Humans are Better But Tyson Turns to Robots

Mish

Machines cannot match human skills at processing meat but the coronavirus has forced Tyson's hand.

Covid outbreaks at processing forced Tyson to turn to Robot Butchers.

In April and May, more than 17,300 meat and poultry processing workers in 29 states were infected and 91 died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plant shutdowns reduced U.S. beef and pork production by more than one-third in late April.

The outbreak forced Tyson to try something new despite the fact that machines cannot  subtle differences in shape or color. 

Nor are sizes uniform as they are with a car.

A skilled loin boner can carve a cut of meat like filet mignon without leaving too many scraps on the bone, which have to be turned into lower-value products like finely textured beef, a low-cost trimming used in hamburger meat, or dog food, said Mark Lauritsen, an international vice president for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents many meatpacking workers. For beef companies, that’s the difference between meat selling wholesale at $5 a pound and 19 cents a pound, he said. “Labor is still cheaper, and humans can do those skilled jobs much better than machines can,” he said.

Robot Skills

At a Tyson plant a team includes designers who once worked in the auto industry. They are now are developing an automated deboning system.

Tyson has 122,000 employees. When better robots are available, many of those workers will lose their jobs. 

Meat Processing vs Other Industries

Meat Processing vs Other Industries

Automation has been slow because labor is cheap despite requiring a skill set that machines cannot do easily.

But eventually machines will get smarter and faster. The communities dependent on those jobs will get hammered.

This is an interesting story from many angles, but without a doubt Covid will speed up robotics in the meat processing industry.

Mish

Comments (23)
No. 1-14
MiTurn
MiTurn

This reminds me of fruit growers converting to machines to pick fruit, such as apples. The trees are pruned in a specific way to allow an automated picking machine to drive over the tree and remove the fruit. Far fewer farm workers needed.

njbr
njbr

The technology is already there....just need to spend the money and take the leap.

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett

"without a doubt Covid will speed up robotics in the meat processing industry."

...

Let me fix that for you.

without a doubt Covid will speed up robotics in the ______ industry.

Webej
Webej

In Europe almost all the cases involving slaughterhouse workers also involved semi-legal arrangements with immigrants living 14 persons to a single family flat, transit with 8 people in mini-vans, etc. It was unclear to what extent it was the work or the ancillary conditions that promoted the contagion.

Does this apply to the States as well, I can easily imagine the work there too being performed by poorly paid and housed illegals...

Carl_R
Carl_R

I worked as a meat cutter to earn money one summer during my college years. It was hard work, but paid reasonably well, far better than fast food, or the like. In those days we didn't take out student loans, but worked our butts off during the summer to make the money to last us through the year, combined with what we made on the side during the year.

It doesn't appear that meat packing has changed all that much over the years. Yes, the people are close together, but note that 3 people per 1,000 square feet is not packing people together like sardines; that is 18 square feet per person. Still, people are closer together than that implies because they are clustered around conveyors, and much of the spaces is for storage. On the belt that I worked, they could have modified it to have 6 feet separation by using only every other workstation, effectively reducing production by half, but that's a big hit, and would mean doubling the size of plants.

Even then, is 6 feet enough? The virus spreads best in cold, dry air, and that's exactly what you have inside a meat plant, and is exactly why the virus affected so many meat packers. In that environment, they probably need regular PCR tests of people, plus PPE, and much larger spacing.

Mish is exactly right - automation is inevitable.

tokidoki
tokidoki

"But eventually machines will get smarter and faster." So Amazon with its army of amazing engineers should be able to get rid of pickers no?

Realist
Realist

Yep. Merely another example of the multi-century trend of human ingenuity.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That is one thing that the US is still particularly good at. Now, if only it was better at re-training workers to fill the types of jobs that are being created now and in the future.

PecuniaNonOlet
PecuniaNonOlet

So people are leaving big cities for rural areas because of cv19 but people leave rural areas because no jobs from automation because of cv19. Hmm sounds like a paradox.

Casual_Observer
Casual_Observer

The robots just got started. They will surpass humans given some practice.

randocalrissian
randocalrissian

Robots make UBI as inevitable as Thanos. [ed: long-term]

awc13
awc13

once again, covid speeds trends that were already in place

Felix_Mish
Felix_Mish

Great post. Over the next few years, there will be a lot of such posts.

Anyone know what the limiting factor is to modern automation such as this post talks of? I'm guessing:

  1. Tech talent - knowing how to build such automation systems.

  2. Cheap, reliable moving gizmos. It's currently expensive to dupe a human's bones and muscles.

  3. Will-ness (as opposed to won't-ness).

These are not geographical issues!

Tech talent is a competition between languages, English or Mandarin, not between geography.

Gizmos are not geographical because of modern shipping. If the modern shipping industry is hampered (e.g. by pirates, tariffs, laws, or whatever), a huge lead goes to Shenzhen, et. al. and anyone who can do deals with Shenzhen, et. al. This may change, given that modern automation, itself, might make gizmo-making world-wide.

Will-ness - the propensity to improve processes - is more cultural than geographical, I'd guess. Though societal power structures might be very important. Examine that Union guy's (wrongly reported?) comment about $5 versus 19 cents. He's not going to make it easy to apply modern automation to his industry.

Fernortner
Fernortner

It's unfortunate to have to say this, but many people who work in these plants are undocumented immigrants. With the recent crackdowns, these companies are looking for ways to avoid hiring theses immigrants. I look for the automation to continue across many industries.


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