Multi-million dollar investment in new technology for Alliance Group

Scott Technology’s custom-built machinery to be installed in July features an x-ray unit analysing each carcase and instructing the two machines where to cut. Here it is analysing a middle primal cut.

Brand new state-of-the-art robotic boning technology worth around $16 million, plus a new thermoform packaging system, are being installed into Alliance Group’s meat processing plants this year as part of the 100 percent farmer-owned co-operative’s drive to improve operational efficiency.

First, and already installed into the company’s Smithfield processing plant in Timaru, are two robots – a brisket cutting and evisceration robot. These have been designed, manufactured and installed by New Zealand engineering company Milmeq in conjunction with Ovine Automation (OAL), the red meat industry’s collaborative vehicle for processing research. After several years of testing as part of OAL’s research and development programme, this is the first commercial release and application of the technology in the world.

The fully automated brisket cutting and evisceration robots, work safely side by side with meat workers, automating the difficult and potentially dangerous part of livestock processing, resulting in improved product quality and hygiene.

Alliance Group’s general manager processing Kerry Stevens explains the $750,000 installation is the first step of a larger project Alliance Group is undertaking at the plant.

“This investment demonstrates our commitment to innovation and will support our efforts to optimise returns for New Zealand farmers and ensure we remain competitive on a global scale,” he says.

Seeing the robots successfully operating at Smithfield is a tremendous achievement for all concerned, says OAL general manager Richard McColl. “It’s great to see a tangible success of the research conducted.”

Milmeq is delighted to be installing them for Alliance, says Mike Lightfoot, Milmeq chief executive, adding that Alliance shares their vision for innovation.

“We see this as the way of the future for lamb processing throughout New Zealand and globally. I would anticipate that, in time, the automated brisket cutter and evisceration robots will be recognised as setting the industry standard.”

New packaging system extends shelf-life

New thermoform gas flush vacuum packing machinery has been installed at Alliance Lorneville in Invercargill too. This includes a New Zealand, and possibly, world-first LeakMatic system.

The fully-automated non-destructive leak detector ensures the seal integrity of chilled meat packages and rejects any which do not meet the company’s stringent requirements for modified atmosphere packaging (MAP).

Alliance was already using earlier versions of gas flushing technology but the new system ensures a significantly longer shelf-life for packaged products, by up to seven days, offering more flexibility for supermarkets and retailers.

It also has a very high throughput capacity, packaging up to 48 legs, or six pouches, per minute. This has given the plant the ability to turn out significant volumes in a more cost effective manner and ensure loading can be carried out the day after processing, explains Stevens.

Part two: new primal and middle cutting robotic equipment

The second stage is for Smithfield, along with Alliance Pukeuri in Oamaru, to have $15 million worth of new primal and middle robotic cutting equipment for sheepmeat installed in their production lines in July.

The custom-built boning machinery, designed by Scott Technology, features an x-ray unit which analyses each carcase and instructs the two cutting machines where to cut, the robotic primal cutting machine then separates the carcase into hind, middles and forequarter cuts, a robot middles machine then separates middles into racks, loin, flap or saddle.

Kerry Stevens, Alliance Group general manager processing.
Kerry Stevens, Alliance Group general manager processing.

“The machinery is significantly more advanced than any other system in New Zealand and means we can achieve greater accuracy and deliver better yields,” says Stevens.

A major benefit of the technology is its ability to automatically adjust to a wide variation on carcase size, a significant challenge in the red meat processing sector.

“Lamb is a premium product and this technology minimises waste and improves the accuracy of the cut. The technology incorporates circular cutting blades, rather than band-saws, which results in improved hygiene, less strain for workers and better health and safety.”

In addition to the new technology, Alliance is also planning to increase the processing capacity of its Mataura plant in Southland, which underwent a full upgrade in 2012. The plant achieved a significant milestone in 2015, processing a record 126,000 head of livestock during the season.

Lamb, mutton, beef and venison are processed into 1,600 separate product lines at the company’s eight red meat processing plants and sent to 65 markets around the world.

This article has appeared in Food NZ magazine (February/March 2016) and is reproduced here with permission.


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