Project Newsletter #17

November 2021

Interview with Alex Mason

RoBUTCHER project co-ordinator
at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

What is the purpose of the RoBUTCHER project?

RoBUTCHER is a project that develops robotics for use in meat processing, at the level of primary and (partly) secondary processing, the abattoirs and cutting plants, respectively. The project implements a central idea, the “Meat Factory Cell”, with the ambition of improving the flexibility, scalability and robustness of meat processors, regardless of volume. Today we see that the majority of processors are considered small or medium-sized, which often limits the economic accessibility to robotics and automation. 

With the Meat Factory Cell, we hope to bring forward a new way of thinking for meat processors, where automation can scale with current and future production volume while providing better opportunities to handle supply chain variability and line failure. Certainly, with COVID-19 dominating headlines in the past year or more, that has only emphasised the importance of automation in maintaining security of food supply. What we try to achieve is with high ambition and extremely challenging – it pushes the limits of what we see robots being used for in production lines today.

How far shall RoBUTCHER go?

The main ambition for RoBUTCHER has been to develop prototype system; a first “working” Meat Factory Cell in a small industrial environment. Despite added challenges during the past 18 months, that remains the project goal. That means by early 2023, the prototype system shall be up and running at a small test facility in Germany, after having first been demonstrated in Norway. This is a really important goal for the project, being able to show the industry and other stakeholders that the Meat Factory Cell approach is really possible. Of course, getting to this goal relies on the project delivering other exciting results, including new physical tooling to operate in the difficult situations (e.g., gripping and cutting tools) as well as Artificial Intelligence capable of handling the biological variation of the raw material; pigs in our case. In addition, there has been a lot of work in the project to consider the social implications of such automation in the sector, to ensure that those are well understood and that the industry can be well prepared to adapt to future change.

What is the importance of networks such as agROBOfood for RoBUTCHER?

A natural goal of projects containing research and innovation is the “go-to-market”. From that point of view, we see networks as very important on that pathway, either through meeting new enabling partners, obtaining funding to aid product development, or meeting new partners to develop the next big initiatives in the meat sector, and food processing more broadly. Food processing is an important part of the agri-food ecosystem, and there are lots of opportunities for robotics research, development and implementation. It is therefore important perhaps to encourage others in this area, and perhaps part of agROBOfood, to join and consider the future opportunities. We will of course welcome relevant stakeholders to attend events and demonstrators planned within RoBUTCHER, and particularly we are interested to meet more end users from across Europe. 

  find out more at the RoBUTCHER website