Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
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Four Benefits of Automation in Seafood Processing

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

A series of ongoing challenges is making the case for automation in seafood processing a compelling one for companies struggling with high demand and an inconsistent labor supply.

Seafood processing work typically comes with harsh working conditions like wet floors, sharp tools, heavy machinery and long working hours. Tasks like gutting, cutting and canning are almost always dull, dirty and dangerous—the “three D’s” work that manufacturers often struggle to fill. As a result, many businesses turn to outsourcing to handle seafood processing needs.

Automation offers another solution. With modern robotics and automated systems, businesses can streamline seafood processing work, making it easier to process seafood closer to where it was caught or farmed. These are four of the top benefits for companies that automate seafood processing.

1. Minimizing Seafood Processing Labor Costs

Likely the most significant benefit of automation in seafood processing is lower labor costs. An automated solution can either support or replace workers at some point in a seafood processing workflow, allowing businesses to shift workers where they are needed.

As a result, these businesses are able to significantly reduce their labor costs, which is often one of the biggest expenses in seafood processing.

Because the seafood industry faces a significant and growing labor shortage—like most other industries—the labor-cost-reducing benefit of automation will become even more valuable over the next few years.

While the United States government is taking steps to manage this labor shortage—like handing out additional H-2B worker visas for seafood processors—it’s likely that the seafood industry will face a tight labor market for the foreseeable future.

2. Improving Productivity and Preventing Process Errors

Another benefit of automation can include greater efficiency and reduced waste. Fortunately, many stages in the seafood processing industry can be automated if plants invest in the proper equipment. De-heading, gutting, fin removal, and skinning are some of the tasks that food processors can automate. While the manual approach is more conventional, it’s often both time consuming and more difficult.

When workers are tired or inexperienced, they may also make mistakes or unclean cuts, potentially leading to wasted fish, slower work, and reduced product quality. Process mistakes can also make food less safe. Errors made in almost every step of the process, from gutting to canning, can potentially create food safety issues that may put customers’ health at risk.

Machines, by contrast, are very consistent. They can work for multiple shifts in a row with the right maintenance, providing the same level of quality over many hours. Typically, if machines make mistakes, they also make the same mistakes. As a result, managers may be able to more quickly find and adjust the parameters or tooling they need to change to resolve process errors.

Mistakes made by human workers may be less consistent and require more costly interventions, like training, to manage.

3. Using Automation to Make Seafood Workers Safer

In addition to reducing labor costs and making seafood processing more efficient, automation can also make this work much safer. Tasks like cutting, gutting and canning can be, by nature, very dangerous for workers.

Other occupational hazards of seafood processing may include extremely low temperatures, heavy equipment, poor ergonomics, excessive noise levels, and exposure to allergens or toxins.

These threats can lead to both acute injury and long-term health conditions, like musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) from nonergonomic movements or hearing loss from excessive noise levels.

The tasks that automation is best at handling—work that is dirty, dull or dangerous—also tend to be some of the least-safe work available. These tasks are repetitive, potentially nonergonomic, and expose workers directly to threats like biological aerosols or sharp cutting tools.

Every one of these tasks that a processor is able to partially or fully automate is a risk that a worker won’t be exposed to.

Even if it’s not possible to fully replace a human worker with an automated solution – like a cutting machine, packaging machine, or pick-and-place robot—any automation investment can generally make a processing plant safer.

With a targeted automation investment, processors may be able to make seafood processing work both much more appealing and safer, helping to manage two of the most significant challenges facing processors right now.

4. Making Seafood Processing Facilities More Flexible

Modern market conditions are volatile. Labor costs, raw material prices and consumer demands can change quickly. Inflation has also made operating expenses much harder for businesses to predict.

The ability to adapt fast to changing market conditions is necessary for seafood processors to be successful. Because experts predict the market will remain unpredictable, flexibility and agility in processing will remain invaluable assets in the near future.

Modern solutions are also helping to make automated systems even more adaptable, allowing processors to use the same technology for many purposes.

One good example is cobots, or collaborative robotics. These are robots built to work in close proximity with human workers and perform tasks that conventional automation systems can’t generally perform. By leveraging safety features like padded joints, force limiters, and motion detectors, they can work in the same space as a human worker with less risk of injury or harm.

Manufacturers and seafood processors use cobots for a variety of different applications—including pick-and-place, machine tending, depalletizing, and packaging goods. Some of the same technology that makes cobots safer, like machine vision, also enable new use-cases. For example, machine vision can allow a cobot to perform quality-control processes, like removing low-quality or unsafe products from a production line.

Most cobots, in addition to being built for safety, are also designed to be slotted into or out of workflows as needed. Lightweight and easy to reprogram, manufacturers and processors can quickly repurpose a cobot for many different tasks as needed, allowing them to stay responsive to changing consumer demands or shifting material prices.

As a result, these bots are a good automation investment for businesses that want to streamline work without sacrificing the flexibility that can sometimes be lost in the transition from manual to automatic processes.

Automation Helps Make Seafood Processing Safer and More Efficient

For seafood processors, automation may soon become an essential investment. In the industry, automated solutions can provide benefits like improved efficiency, reduced waste, greater safety, and better plant flexibility. New solutions, in particular, are helping seafood processors to keep their plants close to where the seafood is caught and farmed.

The seafood industry is likely to face a tight labor market and supply chain disruptions into the future. By adopting automated solutions, processors can more easily adapt to a changing market.

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