Friday, July 1, 2022

Automation trial falls season short

Automated slaughter board machinery will miss out on the one more season it needed at the Mataura lamb processing plant to sort out operating issues.

The Alliance Group Ltd lamb and sheep killing facility is shutting down, but the Ovine Automation Ltd (OAL) directors do not meet next until November 27, their first opportunity to talk about where the machinery can be transferred to.

New machinery had just been fitted into the plant before the closure decision was made, Alliance processing general manager John Brader said.

OAL is owned by a consortium of nine meat companies, and given that involvement, the machinery should be able to be moved to a replacement plant in a fairly short space of time, OAL chief executive Richard McColl said.

But he was disappointed the machinery could not stay at Mataura, and acknowledged that time frames were tight if it was going to be operating somewhere during the coming season.

Two robotic systems, used for evisceration and brisket cutting, developed by Milmeq Ltd, were at a commercial stage and equipment for Y cutting and automatic brisket rolling was at a development stage, also at Mataura. Evisceration is the opening up of the carcase to get at the internal organs, and is traditionally labour intensive.

The fact there had been no sales of the commercial robots was more related to the current economics of the meat industry, McColl said. OAL was pleased with the results of the work it had done over the last four years and savings would be in line with those targeted at the start.

Brader, also a director of OAL, said the evisceration and brisket cutting machines had been run at Mataura on a commercial basis and there were savings on the number of butchers needed on the slaughterboard.

However, some issues with the evisceration process meant more labourers than otherwise were needed on a downstream process.

He was confident those issues would have been resolved at Mataura by the end of the new season if lamb processing had continued.

“We’d then get very acceptable manning levels and particularly on a double-shift you would have double the savings.’’

The other machinery was also showing promise and one more season would have taken them close to commercial level of operation as well.

OAL also has automated pelting machinery in trial work at the Alliance plant in Lorneville near Invercargill and at the Ovation processing plant in Feilding.

When it started, the OAL trials were aimed at eventually reducing lamb processing costs by about $1 a head, from between the going rate of $3 and $4.50 at the time.

The shareholders in OAL are Alliance, Silver Fern Farms, ANZCO Foods, Blue Sky, Crusader Meats, Wilson Hellaby, Taylor Preston, Bernard Mathews and Progressive.

Blue Sky expects its investment to lead to changes in processing methods over the next two to three years, chairman Graham Cooney said in the company’s latest annual report.

The companies are funding about $7 million of the project costs on a pro rata basis over five years, depending on their share of the lamb processing market, with about $8.36m the balance provided by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology. Mirinz Inc, an industry good funder jointly owned by the Meat Industry Association and Beef + Lamb New Zealand provided some early funding.

The OAL project is separate to boning room automated technology developed by the Scott Technology – Silver Fern Farms joint venture.

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