Tag Archives: seafood processing

Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
FST Soapbox

Four Benefits of Automation in Seafood Processing

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

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.

GFSI and the Road to FSMA

By Maria Fontanazza
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Many companies certified to a GFSI scheme appear to have a leg up on preparing for FSMA, especially in the area of documentation and record keeping. During a quick chat with Food Safety Tech, Bob Butcher, group operations manager at Ipswich Shellfish Company, explained how GFSI has helped the seafood processor get ready for FSMA. Do you agree? Sound off in the comments section.

Food Safety Tech: What common challenges do companies experience when managing compliance with a GFSI scheme?

Bob Butcher: Every time there’s a new regulation it’s a matter of understanding how that regulation applies to us. The seafood industry has been regulated by FDA mandatory HACCP requirements for years now. Some of the items that are covered under FSMA have already been covered by the seafood regulations. Our facilities have also undergone third-party audits for a number of years and three are already SQF certified—so in order to meet those certifications, we comply with all the FSMA requirements at this point. That being said, there’s always a challenge or opportunity to make sure we comply with all the regulations and above that, make sure that the quality [of the product] we send to our customers meets both their standards and our standards.

FST: Has being certified to a GFSI scheme helped your company better prepare for FSMA compliance?

Butcher: Because we’re SQF certified and are meeting most of the requirements of the seafood industry, we’re well ahead of meeting FSMA requirements. Maintaining the GFSI requirements put us in great shape for FSMA.

GFSI covers so many areas. [Regarding] vendor compliance, we critically examine the seafood that comes in every day and it’s a very perishable commodity, but every plant is a little different in the talent they have and the number of people. We’ve been able to focus on making sure that the product meets the same criteria at each of the facilities no matter who is receiving it and documenting it accordingly. And whether [complying with] GFSI or FSMA, documentation is important.

We’ve gone the extra step in automating so we can better track how each of the plants and suppliers are performing. We started rolling it out at one plant two years ago and then extended it to all plants. All of our facilities have been under it for a year.  

I think more and more companies are acknowledging the need to automate. With paper forms it’s difficult to make sure the employee has the correct and latest version, and the filing and recovery of that document [is difficult]. If it’s digital, you can get your hands on the latest version any time you want. Plus, you can analyze digital information and easily look for trends.

However, the seafood industry isn’t like a number of other industries—the margins are low, and so cost is absolutely a factor. If it’s a single facility, having paper forms, depending on the extent of the operation, may be acceptable. But if you get into multiple locations, it’s a whole different challenge all together.

FST: What are the broader issues that the seafood industry is currently facing?

Butcher: Supply and sustainability—making sure that you have a handle on the sustainability of the species and are able to explain that to your customers. That ties into record keeping—getting the right product, when it’s an MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] or ASC [Aquaculture Stewardship Council] chain of custody, or whether it’s having the right relationship with the vendors so you know your source. Cost is a concern, along with quality and inventory levels.

There are a lot of very small companies and a lot of them aren’t GFSI certified. A lot of them don’t even have any type of third-party audits, so I’m not sure how ready they are. It’s always a challenge for a small company to get up to speed.

FST: Does compliance with a GFSI scheme help address these issues to some extent?

Butcher: As we started working on GFSI or FSMA, and even HACCP many years ago, we started looking at products differently. You’re documenting more and gaining information—and once you have that information, you can focus on cost factors and inventory. So from that standpoint, it has been very helpful.  At this point, we’re SQF Level, and we plan to go Level 3, which involves more quality parameters and certification. That will greatly impact the product and the profitability as well.

FST: What are your tips for companies in terms of being audit ready?

Butcher: The software program we use helps us maintain our facilities to be as audit ready as we can from a documentation standpoint. With SQF there will be unannounced audits, and it’s always been FDA’s practice or the state inspector’s practice to pop in anyway, so you have to be ready for that inspection at any time. The whole principle of HACCP is to make sure you’re documenting what you’re doing. And whether it’s an auditor or an inspector, they’re coming in at any time and can look at records for the past two years, so you should be in compliance and be able to prove that.