RoBUTCHER at Max Rubner Institute (MRI): Demonstrating now the future of meat processing

15. juni 2023

The central role of the MRI in the H2020 RoBUTCHER project has been to serve as the demonstration and testing site of the technology in a semi-industrial scenario. This has included several highly critical activities such as pilot deployment in an operating processing facility, intense testing coupled with developmental and fine-tuning of the robotic system, and dynamic interaction with stakeholders from Germany and across Europe to show the Meat Factory Cell (MFC) in action and obtain their feedback.


Overall, MRI has a pivotal role in enabling the climbing of the ladder of the Technology Readiness Level (TRL). MRI´s activities lie amidst the transition phase from TRL 5 (technology validated in relevant environment) and TRL 6 (technology demonstrated in relevant environment), underpinning the steps required to take technology closer to commercial use and making it available to the general public.

Due to a labour force shortage in the meat processing sector, Europe is pressured to cope with this demand. Developing and incorporating robotic solutions into meat processing plants may hold the key to this issue. MRI is committed to developing advanced processing technologies that help address the societal role of meat and contribute to ensuring the medium- and long-term sustainability and self-sufficiency of meat production in Europe.

Testbed of the robotic Meat Factory Cell (MFC) in a semi-industrial scenario

From January to June 2023, MRI (Kulmbach) was home for the MFC, where the limits of this technology for slaughtering-deboning of a pig carcass have been appraised. During this period, two processing sessions weekly have been carried out to check the functionalities of the robotic system and fine-tune all of the components working together, e.g. vision systems, calibration procedures, grippers, improvement of the artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms defining the cutting trajectories, testing new cuts, and adaptation to broader biological variability. The session coordination is in the hands of the MRI staff, but a team of experts from different partners, mainly NMBU, Cyclum, RobotNorge, and Bytemotion, attend online to facilitate the operation and provide on-demand expert inputs. MRI skilled-butchers not only interact with the cutting process headed by robots but also with the virtual world by giving their feedback to the predicted cutting trajectories and, in doing so, streamlining the cutting process sequence over consecutive working sessions.

Beginning a live streaming session to develop and test the Meat Factory Cell (MFC) at the MRI facilities (Kulmbach). Image source: Tomas Bolumar
A pig is mounted in the MFC, ready for cutting (left image) and a comparative picture of a shoulder cut by the MFC robotic system (left-hand side) versus a shoulder cut by a human butcher (right-hand side) (right image). Image source: Tomas Bolumar

Intense testing to evaluate the safety and quality of meat obtained through the Meat Factory Cell (MFC)

The mission of the MRI is to evaluate the safety and quality of the meat obtained through the MFC. Data registration and samples have been taken systematically over the processing to document the process and evaluate microbial populations using routine and more advanced microbiological techniques. Equipment contamination is also assessed to provide insights into hygienic design. Similarly, meat quality is evaluated through various analyses determining basic meat technological properties such as pH, temperature, colour and tenderness alongside the monitoring of more specific metabolites early post-mortem that govern the conversion of muscle to meat and the onset of the rigor mortis, events of paramount importance for meat quality and processing ability.

Furthermore, MRI in Kulmbach has unique capabilities to process meat within a couple of hours from stunning, due to the proximity between the slaughter plant and the meat processing pilot plant (across the road). We seize this to explore the accelerated processing of hot meat and its comparison to conventional chilled and processed (cold meat). Accelerated processing could bring about advantages such as energy savings due to no requirement of a complete carcass chilling or enhanced functionality of muscle proteins, enabling fewer and lower amounts of additives such as salt and phosphates in meat products. This accelerated processing is a difference that the MFC system brings, and its exploration is also a part of our studies.

Microbiology sampling collection (left image) and meat processing at the pilot plant (right image). Image source: Tomas Bolumar
Primary cuts (from left, belly, four limbs, saddle with head, and internal organs set) displayed for veterinary inspection after being processed through the MFC. Image source: Tomas Bolumar.

Dynamic interaction with stakeholders

MRI – Department of Safety and Quality of Meat has contributed to expanding the dissemination of the RoBUTCHER project concept and technology, particularly throughout Germany. Under the German Ministry of Agriculture and Nutrition umbrella, MRI is a trusted advisory organisation. Professor Dagmar A. Brueggemann has been actively involved in presenting the MFC concept and its peculiarities to several stakeholders, amongst them representatives of the German Ministry of Agriculture and Nutrition, several key meat industry associations, major and medium-size pork processors, technology providers, and international researchers. The MRI has hosted several end-user workshops and two focus group interviews with the participation of the members of the RoBUTCHER End-Users Reference Group (ERG) and German stakeholders. Highly regarded feedback has been obtained to pave the way for the technology and to follow up with the next projects to address future meat processing needs in the best way possible.

End-users workshop on 1st June 2023 organised on-site to demonstrate the MFC in operation to several stakeholders from Norway, Denmark, Ireland and Germany. Image source: Thorsten Hempfling.