Robot uprising? Leroy's new salmon plant takes humans out of the equation

When Leroy’s new facility at Hitra is up and running, the fish will go from hatchery to market without being touched.

Leroy Seafood Group’s new plant in Norway's Hitra region is set to be the most fully automated salmon plant in the world, with the fish going from hatchery to market without touching human hands.

The factory will become the most modern salmon facility in the world, but Leroy has to break mental barriers to make it happen, Frode Arntsen, director of production at Leroy Midt, told IntraFish.

The fourth industrial revolution is underway, and with increased automation, big data, artificial intelligence, smart sensors, cloud solutions and devices that talk together, major changes are in the cards.

And the aquaculture sector is no exception.

Heavyweight companies such as ABB and Siemens see great opportunities for the aquaculture industry in terms of automation but claim it is still lagging behind other industries in this regard.

However, Arntsen, who serves as project manager for the construction of the facility, believes some are underestimating the salmon industry.

“The first time ABB [who was awarded the contract for the management systems] called us, I felt they were almost telling us that both the PC and the electric motor were discovered and we did not realize it -- but it's not that bad,” he joked.

The factory will be completed in May 2018, replacing two plants Leroy has in Hitra today. The total investment is expected to be NOK 700 million ($82.3 million/€72.8 million).

The processing capacity is 70,000 metric tons a year.

Arntsen said that more and more of the operations in the aquaculture sector today are process-driven -- controlled by thrusters, auxiliaries and GPS signal.

Environmental monitoring is done by automated measurement and logging of temperature, currents, oxygen, nitrogen and more. Similarly, there is extensive control over the salmon farming process, such as number, size, feeding, growth, vaccination, treatments and more.

“Then we have the developments with automatic feeding. Monitoring and management has been constantly automated and digitized,”Arntsen said.

Slurry and processing machines from Baader have been automated for years, and are connected to the German processing equipment group's servers.

“Now we've taken it all to a higher level where we sew the whole system together and can analyze the production differently," Arntsen said.

The new factory will be fully automated, including self-propelled transport robots for finished products, known as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) running around the factory.

"The salmon industry is not very familiar with this. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first facility to use it them in wet and cold environments," he said. 

"We do not have much control over many of the processes we are going to do, but if they are driving devices like this around St. Olav's Hospital, I think we should also do it.”

Leroy's vision is to deliver salmon that has gone all the way from hatchery to a fillet delivered to the market without being touched by human hands.

"[It will] be completely automated at the slaughterhouse. This is where the biggest changes will take place… before there have been people there to fillet," he said. "It's a big mental step for us.”

The people working at the factory are trained to monitor the process and learn how to operate the machines, rather than manual labor work.

A number of benefits

The high level of automation provides a number of benefits: larger volumes, lower unit costs and an improved working environment for employees. Attracting employees into processing facilities has long been a challenge, Arntsen noted, so the automation promises to create jobs that are more engaging.

In addition, automation will provide better control of raw materials, better quality, and more focus on input factors such as power, water and compressed air.

“This is our answer to how we can compete with low-cost countries," he said.

The equipment available now is more stable and of better quality than just a few years ago, Arntsen said.

"We are open to further automating and digitizing, but we need input and expertise," he said.

Some reasons to be skeptical

Despite the major investment in Josnoya, Leroy isn't convinced it will be right for all its operations -- at least for now. A range of variables impact salmon processing operations. Production lines move quickly, and hygiene is paramount.

“Is a robot gripping arm ready to handle this?” he asked.

However, Arntsen said the new machines can often do "more than we think possible.

"It is by far the most modern slaughter and processing plant so far, but development is fast," he said. "We think it will be good and we are open to even more automation in the coming years.”

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