WHAT might it mean to labour shortages at meatworks if some of the work paralleled computer games?
Say a full-time abattoir employee could work from home, or mixed reality became a part of the average work day in a processing plant.
Imagine a world where humans and robots work in symbiosis, cutting meat and bone without risk to human safety.
As futuristic as it sounds, all this is on the radar right now for the team who run research and development for Australia's red meat processing sector, the Australian Meat Processor Corporation.
From exo-skeletons to keep those doing rigorous work injury-free to tele-remote mechanical arms, and from running training through mixed reality to gamifiation or moving product without conveyors, to breaking down carcases from a control room and even leveraging a gig-employee base globally, the innovations in the pipeline in the processing sector are astounding.
The AMPC team introduced delegates at Beef Australia to some of the futuristic ideas being investigated, and their 2030 vision for the sector, at a seminar called Modern Manufacturing.
AMPC chief executive officer Chris Taylor explained it's all about ensuring the sector remained competitive, profitable and sustainable long into the future. That and keeping the well-being of staff a top priority.
The industry had made significant advancements over the past decade in developing and adopting efficiency and safety solutions such as lamb deboning automation and bandsaw safety solutions, he said.
But plenty more was possible.
"In beef alone, almost half of the industry's processing throughput is derived from only 10 per cent of processor businesses," Mr Taylor said.
"But it isn't just size that differentiates one processor from another.
"Beef, smallstock, multi species operations, rural, regional, metropolitan, access to water, domestic, export, toll processing - the differences are countless."
That is what is driving the need for innovation.
AMPC research indicates that the cost of processing in Australia is 24pc higher than the United States, 75pc higher than Argentina, and over double that of Brazil.
The costs associated with labour, energy and important regulation in Australia are high and not easily mitigated, Mr Taylor said.
"And so we must innovate to remain competitive," he said.
Another significant challenge for processors is the attraction, retention and well-being of a large workforce.
As much as one full per cent of Australia's working population is employed from the processing plant onwards in the red meat supply chain.
Processors are significant employers in rural and regional areas, some employing over 1000 staff.
"However, AMPC research indicates that industry turnover, on average, is 68pc per annum, and that just isn't sustainable," Mr Taylor said.
"Similarly, while innovations such as BladeStop technology have gone a long way to improving safety conditions for our workforce, lacerations and musculoskeletal injuries still impact people's lives daily."
Wearable technology, known as exo-skeletons, designed to reduce fatigue and the risk of musculoskeletal injury is currently being tested.
AMPC's program manager for people and culture Amanda Carter explained providing plant operational staff with devices that either increase their strength or reduce the effort required has plenty of potential benefits, from minimising injury to extending the working life of staff and even making highly physically demanding roles available to a wider range of candidates.
"Meat processing is physically demanding," she said.
"I spent 20 years in HR in processing plants and I've had to make the hard phone calls when someone has injured themselves.
"Muscular skeletal injuries are the most common injuries in processing plants - and that has been the case for 20 years."
AMPC has established five strategic aspirations to be achieved by 2030 to guide investment in innovation.
- That human product handling is halved through technology advancement to reduce injury rates, maximise yield and processing efficiency..
- Australian processors are recognised as global leaders in environmental stewardship and are acknowledged as responsible businesses with positive economic and social impacts on their communities.
- The processing sector is seen as a diverse, safe, and attractive industry of choice for employment.
- Australia is the preferred trading partner for premium red meat products globally, with unrivalled access to high value markets.
- The Australian red meat industry maintains and further enhances its international reputation for safe, sustainably sourced, and wholesome red meat products.