Moving from whole bird processing to cut-up

Chicken continues to hold its position as the world’s preferred protein, and in many countries, the whole griller still dominates the market. However, consumer preferences for chicken meat consumption are continuously evolving.

Image caption: Supplied – QS – 3 station

Poultry processors in specific regions of the world notice such a consumer trend towards purchasing pre-cut chicken pieces instead of whole chickens. As supermarkets and Quick service restaurants are diversifying their chicken offerings, poultry processors must adapt to meet these changing demands. Moreover, local processors can face competition from imported chicken meat in various regions globally. This is a second reason to consider transitioning to in-line distribution, cut-up and deboning processes with a greater degree of automation, moving beyond the production of whole products to remain competitive in the market.

Poultry processors who are looking to increase their production of cut products, can follow specific steps to change their processes.

Moving to in-line distribution

In plants primarily focused on whole product production, a team of operators conducts visual inspections of each carcass to identify any damage or defects before placing it on a scale to weigh it. If the product has been downgraded, it will usually be cut into portions, as in the vast majority of cases any damage will be restricted to one limb only. If the carcass has been passed as an “A” grade, it will be packed and sold as a whole product.

Moving to an in-line distribution system can be a useful first step when volumes increase. Marel’s in-line grading and distribution system uses a conventional overhead conveyor, onto which is installed a programmable electronic system consisting of a QS3 quality grading station, a weigh station and a variable number of release stations. An even more sophisticated process will include a SmartWeigher and IRIS vision grading systems.

In-line quality grading

After having been rehung manually to the overhead conveyor, carcasses pass through the QS3 quality grading station where a single operator grades all products. The advantage here is that all grading work is done by a quality control specialist, who will apply a consistent grading standard to each carcass. The quality controller downgrades products by moving a switch under each carcass, which moves with the carcass through the station and is synchronised with the overhead conveyor. A mirror at the back of the unit allows the quality controller to see the back of each product. A sensor at the station’s outfeed picks up which switches have been moved to the downgrade position, transmitting this information to the system’s electronic control unit.

Image caption: Supplied – ACM-NT Compact5s

In-line weighing and automatic release

Products then pass over a weigh station, where they are weighed automatically. Each carcass’s weight is sent to the system’s control unit, so that the system now knows the weight and quality grade of each product on each shackle. According to the program set by plant management into the control unit, each carcass will be automatically released at one of a number of release stations, which can be installed anywhere on the overhead conveyor after the weigh station. A typical arrangement of release stations will have one release station for downgrades and the appropriate number of stations for sized ‘A’ grade birds in 50g or 100g increments. There will also be a station for very light or very heavy products

Not only does the system keep downgrades separate, taking them to where they are either packed whole or cut up; it also sorts ‘A’ grade carcasses into specific sizes, releasing them into a series of bins and thereby contributing to greater efficiency in the packing hall.

Improve cutting productivity

In most plants focused on whole product production, carcasses are cut into portions by skilled butchers, who then do all cutting and deboning work on each product. As volumes increase and skilled workers become more difficult to find, investment in a cone cut-up line should be considered. A cone line, where each operator does one job only, has three major benefits. By splitting cut-up into a number of specific tasks, it effectively de-skills the process. This means that skilled butchers can be replaced by cheaper staff, who can be trained more quickly. Thirdly, on a cone line cutting staff have to work at a pre-set speed, potentially improving productivity.

If the processing plant has already invested in an in-line distribution system, products can be released automatically at the cone line itself thereby improving the logistics of the secondary process area.

Marel has decades of experience cutting chicken and will always be happy to train staff in what for many low volume processing plants will be a completely new way of working.

Image credit: Supplied – ACM-NT Compact 2 (1)

Mechanising cut-up

Once cutting volumes have increased sufficiently, a processing plant should consider mechanising the process. The ACM-NT Compact is the small brother of the world-renowned ACM-NT automatic cut-up system. It has been designed as an entry-level system for processing plants, where space is at a premium and investments are confined. The ACM-NT Compact, capable of cutting up to 6500 products per hour, is available in three standard lengths. System length will depend on the number of cutting modules required and the space available. Cutting modules are identical to those used in a full-blown ACM-NT system. ACM-NT is able to do virtually all common cuts. ACM-NT can cut whole wings or wings cut into their individual joints. The system can cut front halves or breast caps. From the back saddle ACM-NT can cut rear quarters with or without a section of backbone and anatomic leg portions. Anatomic leg and rear quarters can be processed into thighs and drumsticks. ACM-NT can also do a variety of the best-known fast-food cuts. All cuts mimic careful cutting by hand with the huge advantage that ACM-NT never has an “off” day or gets tired.

As and when required, ACM-NT Compact can grow into a full ACM-NT system and all modules and track components re-used. Eventually, breast, front half and thigh deboning can also be automated with AMF-i, FHF-XB and Marel’s innovative in-line Thigh Fillet System.

Deboning

When a poultry processing plant wants to expand the range of end products even more, a next step could involve the automated deboning of cut pieces. The Marel StreamLine system can be a great help in performing deboning and trimming tasks efficiently. It ensures a well-organised flow of incoming and outgoing products, eliminating the need to place a stack of products on the cutting table for deboning. Operators receive a personalised quantity of products at their workstations, tailored to their working pace. For an even higher level of automation, an AMF-i or FHF FlexControl breast meat deboning system or a Thigh Fillet System can be considered, all of them operating independently of human skills.

Packing and labelling

Of course, packing and labeling of chicken pieces are also processes that can be automated. Marel’s end-of-line systems handle the final stages of the poultry product packaging process, ensuring it aligns precisely with the presentation requested by the end customer. This customisation can meet the specific needs of each processor, whether it’s a standalone machine or an advanced production line. The advantages of automating these processes are numerous: cost savings, enhanced product flow, increased throughput, and improved batching efficiency in end-of-line operations. Furthermore, it significantly reduces the necessity for manual intervention, ensuring consistently labeled and packed batches every time.

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