EFFICIENCY gains, embracing the digital realm and sustainability are key drivers of some of the phenomenal technologies emerging in red meat processing plants but there is one element of the business that is king when it comes to fostering innovation.
That is employees.
Far more than any dollar return on investment, abattoir bosses seem to be weighing up the benefits that might be delivered to those on the ground when considering investing in, and trialing, new gear and methods.
Attracting, retaining and keeping safe employees is at the top of the agenda.
Some incredible innovations in place at forward-thinking plants were showcased at the recent Australian Meat Processor Corporation in Melbourne.
From robotic dogs doing checks in dangerous areas to smart glasses bringing people together virtually and artificial intelligence in quality assurance, the cutting-edge technologies are so often underpinned by a goal of improving the lot of the employee.
Gabi Ryan, the innovation manager at family-owned and operated Fletchers International Exports, said that with so many pinch points in processing businesses, prioritising what to target first was the biggest challenge in the innovation space.
"We see people as the biggest strength in our business, so improving their experience is a big part of any project we take on," she said.
A 100 per cent Australian-owned company, Fletchers has two sheep and lamb plants - one in Dubbo, NSW and one in Albany, WA; plus farms in both states, a gin storage and handling facility and a United States office.
Ms Ryan said not only were there efficiencies to be gained right across the supply chain through technological innovation but consumers were asking for 'our story' and searching for smart solutions was key to delivering that.
Over the past three years, some of the key innovations put in at Fletchers include a bandsaw capable of handling larger carcases and remote glasses to enable virtual contact.
Fletchers worked with technology developers Guardian to create a bandsaw that makes it easier to and safer to break down what are increasingly larger carcases being produced and has now replaced all the saws in its plants with the new gear.
At the farmer-owned Casino Food Co-op in northern NSW, the thinking is sustainability and innovation go hand-in-hand - you can't have one without the other.
The operation has 1000-plus employees over three sites, processing beef, veal and pork, plus a hide tannery. It exports products around the world.
An $8m retail-ready packaging facility, with the capability of portion packing more than 100 tonnes of meat ready to be put straight onto supermarket shelves, was recently set up.
It included a state-of-the-art hygiene management system entry room for employees, which incorporates artificial intelligence in a remarkable way.
Innovation manager Trevor Moore said the room included numerous cameras which focus on different areas as people walk though, with an AI script run over the footage.
"This indicates if hands are not washed properly, assesses loose items, incorporates facial recognition and a clock-in facility, infrared temperature testing and even checks procedural compliance, such as whether a hair net is on properly or the apron has been properly fit," he said.
"These are tasks traditionally performed by a QA (quality assurance) officer but this is uninterrupted and uncompromised.
"It has no allegiances, no friends, runs 100 per cent of the time on 100pc of the people. It never stops for smoko and it doesn't talk about the state of origin."
Casino is also utilising an automated guided vehicle, known as spot the dog, for remote assessment of restricted areas and other on-site jobs.
Mr Moore said these types of innovations were the start of big change in the processing industry.
"Where innovation improves efficiency, it makes it better for employees," he said.
"But it's also about making every job available to every person."
The country's largest meat processor and manufacturer, JBS Australia, which runs plants and feedlots from the Riverina in NSW through to Townsville in northern Queensland, places employees high on its innovation agenda too but also considers building trust through the supply chain a major driver.
JBS innovation manager Michael Finucan said the wide and diversified supply platform that JBS utilises provides access to a lot of different cattle, which means the company can meet a lot of customer needs, from grinding beef through to branded grassfed and premium grainfed.
JBS' innovation strategy takes a whole supply chain approach - buy, make, sell, he said.
It has three key target areas - efficiency, sustainability and digital.
Projects on the go at JBS include a producer portal, where suppliers have access to their kill data and are able to analyse the outcome of decisions and on-farm management practices.
The company is also working with technology company Jarvis to trial a 'stealth knocking box' which reduces noise and animal stress at this early stage in the meat production process.
A biomass boiler and objective carcase measurement technologies are also being trialled.