Robots running the meatworks: Southern hemisphere’s largest fully automated cold storage plant opens in Gympie

It started with a small butcher shop in Gympie’s Mary Street in the 1950s. Now Nolan Meats has just opened the largest fully automated meat chilling and distribution centre in the southern hemisphere.

Pat and Marie Nolan founded Nolan Meats in 1958. Their sons Tony, Michael and Terry operate the family-owned, vertically integrated business, which employs 405 people across four sites, including three feed lots to ensure consistent supply.

With this latest venture, Nolan Meats director Terry Nolan expected it would take several more months to fully commission the high-tech, multi-million dollar cold storage plant in Gympie.

“This has been five years in the planning,” Mr Nolan said.

“We thought we needed to look at our cold chain security. We’d previously leased premises in Brisbane and we wanted to build a very modern cold store distribution facility.”

The technology was selected to ensure full traceability and increase efficiencies in high volume handling of chilled and frozen beef.

“So instead of doing 500 cattle a day we might get to 1,000 cattle per day.

“Meat processing plants are quite complex. Because carcases are of different sizes, shapes and thicknesses it’s very hard to automate much of that.

“But once you have all your cuts off the carcass and you put them into a standard-sized box it becomes very easy to automate it.

“A part of freezing beef is to freeze it as efficiently as you can to keep the product as fresh as you can and in an 18-hour cycle we can have all that meat hard frozen to -25 degrees Celsius.

“It presents better when it gets to international customers.

Around 70 per cent of Nolan Meats product is sold domestically, with the remainder exported to Japan, Korea, USA, Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt.

The upgrade is also expected to deliver efficiencies in processing the chilled beef that is popular in Australia.

“We all know that beef as a protein can be costly for producers,” Mr Nolan said.

The distribution centre has a capacity of 86,000 cartons and is around 100 metres long, with shuttles servicing 23 levels.

Once a carton is ordered through the computer it is automatically collected and delivered via conveyor belt to be packed on pallets.

Each carton is identified by barcode, allowing beef to be sorted by cut, MSA eating quality, and market destination.

“The beauty of this system is that the salesman can sit in their office, enter an order and in theory nobody touches the carton,” Mr Nolan said.

“Once it leaves the boning room, it’ll go into a cold store through the automated storage and retrieval system.

“A mixed order can go in and come out in perfect order to deliver to about 300 butchers between the Tweed River and Rockhampton.”

“Those butchers are the lifeblood of our business and some butchers might buy one carton, some might buy six cartons so we could have eight to 10 butchers in one pallet and it’s all come in perfect order and no human hand has touched it until it gets to the butcher shop.”

Despite the move towards mechanisation, Terry Nolan said the company hoped to expand its workforce in the future.

“A part of that is that we need to extend our boning room as well.

“That site could have 700–800 people.”

Korean wholesalers and distributors were invited to the opening and taken to the Muster Cup race day to experience Australia.

“Korea is a very important to us,” Mr Nolan said.

“A few years ago when Russia was accused of shooting down a Malaysian airlines flight, trade embargoes were brought against Russia.

“We were sending nightly flights to Moscow with high quality beef. That market was closed on a political stance, so it’s important to us to have every market in the world open because sometimes they’re very favourable and sometimes they’re very difficult.

“At the moment Korea, while it’s an important market to us, it is quite difficult with the influx of US beef and we’re finding that Australian beef is being slightly displaced in the Korean market because of cheap US beef.

“We’re making our focus around the Asia-Pacific, so Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the USA.”

“Nolan Meats is Gympie’s largest private employer. That the family has made such a significant investment shows confidence in the region and there’s certainly an opportunity for further job creation,” Councillor Curran said.

“Today is only possible because of our enthusiastic and driven team of Nolan people who have been integral to this development and enabled this dream to become a reality,” Michael Nolan said.

Dependent on funding arrangements, Nolan Meats is also interested in becoming involved in research and development of DEXA technology, using CT scanning to help determine the eating quality of live cattle and beef carcases as well as advancing boning automation.

“If we can get an accurate skeletal diagram of the carcass and then adopt that into an automated chain where we can have a robot programmed to cut a particular joint, that’s where the real benefits would come,” Terry Nolan said.

It just goes to show how much has changed since that first butcher shop opened in 1958.

Source: Google news - ASRS