A groundbreaking project that aims to use machines to measure the eating quality of meat has reached a milestone after the successful testing of a robot in-line at an abattoir in Scotland.
The Integrated Measurement of Eating Quality (IMEQ) initiative is developing pioneering automated technology of the kind used on car production lines to determine key factors such as carcass pH and temperature.
Experts forecast the efficiency gains from introducing the technology could boost revenues to the entire red meat industry by millions of pounds a year.
The three-year venture, due for completion in 2013, is being spearheaded by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) and funded by Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Government.
Quicker, cheaper and easier
The technique involves using a robotic arm to gather data from surface-based ultrasound probes positioned on different parts of the carcass.
Project leaders hailed the development as a major leap towards commercialisation for the research.
The focus of the project is to develop a quality measuring system that is labour-saving, faster and less expensive than current methods. Scientist from SAC also hope it will be more comprehensive and deliver more quality data.
The robot will measure g meat colour, carcase fat and eating and nutritional qualities. These parameters are being integrated with a video image analysis (VIA) system that could result in a new process for use on the line in abattoirs, said the project experts.
The initial focus of the project is on beef, although the aim is to extend the technology to lamb and pork.
“Central to the research is the use of robotic technology similar to that utilised by the high precision motor industry,” said the team.
A robotic manipulator, with special end-of-arm tools, is being used to provide automated measurements at line speed at the meat plant. The camera scans the carcass allowing the robot to place the pH/temperature probe into the target muscle in the half-carcass on-line.
A number of pH/temperature electrodes have been evaluated and a suitable, robust probe has been selected for the end of arm tool on the robot. This has been combined with an ultrasound probe which allows automatic, rapid measurement of subcutaneous fat.
Greater consistency and efficiency
“A priority since moving the robot onto the processing line has been looking closely at the technical robustness and intelligent autonomy of the system,” said Dave Ross, senior research engineer, Sustainable Livestock Systems Group, SAC.
He added that the automation system and sensors were currently being used successfully in a real-time environment to assess the overall performance of the system in measuring meat and carcass quality related parameters.
The project is now moving into a validation trial phase through the remainder of 2012 and early 2013.
The automated technique is likely to ensure more consistency in quality given that “current approaches based on standard protocols and ageing times cannot remove variability”, said a spokesman for Quality Meat Scotland.
He added: “The red meat industry could benefit by up to £5m (€6.2m) a year, based on current prices and throughput levels, as a result of added revenue and efficiency gains generated by the future commercialisation of this type of automated approach.”