Mar 7, 2023 - Business

Robotics and AI offer something to chew on at Tyson Foods

Illustration of a robotic hand dipping a chicken nugget in sauce.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Tyson Foods researchers are experimenting with how robots can improve interactions with a variety of biological tissues.

  • Unlike the automotive industry, meat and poultry come in infinite sizes, shapes and weights.

Context: Since launching its Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center (TMAC) in downtown Springdale in late 2019, the company has relied more on automation to perform some of its operations.

Why it matters: Historically, meatpacking is a dangerous job, though the industry has improved dramatically in recent years. Robots can take over risky and repetitive tasks, reducing injuries and worker fatigue.

  • The technology can also fill in some positions where labor is tight.

What's happening: CEO Donnie King, in a 2021 earnings call, said Tyson would invest $1.3 billion in automation. At the time, the jobs were hard to fill — especially in meatpacking where COVID-19 became a safety issue — and demand was high.

  • The company said then it was increasing its use of technology to debone chicken — a hands-on, labor-intensive job with high turnover.

Zoom out: Labor continues to be an issue for Tyson. The company cited shortages as a factor that contributed to its lower earnings in the first-quarter report released in February but did not provide additional details.

Of note: Tyson mostly purchases commercially available robotics from vendors, then adapts the tools to work in the cold, wet environment of a meat plant.

  • Director of TMAC Marty Linn declined to show Axios a demonstration of a mock deboning line in the lab, citing proprietary technology.

What they're saying: "There's potential for more than robotics," Chetan Kapoor, Tyson’s head of automation, told Axios.

  • "Robotics is just a physical aspect of the intelligence" piece of the overall automation puzzle.
  • Kapoor described a machine that can look at a cutlet and determine its internal temperature, and another that can view any meat in a tray, determine whether it's chicken, beef or pork, and print a label on the spot.

By the numbers: Since opening, more than 650 Tyson employees from across the nation have received training at TMAC, a spokesperson for the company said in an email.

  • A robotics technician typically earns 10% more than someone who works on traditional automation equipment.

Reality check: Robots won't replace human workers anytime soon. A recent survey of 2,000 workers found only about 14% had electronic competition.

What we're watching: In its quarterly earnings report, Tyson said it plans to spend about $2.5 billion in fiscal 2023 on "capacity expansion and … automation to alleviate labor challenges" and product R&D.

Disclosure: Reporter Worth Sparkman formerly worked at Tyson Foods.


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