Attracting the best and brightest minds is and remains one of the international meat industry’s top priorities and for Sam Hitchman – a physicist in an industry dominated by biological researchers – the quest to attract new talent has paid off.
The AgResearch scientist recently won the International Meat Secretariat (IMS) Prize for Young Talent in Meat Science and Technology at the International Congress of Meat Science and Technology (ICoMST) near Berlin, Germany.
Sam Hitchman, who is a postdoctoral research fellow in AgResearch’s Meat Quality team, says he was thrilled with the recognition, while adding he didn’t feel “young” – as his award would suggest – upon his return to New Zealand.
“And to be honest I was a little surprised and a little lucky to present on behalf of the research team. I am a physicist, so I am not your traditional meat quality scientist, but I think that worked in my favour.”
Hitchman presented two posters and gave an oral presentation at the congress on behalf of the wider Ministry for Business Innovation & Employment (MBIE) ‘Capturing the value of NZ red meat’ research programme team with whom he works with at AgResearch, Callaghan Innovation, the Dodd-Walls Centre and Scott Technology.
Robotics was, and has been, a consistent theme at many meat industry forums in recent years. Hitchman’s presentation stood out above the crowd, he thinks, because he focused a lot on the hardware the team used.
“I think it came to down to the fact our meat robotics programme is about gaining better data as opposed to make abattoirs more efficient, which seemed to be a common thread of the other robotics presentations I saw. Gaining better data broadens the impact of our research and using robots introduces greater levels of consistency.”
AgResearch is in the third year of a five-year MBIE-funded research programme that investigates objective measurements of meat quality.
The team, led by principal investigator Dr Cameron Craigie, has designed and engineered a robot and sensor platform that can provide more accurate and consistent measurements of beef loin cross-sections. The method is non-destructive and can objectively predict meat quality and other properties such as intramuscular fat, pH and tenderness.
Hyperspectral cameras and spectrometer technology have been incorporated as the primary source of data collection. Samples are placed on the platform’s robotic arm and the sample surface is mapped by a 3D camera. Co-ordinates are then computed for each sensor connected to the robotic arm and the system is responsible for path planning and sequencing of events such as specialised lighting, shutter actuation and data logging of each sensor.
Hitchman is based in the robotics team at AUT in Auckland so has been able to collaborate with specialists in this field. The robotic sensor platform has been used in experiments in an industrial setting on Wagyu and Friesian samples and collected consistent measurements of beef loin from a variety of sensors and samples.
For his efforts, Hitchman won an all-expenses paid trip to next year’s IMS conference in Cancun (Mexico). By then he reckons he may well have recovered from his trip to Germany.
“It was a hectic trip. I bolted on a couple of visits to other facilities that I wanted to see and my partner and eight-month old came for a visit too so the jetlag once we landed has been pretty powerful.”
The objective of the IMS talent prize is recognition of scientific and technological excellence amongst those engaged in research into red meat with an emphasis on creating the most impact on either knowledge or application for the industry, or the furtherance of meat science and technology.
“For Sam to be recognised in this way by a panel of international meat experts for science excellence and potential for industry impact is a great achievement – both for himself and also the wider research programme team – and shows that New Zealand meat research is world leading,” says Craigie.