Moving from manual to automated, Auspork takes on labor shortages

Auspork Dale Bisset

The I-Cut 130 has been key to Auspork keeping their high standards of presentation while increasing throughput during staff shortages.

Auspork was started in 1982 by a group of pork owners and farmers in Derrimut, a western suburb of Melbourne, Australia. After nearly 30 years in wholesale, they expanded production into retail and shelf-ready products with the brand Free County, supplying a variety of pork, beef, lamb and chicken cuts to independent supermarkets.

Now, 11 years later, Auspork's focus on quality products with quality presentation has made the retail-ready side of the company its most substantial growth area. Already supplying many independent supermarkets across eastern Australia, the Free Country brand recently expanded into Perth, Western Australia.

Portioned pork loin exits the I-Cut 130 Portion Cutter at Auspork

YouTube discoveries

Dale Bisset, Auspork's production manager, recognized the need to increase throughput and efficiency on the production line to keep it future-ready. He began searching for a portioning solution that didn't compromise on end-product presentation quality. "I'd tried many different portioning machines, but I wasn't happy with the results. They were all too rough and would damage the meat." One Friday night, sitting at home sifting through YouTube videos, Dale came across a video of the Marel I-Cut 130 portioning whitefish. Fish has soft flesh, so when Dale saw the I-Cut 130 cutting it cleanly without damaging the meat, he realized this could be the machine he needed. Further investigation revealed that the widely used I-Cut 130 Portion Cutter had an excellent reputation. He reached out to Geoff Stone at Marel, Australia, and the partnership began.

From a need to a necessity

Auspork's retail-ready portfolio includes around 80 SKUs of beef, pork, chicken and lamb, all prepared and packed in a single facility. With the production line being so varied but not very big, every piece of equipment needs to be well suited to its task and provide clear value to the production line. Seeing the I-Cut 130 on videos is one thing, but Geoff wanted Dale to feel confident it was the best solution for Auspork. They organized a trip to Tasmania where Dale could see the machine in person. He was convinced, "As good as the machine looked in the videos, seeing one in action blew me away. I just knew we had to get one."

Not long later COVID hit, and the company faced restrictions that had severe consequences on production. Suddenly the need for the I-Cut 130 became a necessity.

With only 63% of staff allowed on the floor at any one time, coupled with a 20% increase in customer demand, Dale says the company was "headbutting the wall wondering why we hadn't followed through with the deal quicker." Around this time, Geoff called to check in. Dale calls it serendipity, "he heard the issues we were having and said, you know we've got one of them sitting in Brisbane." They completed the deal there and then.

Auspork Dale Bisset 2

Peter Hardy (left) and Dale Bissett (right), Auspork, Derrimut, Australia

Increasing throughput and efficiency without losing quality

Before the I-Cut 130, Auspork cut all their products, other than chicken, by hand. The staff restrictions had made meeting demand difficult, if not impossible. "I noticed the value of the I-Cut 130 immediately," Dale said. "We've undeniably increased throughput. If I lined up the same amount of product and had my team of 14 guys there with just 2 guys operating the I-Cut 130, the machine would get through it quicker." The added automation of the I-Cut 130 meant Auspork could meet the increased customer demand during COVID while maintaining its high quality of produce and service.

Predictions for Auspork and others in the industry suggest skilled worker shortages will continue. Dale says he saw the shift coming. "Even before COVID, there was a general shortage of skilled labor. COVID just accentuated it." In this reality, automation has become an essential way to keep production lines operating. Dale agrees, "Robotics are big on my mind for the future."

The partnership continues

"The whole process with the sales and services team was seamless," said Dale. With the deal done and the machine already in the country, it wasn't long before the Marel service team was onsite at Auspork. They spent three days ensuring the I-Cut 130 was working perfectly, and the new operators felt comfortable with daily set-up and maintenance. "The only thing I was disappointed in," Dale said jokingly, "was I was on leave when it arrived." When he returned, a Marel service agent made sure to come back and take Dale through the more in-depth elements, such as programming for new product creation. "At first, you think, it's just a slicer with two conveyors, but it's much more than that. It is a smart machine."

I-Cut 130 at Auspork pork processing facility

The I-Cut 130 has made a significant and positive impact on the efficiency of Auspork's production line.

Strength in service

"One of the strengths of Auspork is our high level of connection with our customers," Dale told Marel. "We call each and every one of the supermarkets we supply to work through and take orders." Like Auspork, Marel puts value in service and client partnership. Geoff contacts Dale regularly to make sure the machine is running perfectly, arranging maintenance when everything is going well to reduce the chance of interruption to the production line through break-down.

The Future Transformed

Dale says things in Australia are normalizing after COVID. Restrictions have eased, and although growth is now static, production volume is steady. With Auspork not yet using the I-Cut 130 at full capacity, Dale knows it was a good decision for the future of Auspork. "The I-Cut 130 has transformed the business. I would be pretty comfortable saying it is now a necessity and if we hadn't bought it, it would have been a pretty tough year."

Auspork I Cut 130 Portion Cutter

The installation and training of staff were seamless with Marel's local support team.

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