he pointed out. “Other examples of suitable solutions for small and medium-sized processors with limited resources are the compact version of Marel’s ACM-NT cut-up system and the AMF-i breast de-boning system.”

As with other Marel equipment, processors can choose the systems and modules relevant to them. As they grow, the systems can grow with them. “This will allow a modest investment in equipment with no expensive layout consequences, and the processor gets his foot on the automation ladder. He can take further steps when the time is right,” Mr Van ‘t Sant said.

Bright future

Marel believes that Southeast Asia’s poultry industry has a bright future. Chicken meat, the cheapest source of animal protein, is popular throughout the region.

As Covid restrictions relax, people will return to quick service restaurants to try new chicken products. There will be more choices to cook at home too.

“As a full-line equipment supplier, Marel can advise clients on suitable forward-looking solutions for all primary, secondary and further processes. The pandemic has also resulted in new ways of providing customer support. These will most definitely feature in the company’s future toolbox,” he said.

Editor, Asian Pork Magazine, Manila, Philippines. Isa is the in-house expert on African swine fever, as her deep knowledge on the subject is imbued in articles such as, ‘Strategic testing and extraction help farms survive ASF’.