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World Changing Ideas

Can Robot Butchers Do One Of America's Most Dangerous Jobs?

Meatpacking is an industry where humans may be happy to give their jobs to machines.

Can Robot Butchers Do One Of America's Most Dangerous Jobs?

[Photo: MilosCirkovic]

Your meat may soon be prepared by a robot butcher. Sadly, it won’t be an android in a striped apron behind the meat counter at your local store, asking you in a metallic voice how you’d like your steak cut today, sir/ma’am? These robots will replace workers at meat-packing factories, and not a moment too soon.

The meat-packing company JBS is part of the world’s largest beef processor, and in its Greeley, Colorado plant, it is experimenting with robots on the production line. In order to automate the processing of the meat, JBS has invested in a New Zealand robot company called Scott Technology. According to a recent NPR program, automating production would trim the $100 million that JBS pays to its employees every year.

The problem is that robots aren’t nearly as good at people when it comes to dismembering a carcass, and this is especially so for beef, which varies more than other animals like pigs and lambs. A human can slip a knife between a bone and a muscle and gently ease the two apart, working more on feel than sight. It’s delicate work. Robots are much less adaptive and better-suited to repetitive, identical tasks, like those involved in building a car. And when meat is sold per-pound, you want to leave as little as possible on the bone.

[Photo: Tinieder/iStock]

That’s why JBS has bought a controlling share in Scott Technology. It wants to improve robots to the level where they can replace human butchers, but will most likely start testing them on pork and lamb, which are easier to process.

Anthropologist Don Stull doesn't think robots will ever take over the beef industry. "Workers are really cheaper than machines," he told KUNC’s Luke Runyon. "Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive."

But those workers, usually from South America and Africa, are paid little and do dangerous work. Repetitive strain injuries are common ("JBS employs an athletic trainer to keep employees limber and fit," says Runyon), and the median annual pay is just $23,320. Though robots might one day put humans out of a job, at least they wouldn't have to wear chain-mail armor, or work in a place where a moment’s distraction can lead to the loss of a finger.

Much is made of robots putting humans out of work, but when the job is this bad, maybe that’s a good thing.

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