Connecting during COVID: Seafood processing equipment developers going virtual
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of 2020 forced much of the world to reimagine its vision for the year, and even the decade.
Sequestering to help contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus quickly became the norm, resulting in the scaling back of business and personal travel, as well as social gatherings worldwide. Global industries have had to redefine the ways in which supply chains and stakeholders connect, an obstacle that the seafood segment has countered with digital ingenuity.
For example, Seafood Expo Asia, an annual seafood trade show produced by Diversified Communications, announced in September that its 2020 event would take place online as a three-day “Seafood Expo Asia Reconnect” experience from 17 to 19 November. The Global Aquaculture Alliance’s annual GOAL Conference also went the digital route, offering Zoom-enabled presentations and panel discussions to participants’ computer screens from 6 to 8 October. Meanwhile, Seafood2030’s Virtual Sustainability Forum, held in September, covered an array of seafood conservation topics for attendees to listen to from the comforts of their separate, digital offices.
Companies within the seafood processing segment have also turned to online spaces to engage with their clients and keep business humming during a time when on-site visits are far and few between. Two seafood processing manufacturers shared their experiences with SeafoodSource on using web-based tools to continually engage the industry throughout one of its most turbulent years yet.
Expo from the sofa
In April, food processing equipment manufacturing company Marel devised a new plan to connect and convene with customers via its live, virtual expo event, following the cancelation of the 2020 edition of Seafood Expo Global/Seafood Processing Global, which was set to take place in Brussels, Belgium. During the online event, salmon, and whitefish processing experts from Marel “walked participants through the virtual booth layout, pointing out key features of the solutions on display, as they would have done in Brussels,” the company said.
Magnús Ólason, the business manager for Marel’s fish division, said that even though planes were grounded earlier this year, internet connections were taking off like never before. As such, it was prime time for the company to roll out the concept of “exhibitions from your sofa.”
“When the organizers canceled the event this year, Marel decided to bring its Brussels expo stand to life in an innovative online format. All flights were canceled, but internet connections were flickering brighter than ever,” Ólason told SeafoodSource. “Marel created an interactive virtual booth for the event, so that participants could walk around and explore key features of the solutions on display for themselves. The booth ran virtual demos of simulated raw materials, as well as included links to traditional videos and other resources.”
While automation has long been on processors’ radars, it has gained more prominence lately, Ólason noted.
“Automation capabilities have been resonating with the seafood industry during this time more than we have seen in the past,” he added. “We have seen a lot of attention on our portion cutters and filleting machines. Marel offers a wide range of solutions for high-speed production of fixed-weight or fixed-length products. The high precision performance of our I-Cut 11 results in minimal giveaway, providing excellent profit opportunities. We have different options for filleting, covering both whitefish and salmon species. All of these solutions are efficient, flexible, and highly automatic and can significantly improve yield for processors.”
Marel has dabbled in digital simulation and extended reality (XR) over the years, incorporating those tools into its innovation, sales, training, and marketing practices.
“In 2020, the company’s XR team became integral to Marel’s role in understanding exactly how the COVID-19 challenges would affect operational and strategic decision-making in the food processing industry, and then how Marel would help processors respond to those challenges,” Ólason said.
Organizing virtual demonstrations has become a natural process for the company and has helped guide its development work from the design phase onward.
“During the design phase, virtual tools make it possible to use machines as building blocks and optimize product flows. Entire layouts in VR can give customers a better understanding of major installations, long before equipment is delivered, to see how the integrated solution will work, and to make use of resulting insights for preparation purposes,” Ólason said. “The demand for this type of virtual experience has grown in recent months, and is expected to keep growing even when all COVID-19 distancing measures have been reversed.”
For training purposes, VR techniques also come in handy for Marel and its seafood processing partners.
“One of the big advantages of creating virtual layouts, especially for complex, high-volume installations, is that training can also take place in VR ahead of installation,” Ólason said. “For fish processors, this means employees gain a working knowledge of the set up in order to hit the ground running after installation.”
Any fine-tuning and rearranging can be done by Marel “at the touch of a keyboard, thus avoiding expensive and time-consuming rebuilds,” Ólason added. “In fact, well before the sales process, Marel increasingly uses engineering applications of VR in manufacturing in order to speed up the innovation cycle and reduce the cost of installations for its customers.”
The digital efforts being implemented now by Marel and others within the seafood processing paradigm are expected to have impacts far into the future, according to Ólason.
“Marel has pressed fast-forward on some of its high-tech initiatives this year in order to meet the needs of the fish processing industry during the global COVID-19 lockdown. From online demos to virtual service tools, the adaptations made in this new landscape will alter the way the industry operates for years to come,” he said.
The human element remains a key component to the firm’s business, Ólason noted, even as the company delves deeper into the digital and automation spheres.
“Even in advanced factories with high levels of automation, people are key. As well as performing any manual processes, it’s the people who maintain the equipment, meet sales people to discuss upgrading operations and retailers to discuss new products, attend trade shows to keep up with technology, and host service people from their equipment and software providers,” he said.
This year has reiterated the importance of having a presence and partners worldwide, Ólason added.
“With all this technology, it’s still the people on the ground that matter most. The first half of 2020 has underlined the importance of having strong partners with a global presence,” he said. “When someone from the seafood processing industry talks about connectivity, they’re usually referring to the inherent advantages of sophisticated software and interconnected equipment. High levels of connectivity make processing solutions intelligent, making it easier for processors to meet customer orders quickly and precisely, achieve full traceability and maximize the use of the valuable raw material. As a world leader in fish processing technology, Marel offers all this. But just as importantly, Marel people connect with people in the fish processing industry. We value that connection.”
Nieuwpoort, Belgium-based MARELEC has never lost sight of the need to maintain strong connections. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to reinforce this notion for the company, which develops portion-cutters, graders, industrial weighing marine flow scales, and production management software.
MARELEC has worked closely with its distribution partners throughout the COVID-19 crisis, it told SeafoodSource, a practice that has kept business agile.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have kept in very close contact with our exclusive distributors worldwide, who were allowed to travel within their countries to visit customers,” the company said. “Certain countries were hardly affected and business in fish processing continued more or less as normal. In other countries, foodservice was more affected compared to retail, who invested to optimize production and efficiency. We had many demands for portion cutters, mainly for salmon, to add value by portioning to fixed weights. Where we would normally have been traveling together to visit customers and to work out the projects face-toface, we supported our distributors now through video calls.”
Such partnerships have proven crucial for MARELEC’s business rhythm during uncertain times.
“Not being able to travel did not stop us to work out detailed projects on aquaculture graders or graders on board of fishing vessels. Production of the fish graders and portioning machines in our factory in Nieuwpoort continued as scheduled. Luckily, we can rely on the engineers and technical staff of our distributors to install and to commission the equipment in those areas where we were facing restrictions to travel,” MARELEC said.
Alongside its digital distribution partnership arrangements, the company also launched a set of virtual showrooms in September in an effort to continue engaging protein suppliers from afar. The showrooms feature MARELEC’s next-generation food processing solutions for customers to explore from their desktops.
The company said processors can think of the platform “as an all-year round virtual trade show where you can see our total scope of supply in operation.” There are different showrooms for different industries, including seafood, MARELEC said. Virtual showroom visitors use their cursor to travel throughout the plant, clicking on the various equipment and machinery to access a list of specifications and features.
“We have simulated complete lines consisting of multiple machines showing how the product enters the line, how it is processed, and the final product leaving the line as an end customer package,” MARELEC said. “The design of the showrooms is exactly like a food processing plant or on board of a fishing vessel, where the customer can recognize his own environment. So as a visitor, you decide where to go and what to see in detail by clicking and dragging the cursor through the plant. This has been very well-received by our customers and potential customers as it shows the entire lines that we design and sell. We are getting a lot of positive feedback.”
Moving into the future, the firm said it believes a blend of in-person meetings and digital dealings will deliver the most fulfilling path forward for seafood processors when conducting business.
“Like most companies, we have learned – due to the circumstances – to re-orientate certain actions. The future will be a healthy mix of what we can offer virtually and how we used to work before to promote and to service our customers in seafood processing. The frequency of traveling for a specific project might decrease as we all are getting more and more used to meeting via a screen. But still, we look forward to visiting the plants and to listening face-to-face to the specific needs of the processors to adapt the lines according to their specifications. We see a strong and trustful relation with our customers as a very important fact and this relation can be built better when meeting ‘in the flesh,’” the company said.
MARELEC said it’s been fielding interest for a variety of its innovations during the better part of 2020, including its new MARELEC IV (Intelligent Vision) technology, which uses the company’s artificial intelligence software to recognize different fish species being fed over a processing belt to sort them accordingly.
“This replaces the work of operators, eliminates errors, requires a smaller footprint, and increases the speed of the line. These advantages versus manual specie selection is much appreciated by the seafood processors who already have the system in operation. It puts them in a very competitive position,” the company said.
Photo courtesy of Marel