Artificial Intelligence Meets Meat

It was the meeting of two very different minds: artificial intelligence engineers and some of the country’s top meat scientists. Not a commonplace combination, but when this rare pairing of professions occurs, incredible ideas take flight. This is the case for Marble Technologies, a start-up technology company bringing automation and artificial intelligence to the meat processing sector.    

Jordyn Bader, a co-founder and the director of industry partnerships, says collaboration amongst domain experts and cross disciplines is key to solving big challenges in food processing. “It’s been incredible to see these worlds come together for a shared goal and purpose to make an impact and solve difficult challenges in meat processing,” she says.

Bader, who grew up in production agriculture on her family’s cow-calf operation in north-central Nebraska, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural economics at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her career has since focused on ag technology, serving as a bridge between engineers who develop solutions to agricultural workplaces. In spring 2020, her and a former group of teammates from ag tech company GrainBridge (acquired as a joint venture between ADM and Cargill), reconnected with intentions to create efficiencies in meat processing. Coincidentally, it was at a time when shortcomings in packing facilities were illuminated for the world to see.

“This company really started by seeking to understand the problem before developing a solution.” - Jordyn Bader

“We spent many months talking to meat processors, beef purchasers and buyers, and livestock producers to really understand the labor shortage impact and challenges,” Bader tells. “This company really started by seeking to understand the problem before developing a solution.”

Bringing the brains

From those conversations, the diverse talents at Marble identified high-impact areas where automation would bring the most value to the facility and its crew members. In 2020, many plants were short roughly 20% of their workforce, and are still recovering.

Marble Technologies’ Automated Vision System is classifying meat products in several meat processing facilities across the country.

Marble combines computer vision, artificial intelligence, robotics, and state-of-the-art hardware to automate tasks in meat processing. “Our specialty at its core is in the brains of the automation,” Bader says. “We are focused on bringing automation to various areas in the facility where tasks are extremely labor intensive, repetitive, or difficult and dangerous.”

One of the key technology components Marble has developed is its computer vision system capable of identifying, weighing and inspecting pieces of meat on the packaging line. This type of technology is key to effectively automating tasks in fresh meat processing, particularly when a high degree of variability in the product or process exists. One such area is in packaging and pack-off operations where pieces of meat are vacuum sealed and boxed. "We listen to our customers and lean on them to point us to where intelligent automation moves the needle for them."

Marble’s automation solutions make jobs easier and require less labor, and provide positive byproducts like getting more information in real time for plants to make other improvements. Bader believes this technology also has potential for making incremental progress to developing traceability systems and reducing plant waste.

Marble Technologies serves modern meat production by identifying areas of high impact where automation can bring optimal value to the facility and its crew.

Most importantly, automation in packing facilities is beneficial outside the plant. On the consumer end, Bader points out intelligent automation technology leads to greater visibility and improved quality assurance, improving product consistency. Beef buyers and consumers know what to expect when they buy a particular product, and cut specifications are more consistent. On the producer end, making processors more resilient to potential labor disruptions helps with reliable market access. More technology in the plant helps to unlock opportunities for producers to receive more detailed information on the yield and performance of their cattle. 

Next-Generation Automation

As it exists today, the most advanced automation technology in beef processing is in warehouse inventory management — automated palletizing and order fulfillment. Comparatively, more automation exists in poultry processing, and some in pork. In the beef space, the fabrication floor presents “an immense opportunity for tech and automation,” Bader says. In fact, some of the bigger challenges are not from lack of technology, but from environmental constraints. 

“It’s one thing to train a computer algorithm to classify various cuts of meat, but it’s a whole other challenge to make an automated system fit into a very small footprint and survive in these facilities,” she says. For instance, equipment must be sanitized every night; it needs to operate in cold and wet environments; and if the technology is disrupted, there needs to be a backup system to keep product moving out the door.

“Marble is leading the way in bringing next-generation automation technology to meat processing facilities.” - Jordyn Bader

It’s a challenge the Marble Technologies team is excited to solve, by means of engineering talent and meat industry know-how. “We’re using the unique skillsets on our team to support the meat industry in its goals of improving job quality and safety for its workers and adding resilience to the supply chain. We’re humbled to be able to bring this level of impact to the industry,” Bader says. “Marble is leading the way in bringing next-generation automation technology to meat processing facilities.”

The Marble Technologies team, pictured at the organization’s showroom at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln. 


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