Meat processing is one of Australia’s largest manufacturing and agricultural export industries.

It’s vital to not only the country’s economy but also to the day-to-day lives of thousands of people who live and work in the remote and rural regions of Australia where these facilities are typically located. To stay viable in a highly competitive global industry, the sector needs to embrace innovation to boost its productivity and efficiency. 5G connectivity, combined with smart technologies powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced video analytics, holds the key to achieving those goals.

Bondi Labs, an augmented intelligence technology developer, tested two innovative new use cases, SmartInspect and SmartPack, to showcase how these innovative technologies can bring transformative cost and operational benefits to red meat processors. The program of work was born through working together with the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC) and with the support of BAI Communications (BAI) and its extensive knowledge and experience in designing, building and installing private networks in remote and difficult-to-connect locations, Bondi Labs is hoping to place Australia’s meat processing industry at the forefront of best practices worldwide.

Digital technologies: a game-changer

Up to this point, inspections of equipment and package label verification at meat processing facilities have been predominantly manual tasks. But that might change soon.

In Australia, high-fidelity video streaming is poised to make a huge difference given that such facilities are often located in remote and rural areas. The specialised equipment required for them is often manufactured in Europe or other offshore locations. If there’s a mechanical malfunction or failure, the technicians with the right expertise to assess and fix the equipment are not, in many cases, located near the plant or even based in Australia. That means they may need to be flown in at great expense, causing significant production delays for the facility.

SmartInspect enables employees, wearing live-video streaming glasses, to participate remotely in the inspection, maintenance and troubleshooting of machinery. This ensures the facility is back up and running faster following a malfunction, while also generating savings in both time and travel. Plus, high-fidelity video streaming can also play a role in enabling remote staff training, contributing to improved product safety and quality.

Advanced optical recognition, video transmission and data analytics can also strengthen label and packaging verification. SmartPack uses AI and optical recognition to identify amounts/types of packaged products and then verify that the information matches what is printed on the package label. This innovative verification technology can identify a wide range of symbols and special characters, and automatically flags damaged labels or discrepancies in the information provided, eliminating the chances of human error when it comes to detecting faulty or incorrect packaging labels.

The connectivity obstacles to smarter meat processing

While these use cases have incredible potential, deploying such advanced technologies in meat processing plants requires a robust connectivity infrastructure to be in place, which can be a challenging task.

First, sophisticated AI algorithms must be able to collect and analyse massive volumes of data in real time. This data will come from an ever-growing number of wireless video cameras, sensors, and other devices. If not handled properly, could lead to network congestion that slows down data transfer, negatively affecting operations. It is because of this that Wi-Fi and public 4G mobile networks may not be able to provide the interference and congestion control techniques required to enable the SmartInspect and SmartPack use cases.

In addition, the plant environment itself may not be conducive to optimal network performance due to in-building radio signal propagation challenges. Meat processing facilities are dense environments filled with lots of heavy machinery operating at extreme temperatures, all of which cause signal disturbances and interference. There is also the fact that many are in remote Australian locations and spread across large areas of land where existing mobile connectivity might not be as strong or reliable.

To truly take advantage of the latest technologies, advanced connectivity and edge computing designed to suit the meat processing environment are a must. This is where BAI enters the picture.

Enabling the future for meat processing and beyond

Funded as part of the Australian Government’s 5G Innovation Initiative, the collaborative trial between AMPC, Bondi Labs and BAI explored how reliable high-speed connectivity, using a private 5G network could enable smart verification technologies at remote and rural manufacturing facilities.

BAI’s knowledge and experience of private 5G networks was instrumental in the development and rigorous testing of two use cases: SmartInspect and SmartPack.

BAI designed, supplied and installed a private 5G network solution at a regional red meat processing facility that delivered the reliable high-speed connectivity required to enable the SmartInspect and SmartPack use cases. The trial demonstrated the benefits of in-building 5G coverage and the efficiencies gained from moving computing traffic and services closer to plant operators by using multi-access edge processing. During this trial, BAI devised a rigorous test plan to overcome the connectivity challenges typically experienced by plants without compromising the high level of data security required by the industry.

Improving the efficiency and productivity of the meat processing facility was just a first step. Advanced technologies running on a robust 5G communications infrastructure have the potential to transform the entire food supply chain. This pilot program could open the door to more detailed temperature control across supply chains, and the ability to provide the consumer with comprehensive insights — from farm to table.

For more on this topic, watch the conversation between BAI Australia’s Head of Design and Presales Shaun Newton and Dr Stuart Smith, Research and Engagement Manager at Bondi Labs as part of our smart communities podcast series.