Knife-wielding robots with x-ray vision are invading the meat-processing industry. But far from posing a threat to humans, the machines have the potential to save the industry tens of millions of dollars.

For a business at the mercy of big swings in commodity prices and beset by historical inefficiencies - namely, too many freezing works - anything that can trim costs must be a good thing.

Indeed, a June report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry takes four stabs at how the industry might perform over the next 10 to 15 years. The most positive of those forecasts relies on a "step-change" in the level of innovation investment by the sector. Specifically:

* Processing plants use a higher level of robotics and are very flexible, able to adapt quickly to different throughput and different cuts and packaging to respond to market needs.

* Increased use of robotics provides a greater number of higher-skilled jobs, while at the same time reducing the total labour requirements in the processing industry.

Older, obsolete plants would increasingly be shut, the report goes on to say. Been there, done that, could have been the reaction of Dunedin-based Silver Fern Farms. Since 2003, the country's largest meat processor has operated a joint venture with Dunedin automation specialist Scott Technology to develop a robotic lamb carcass cutting system.

About $14 million later, the joint venture, Robotic Technologies, has created a "lamb primal breakdown system" which seems worthy of MAF's approval on several counts. The machine produces a better-quality product, it promises a rapid return on investment and the information it collects can be used to forge closer ties between meat companies and farmers.

It has been installed at Silver Fern's Finegand plant in South Otago and, proving that the joint venture operates without fear or favour, at the Lorneville freezing works operated by rival meat processor Alliance Group.

The system, which does the work of two people in the boning room, uses x-rays to determine where cuts should be made as carcasses are broken down into three sections - the hindquarter (legs), middle (ribs) and forequarter (shoulder) portions.

"We scan the carcass and from that x-ray image calculate the angle of the ribs," says Scott Technology head Chris Hopkins. "That information gets transferred to the cutting machine and the cutting machine adjusts for every carcass."

Precision cutting means producing a higher-value product. A rib rack - the middle portion of the lamb - is worth $35 a kilogram, whereas a forequarter is worth only $5 to $7 a kilogram.

"If you cut in the wrong place you convert $35 a kilogram meat into $7 a kilogram meat."

The system also dramatically reduces waste by using a blade rather than the usual human-operated 1mm bandsaw to make its cuts. Two bandsaw cuts per carcass equates to 3km of wasted meat for a plant that processes 1.5 million lambs.

"We've assessed what the yield improvement is and it's about $1.30 to $1.40 per carcass," Hopkins says. With an annual national lamb kill of about 20 million, the potential gain from the system is close to $30 million.

Alliance installed one of the robotic cutters at its Lorneville plant near Invercargill in November and in one season of operation it has delivered the promised yield improvement. With the system, plus installation - it requires tonnes of lead shielding - costing about $2 million, Alliance's head of engineering, Frank Wilson, says the company is on track to pay back its investment within two years.

In Silver Fern's case, there's more to the technology than robotic cutting. Carcass x-rays - captured either in the boning room or elsewhere in the processing chain - can be analysed for yield data and the information fed back to breeders or farmers to help them rear lambs for particular markets.

When the meat export industry was born more than a century ago, British meat-eaters were happy enough to buy the product that arrived frozen aboard ships from the other side the world.

These days consumers are fussier and, as the MAF report points out, the industry needs to make more effort to produce what they want.

"The European market, for example, wants hindquarter legs that are 2.2kg or less. They don't want 2.5kg legs - different markets have different requirements," Hopkins says.

Silver Fern has installed an x-ray grading machine at its works near Timaru, says technical manager Grant Pearson, and has a budget to spend $10 million on grading and x-ray-guided cutting machines over the next couple of years.

Processor and suppliers should benefit - the former through higher margins and the farmer through producing a higher-value lamb. Bring on the robots.