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Putting brains on automation: A solution for meat processing

WIRED Is a series in Nebraska Farm Bureau News that shows how Nebraska is the epicenter of agricultural innovation. This story is the third in a series of articles that showcase emerging ag technologies and how these companies can help farmers and ranchers maximize efficiency with the addition of technology.

Nebraska beef is a driver for the state’s economy, but it’s more than just cattle ranchers that contribute to that impact. Beef processing is an essential part of getting beef products from the feedlot to consumers plates. Marble Technologies pulled together expertise in the meat processing space and developed intelligent automation to support a labor-intensive industry.

“The first solution in our platform is an automated pack-off system. Following the vacuum sealer, the Automated Packoff System identifies, weighs, sorts and boxes each product. Our system reduces labor, provides insights into production data and advances worker safety,” said Chafik Barbar, CEO and co-founder of Marble Technologies.

As a problem-solving company, Marble Technologies saw that pack-off on the processing line required lots of labor and added no value to the end product, yet was essential for getting products from point A to point B. Marble saw an opportunity to add technology into food production by developing an automated pack-off system.

“Now as unlabeled cuts come off the vacuum sealer, they are scanned by a camera. Computer Vision AI identifies the cut of meat, and it is then sorted by product type into chutes attached to boxing stations. In addition to identifying the product, the system also takes measurements
for weight, length and depth, creating new opportunities to meet customer demand for custom-sorted products and adding value to each piece,” Barbar said.

The Computer Vision AI correctly identifies, weighs and measures a brisket as it comes through the automated pack-off.

Marble was founded three years ago. Disruptions in the supply chain were only magnified by the pandemic, and many livestock producers were faced with the difficulty of getting their livestock slaughtered in a timely fashion because of labor issues in packing plants. With more automation, meat processors will be more resilient when facing disruptions.

The team at Marble Technologies wanted to provide a solution that was practical, accurate and did not slow down production. A recurring issue it found was the pack-off area, which entails a lot of strenuous, repetitive motions and required high volumes of labor.

There were many constraints Marble had to work within during the designing process. An Automated Pack-Off System must be accurate in correctly identifying cuts and be designed to fit in the space already allotted for pack-off in the plant. Additionally, the system must be able to
be installed when the plant is not in production, typically over a weekend. Finally, the equipment must be food grade and able to withstand heavy sanitation.

Starting in early 2024, the Automated Pack-Off System will be launched in multiple packing houses.

Headquartered in Lincoln, Marble Technologies realized how imperative it was to be close to the end consumer as it developed its product. Sitting in the hub of meat processing in America, Marble knew that calling Nebraska home was going to put the company ahead.

“Nebraska is the beef state. It makes sense to be close to our customers,” said Jordyn Bader, co-founder of Marble Technologies. “Because we have access to those we are serving, we are able to iterate new designs efficiently and better serve our customers.”

As Marble looks to the future, they are exploring how robots can work alongside humans to pack meat into boxes after it is sorted, accounting for the unpredictability that comes with meat production. Originally, the team at Marble wanted to know, could technology help create resilience? Now, they want people to look back and say, why haven’t we always done it this way!

Brianna Buseman, meat scientist for Marble Technologies, is excited to see how they can continue to make the meat processing process a safer, more efficient experience for all parties involved.

“Intelligent automation is the next frontier in food processing,” said Buseman. “Automated Pack-Off opens a door for opportunity in automation. The insights and data alone will allow for vast improvements to continue to be made. We want to make this industry more sustainable and continue improve for generations to come.”

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