Seafood processors, equipment developers turning to robotics

On 5 February, food processing equipment manufacturing company Marel hosted the 19th edition of its Salmon ShowHow, an event that brought 295 guests from 145 companies around the world to Progress Point in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Product demonstrations, guest speaker presentations, and seminars were featured throughout the 2020 Salmon ShowHow, which aimed to help global salmon processors of all types to “integrate smarter processing methods and technologies with their existing processes,” Marel said in a press release. 

“Looking around the demo hall, it was easy to see that robotics, data control, and automation in general are still increasingly important for the industry. But it was also striking how the machines and solutions are consistently designed with the human operators in mind – it’s about human-machine collaboration, not about replacing people with robots,” Marel added.

The growing role and range of robotics in processing is hard to ignore, according to DTI Director of Robot Technology Kurt Nielsen, who spoke during a double presentation with Marel Innovation Project Manager Adalsteinn Viglundsson. The types of robots being incorporated into seafood processing include “cobots,” which people can easily interact with, as well as highly-intelligent machines capable of making sequences of decisions and complex movements, Nielsen said.

Viglundsson touched upon the work that Marel itself is doing in the realm of robotics, describing the intricacies of building such platforms for the food industry. Robots designed for the food industry now number in the thousands, Viglundsson said, with innovation in the sector spurred by the need for technologies that can help accommodate flexibility while addressing key challenges such as labor availability, ergonomics, food safety, higher yield, and efficiency.

“But we’re not talking about [100 percent] automation, about removing the people altogether,” Nielsen explained. “Robots are not a replacement of humans, but a tool to improve the productivity of people. It’s about collaborative technologies.”

Nielsen and Viglundsson stressed the importance of joint development of robotics technology, calling for board rooms to open up dialogues on the matter. Having a well-rounded and solid robotics strategy will only become more necessary to remain competitive in modern food processing – it’s not just about having the latest gadgets and toys anymore, they said.

One machine present at the Salmon ShowHow highlighting Marel’s own ventures into the robotics sector was its depalletizing robot, which provides relief for human employees from having to shift and empty large boxes of salmon. Not yet released for widespread sale – solutions are still being developed for the device, including a function for automatic box strap cutting – the depalletizing robot on display at the event has been pre-sold to Norwegian fish processing company Inka AS, and will be installed later this year, Marel confirmed. With the ability to automate and optimize raw material handling, the depalletizing robot can empty two boxes at the same time, is approved for wet environments, and can feed two lines simultaneously.

More complex intelligent robot solutions – such as a Robobatcher Flex and an I-Cut 130 Portion Cutter – were demonstrated by Marel at the day-long event, and software solutions were showcased as well, including those from Innova. Two software seminars focusing on yield and full production control were well-attended and well-attuned to the current platform needs of salmon processors.

“Yield is a key driver in the industry and I think we can agree it's something we are all passionate about. Just a one percent drop in yield can significantly affect the bottom line. Innova lets you collect and collate data to monitor and improve yield, which can increase profits considerably,” Marel Software Product Manager Gauti Arnarson said.

Improving yield is at the core of many of Marel’s equipment innovations, too, “from FleXicut’s highly accurate cutting for both pre-rigor and post-rigor portioning, to the high-performance yet simple new pin-bone remover, ideal for smaller businesses that don’t need the more advanced features of a standard pin-boner, such as stored programs and touchscreen control,” the company said.

“This simpler pin-boning machine drew a lot of attention during demonstrations, and it’s clear the industry will welcome its release for sale next quarter," Marel added. "Simple solutions often make a very strong business case, which is certainly true for the manual de-heading solution demonstrated at the ShowHow. Using a carousel-like platform, operators receive the salmon without having to reach across each other, and once they remove the fish’s head, they simply slide the fish forward onto a rotating platform below the carousel, which ensures a steady flow of salmon is delivered to the PaceInfeeder or the buffer for a filleting machine."

Rabobank’s Gorjan Nikolik and Sealed Air Food Care’s Gonzalo Campos both gave overviews of the general salmon industry and the retail opportunities available to suppliers and processors in the sector. Nikolik pointed to a gradual rise in raw material and the potential impact of unpredictable events, such as the coronavirus, as trends to watch. He also spoke about the impact a potential rise in salmon farming – both offshore and land-based – could have for the industry, emphasizing how difficult it is to predict if a business case for this alternative supply will prove viable.

“If there’s a positive scenario there in the next five years – if! – then this will have a huge impact on the salmon industry,” Nikolik said.

Meanwhile, Campos provided a rundown of salmon retail trends and tactics, citing foremost that only 5 percent of fresh salmon being processed today is retail packed.

“And that leaves a very big opportunity!”  Campos argued.

More options than even exist today, he said, when it comes to increasing the proportion of salmon retail products in consumer shopping carts.

“It’s no longer just about ‘convenient products’ – it’s about being healthy, having premium presentation, easy cooking – such as microwavable – and meeting consumer demand for fish making up a higher percentage of the protein intake,” Campos said.  

Photo courtesy of Marel


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