By Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman
SPRINGDALE, Ark.----Deboning livestock and slicing up chickens
has long been hands-on labor. Low-paid workers using knives and
saws work on carcasses moving steadily down production lines. It is
labor-intensive and dangerous work.
Those factory floors have been especially conducive to spreading
coronavirus. In April and May, more than 17,300 meat and poultry
processing workers in 29 states were infected and 91 died,
according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Plant shutdowns reduced U.S. beef and pork production by more than
one-third in late April.
Meatpackers in response spent hundreds of millions of dollars on
safety equipment such as personal protective gear, thermal scanners
and workplace partitions, and they boosted workers' pay to
encourage them to stay on the job.
They also are searching for a longer-term solution. That quest
is playing out in a former truck-maintenance shop near the
Springdale, Ark., headquarters of meatpacking giant Tyson Foods
Inc. There, company engineers and scientists are pushing into
robotics, a development the industry has been slow to embrace and
has struggled to adopt.
The team, including designers who once worked in the auto
industry, are developing an automated deboning system destined to
handle some of the roughly 39 million chickens slaughtered, plucked
and sliced up each week in Tyson plants.
Tyson, the biggest U.S. meat company by sales, currently relies
on about 122,000 employees to churn out about one in every 5 pounds
of chicken, beef and pork produced in the country. The work at
Tyson's Manufacturing Automation Center, which opened last August,
is speeding the shift from human meat cutters to robotic
Over the past three years, Tyson has invested about $500 million
in technology and automation. Chief Executive Noel White said those
efforts likely would increase in the aftermath of the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a debacle for the $213 billion
U.S. meat industry. For the first time in memory for some
Americans, there wasn't enough meat to go around. Reduced
production forced grocery giants such as Kroger Co., Costco
Wholesale Corp. and Albertsons Cos. to limit how much fresh meat
shoppers could buy in some stores. Fast-food chain Wendy's had to
tell customers that some restaurants couldn't serve hamburgers.
Now automation projects are racing ahead, said Decker Walker, a
managing director with Boston Consulting Group, or BCG, who works
with meatpackers. "Everybody's thinking about it, and it's going to
increase, " he said.
Automation has transformed jobs such as car assembly, stock
trading and farming. Meat processors, though, employ 3.2 workers
per 1,000 square feet of manufacturing space, three times the
national average for manufacturers, according to data compiled by
BCG. While U.S. manufacturing worker density overall has held
steady over the past five years, in meat plants it has increased,
according to the firm.
Executives of Tyson and other meat giants, including JBS USA
Holdings Inc. and Cargill Inc., say that is because robots can't
yet match humans' ability to disassemble animal carcasses that
subtly differ in size and shape. While some robots, such as
automated "back saw" cutters that split hog carcasses along the
spinal column, labor alongside humans in plants, the finer cutting,
such as trimming fat, for now largely remains in the hands of human
workers, many of them immigrants.
Workers in the animal slaughtering and processing industry,
including some not working on processing lines, were paid an
average $15.92 an hour in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor
A skilled loin boner can carve a cut of meat like filet mignon
without leaving too many scraps on the bone, which have to be
turned into lower-value products like finely textured beef, a
low-cost trimming used in hamburger meat, or dog food, said Mark
Lauritsen, an international vice president for the United Food and
Commercial Workers International Union, which represents many
meatpacking workers. For beef companies, that's the difference
between meat selling wholesale at $5 a pound and 19 cents a pound,
"Labor is still cheaper, and humans can do those skilled jobs
much better than machines can," he said.
Meat companies have raised hourly pay in recent years in
response to a tightening U.S. labor market. Adjusted for inflation,
though, average meat-processing wages have fallen 50% since 1975,
according to University of Missouri history professor Chris
Meat industry officials say the cost of living is lower in rural
areas, where many plants now are located, and that more experienced
workers are paid more. Tyson said its average hourly pay for U.S.
employees was $15.77 last year, and JBS said its average hourly
worker makes more than $20 an hour.
While meat processing overall has grown safer in recent years,
it remains one of the more hazardous jobs in the U.S. economy,
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With 4.3 workplace
injuries or illnesses per 100 full-time workers in 2018, the
industry's rate is nearly 40% higher than the national average for
all industries, surpassing logging, mining and construction. Animal
slaughter and processing facilities logged 23,500 nonfatal injuries
and illnesses in 2018, the latest year for which data is available,
though such data is marred by underreporting, according to the U.S.
Government Accountability Office.
Bashar Abdulrazzaq, an Iraqi refugee, said he lasted less than a
year at Tyson's Perry, Iowa, pork plant. After an eight-hour shift
carving meat from the backs of hogs, Mr. Abdulrazzaq said, his
fingers often were locked in place and he had to pry open his hand
to begin work the following morning. Lower back pain, caused by
moving heavy carcasses, ultimately drove him from the job, he
"Doing that for eight hours a day nonstop," he said, "it's not
Tyson said it has invested in ergonomics and other changes to
make jobs less physically demanding, including automated carcass
split saws and spare rib pullers at the Perry plant. It said the
position Mr. Abdulrazzaq held has been eliminated after the company
installed a less labor-intensive production process.
Roughly 585,000 people work in U.S. meatpacking plants. Plant
workers cycle in and out of jobs rapidly, with annual turnover in
meat plants ranging from 40% to 70%, according to Boston Consulting
Group, versus an overall 31% average for manufacturers.
Problems keeping plants staffed predate the pandemic. Plants
struggle to draw enough workers to small towns in the South and
Midwest that house most of the industry's plants. Refugees, who can
legally work in the U.S., and immigrants, including those can't,
make up a significant portion of the workforce.
Difficulties recruiting workers have been an impediment to
expanding plants and building new ones, executives said. "The
biggest push that we have in terms of automation over the last five
years is because of the availability of labor in the U.S.," said
Andre Nogueira, chief executive of JBS USA, a unit of Brazilian
meat company JBS SA.
Covid-19 compounded that problem. As the pandemic spread in
March and April, hundreds of workers stayed home from plant jobs
across the country, according to meat company and union officials.
Meat companies responded by erecting partitions between
workstations and break room lunch tables, installing automated
temperature scanners and distributing masks and gloves.
While weekly U.S. meat production has recovered, labor
challenges continue to force some meat processors to focus on
high-volume, less-processed cuts, meaning fewer boneless products
in supermarket meat cases, said Will Sawyer, an economist with
agricultural lender CoBank.
Meatpacking companies have tested automated cutting systems
before, with mixed results. Some projects were abandoned after
wasting too much high-value meat, industry officials said. Poultry
processors have successfully automated some steps, such as the job
of "gut snatchers," who removed birds' entrails, partly because
chickens tend to vary less in size than do cattle and hogs.
A growing consumer appetite for products such as deboned chicken
and skinless meat has required more people on processing lines.
Decades ago, most Americans bought whole chickens. McDonald's
Corp.'s introduction of Chicken McNuggets in the 1980s changed
that. Roughly 85% of chicken eaten in the U.S. today is parts like
breasts and wings or products such as chicken fingers, according to
the National Chicken Council. according to the National Chicken
JBS, the world's biggest meat company by sales, has been working
for years to automate portions of its poultry and livestock
operations around the world, said Mr. Nogueira. JBS in 2015 paid
$42 million for a controlling stake in Scott Technology Ltd., a New
Zealand-based robotics company that has automated lamb
Scott's system works partly because much lamb meat is sold with
bones still in it, said Mr. Nogueira. A Scott-developed robotic
knife arm for deboning still can't match humans, he said, though
such systems are starting to catch up.
At Pilgrim's Pride Corp., the second-biggest U.S. chicken
processor and majority owned by JBS, deboning machines now trail
humans by only 1% to 1.5%, in terms of meat yield per chicken.
"They are much closer to what the person can do than seven years
ago," Mr. Nogueira said. Technology and automation are part of the
$1 billion in capital expenditures JBS USA has planned for 2020.
"One day we will be there, but we are not there yet," he said.
Dean Banks spent years directing automation projects at
technology and health-care companies, most recently at X, the unit
of Google parent Alphabet Inc. set up to solve some of the world's
most vexing problems. He joined Tyson's board of directors in 2017
and became president in December.
Teaching robots to cut and sort meat, which involves soft
material and variability, he said, "it's the most challenging
operational environment you can find." The low temperatures at meat
plants, kept cool for food-safety reasons, pose more hurdles for
robotics, as does blood splatter, industry officials said.
Inside Tyson's Arkansas robotics lab earlier this year, one room
included a robot with a mechanical arm mounted inside a glass box,
resembling an arcade crane game. With the push of a button, the
robot's arm dumped three cups of multicolored beads onto a tray,
then rapidly grabbed each one and sorted them by color in less than
Tyson's technicians are trying to teach machines to recognize
and quickly adjust to differences in meat coloration and shape,
part of what executives say makes meat processing harder for
machines than, say, assembling cars from uniform, manufactured
In meat plants, "our parts are infinitely variable," said Marty
Linn, previously the principle engineer of robotics for General
Motors, who joined Tyson last year to help direct its automation
European meat plants have incorporated more automation than
their U.S. counterparts, using lasers and optical eyes to read cuts
of meat on a conveyor belt and send them to different departments
to be packed, weighed and shipped. The technology means a single
worker in plants in Sweden, Denmark and France does the work of
eight or nine workers in U.S. plants, though the operations run at
a slower pace, said Mr. Lauritsen, the union official.
Mr. Lauritsen said boosting automation at U.S. meatpacking
plants needs to be done thoughtfully so job losses don't devastate
the communities they sustain.
"If you take half the jobs out of Worthington, Minn., and
Denison, Iowa, you take away 2,000 jobs and the payrolls that come
with them," he said, referring to two towns with meatpacking
plants. "You've crippled those communities."
Tyson's Mr. Banks said that workers are in no danger of being
replaced broadly by robots soon. Workers whose jobs are automated
can be moved into other, open positions, so layoffs aren't needed,
he said. Robots can improve employee retention, he said, by making
jobs more skilled and less strenuous.
Mr. Banks said that the technology is needed to relieve
bottlenecks in Tyson's plants, where lack of skilled workers in
critical jobs can slow overall production. To solve one such
problem, he said, Tyson designed a water-jet cutting system capable
of carving up chicken breasts more precisely than humans can. Many
Tyson chicken plants now are using the system to develop new
products that they couldn't make using human labor, he said.
Automation "is something we think is going to be revolutionary
for our business," said Doug Foreman, Tyson's director of
manufacturing technology, who has designed meat-cutting equipment
for decades. "We are on the cusp of a significant rollout."
Write to Jacob Bunge at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jesse Newman at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 09, 2020 10:23 ET (14:23 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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