Alternative Proteins Require a New Kind of Food Automation

As the food and beverage industry turns towards ethical, more sustainable production, the emerging alternative protein market is changing the fundamental processes of getting “meat” to market. As a result, manufacturing facilities are presented with new challenges for existing equipment and control systems.

Automation System Integration in Food & Beverage Production

Automation is an integral part of the food and beverage industry. Automation processes like mixing, batching, pouring, and packaging frees up human labor for more important tasks like development and testing. And while alternative meats may look and taste like animal-based meats, their production doesn’t. The automated hardware and the control system software that manages alternative protein production require more capable, robust, secure, and precise plant-wide control design.

The food production industry at-large is varied, requiring tailored automation solutions that meet the strict regulations of organizations like the FDA and USDA. Alternative protein production adds a new layer to those parameters, bringing additional challenges for manufacturing automation and systems integration.

E Tech Group’s extensive experience in the industry keeps us poised to help alternative protein clients of all kinds, including:

  • Cultivated meats
  • Insect-based proteins
  • Mushroom-based proteins
  • Plant and algae-based proteins

Our capabilities include new integrated automation system standups as well as control system retrofits and upgrades for existing facilities. Alternative meat automation presents both opportunities and obstacles that E Tech Group control system engineers strategically navigate.

Producing Plant-Based Proteins is Different than Traditional Meat

There are significant differences in how meat is processed and packaged versus how plant-based and cell-cultured proteins are produced. One challenge alternative protein manufacturers encounter is the number of ingredients required. Binders, stabilizers and other ingredients that affect texture and taste are necessary to make plant-based proteins taste like meat, which means extra procurement, storage, safety and processing concerns traditional meat production simply doesn’t face.

Along with this, another major difference with alternative protein production is that the process is an assembly, where traditional meat processing is a disassembling process. However, this difference is a key opening for automation to allow the alternative protein industry to compete.

Where traditional meat processing requires mostly manual labor and deals with irregularly-sized materials of varying quality, alternative protein has control over the consistency of its materials because the product is created via batch processing.

How Do Batch Control Systems Apply to Alternative Proteins?

Currently, batching is endemic to the cultivated meat industry, as it can be applied to any type of alternative protein in multiple ways. For instance:

  • Plant-based meat is typically produced in batches. The ingredients are mixed together, then the mixture is cooked and extruded into the desired shape.
  • Fermented proteins are produced by growing microorganisms in a nutrient broth. The microorganisms produce proteins, which are then harvested and purified.
  • Cultivated meat is produced by growing animal cells in a bioreactor. The cells are fed nutrients and allowed to grow and multiply. The cells are then harvested and processed into meat products.

But batch control also comes with obstacles. It’s less efficient and more expensive than continuous processing. However, an automation company adept in batch control systems and industry standards like S88 can help producers eliminate these obstacles, allowing manufacturers to take full advantage of the benefits state-of-the-art automation for alternative meats has to offer.

Logistical Advantages of Automation for Alternative Meats

Automation solutions for this new sector of the food and beverage industry provide logistical advantages:

  • Ensure consistent adherence to FDA and USDA regulations, as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act
  • Free up skilled labor for development and control tasks
  • Further minimize negative environmental impacts of protein production
  • Reduce production costs to keep price points competitive with traditional meat
  • Scale production without repeated disruptive facility retrofits
  • The ability for traditional meat processing plants to expand their capabilities

Operational Benefits of Customized Automation System Integration for Alternative Meats

E Tech Group’s alternative protein clients can expect automation systems that utilize the best in control system software, including MES implementation and DCSs like PlantPAx and DeltaV. Our robust automation systems offer end-to-end coverage for all your processes:

  • Robotics
    • Ingredient handling and prep
    • Mixing
    • Forming and shaping
    • Packaging and labeling
  • Sensors
    • Monitor production processes
    • Data collection for key parameters (temp, pH, pressure)
  • Machine learning
    • Real-time sensor data
    • Pattern identification

Our IT/OT services, such as risk assessment and cybersecurity measures that ensure your formulas, recipes and plant operations are never susceptible to bad actors. Assimilated control systems capable of integrating all your facility’s processes offers increased efficiency, better quality control, increased production, and reduced time to market. They key is that these systems are built strategically and completely customized to the needs of the client.

Regulatory Challenges of Plant Protein & Cultured Meat Production

While the entire food and beverage manufacturing industry requires technology and procedure that firmly adheres to FDA and USDA regulations, alternative protein manufacturers encounter additional challenges. Namely, that the rigorous and specific rules set out for traditional meat production don’t yet exist for plant-based and cultured proteins. Startups will need intuitive integrated control solutions that allow for flexibility and scaling as the industry develops.

Automation creates an opportunity to remove all human error from repetitive tasks like quality control and testing. This will be especially critical as numerous alternative protein producers scale up production, ensuring they remain compliant with any contemporaneous regulations, no matter their production capacity. This also holds true for traditional meat processing facilities who are expanding their capabilities to include plant-based proteins.

The key to overcoming these obstacles of uncharted territory, strict regulations, real-time product evolution, and scalability is to partner with the right automation company. A robust, redundant, cutting-edge automation system will offer tangible benefits in the present and continue to support development, flexibility and expansion in the future.

E Tech Group: Tailored Automation & Integration for the Alternative Protein Industry

It’s estimated that by 2027, the alternative protein industry will be worth over $27 billion, and will comprise just over 10% of the “meat” market at-large. Couple this with the projected 100% food production increase food scientists are predicted will be required by 2050, the alternative protein industry will continue to grow rapidly. Automation systems will need to keep pace with this growth in order to avoid bottlenecks in development and production.

While automation solutions for this sector of the food and beverage industry are emerging and will no doubt continually change as R&D, regulations and market competition progresses, the alternative protein industry needs creative, effective control systems integration now.

With the right strategies and automation products, E Tech Group helps alternative protein clients seamlessly build or retrofit integrated automation and control systems that allow them to produce consistent, quality, compliant products while retaining the ability to develop, scale and pivot with this ever-changing field.