When it comes to the export game, being a high-cost producer can make life something of a challenge.

Denmark is one of the world's leading exporters of pig meat, despite its high production costs. One of the main keys to its success has been the industry's willingness to invest in research and development into improved automation practices.

Reducing labour and increasing yield through automation is a key aim for the technicians and scientists at the Danish Meat Research Institute (DMRI), part of the Danish Meat Association (DMA).

The Danish industry has made significant strides forward when it comes to automation in recent years, according to Claus Hagdrup, deputy development manager, automation, with DMRI.

He says that in 1998, the average clean slaughter line in Danish plants had just one machine and around 30 people to process between 360 to 400 pigs an hour. By 2006, the potential exists to have half that number of people and 10 machines to process the same number of pigs.

"In 1998 we sat down with the industry and recognised we only had one machine on the lines and very little development was going on among the machinery manufacturers."

He says there was a reluctance among industry to invest in developing expensive new equipment.

As a result, the DMRI established a long-term automation programme, with an annual budget of @5m, partly funded by the Danish industry, including Danish Crown and Tican, public funds and further funding from the manufacturers.

The need for automation has been driven in Denmark by a combination of a declining labour force and increasing wages. In a bid to stay competitive on the world market, the Danes have had to automate to gain efficiency.

And it is not just on the clean lines where automation has taken place. Equipment has been developed to improve efficiency throughout the unclean slaughter line as well, with machines and equipment enabling semi-automation of the lairage areas, through to the stunning and sticking.

The showcase for all this automation is the new Danish Crown plant at Horstens, which has been the first slaughterhouse to implement such extensive automation on such a large scale.

The 78,000m2 plant has three lines in its clean area, with 86 staff and eight machines. Previously, a similar operation would have required 420 people. The site is now proving popular as a visitor destination for people from all over the world. Since opening in May 2005, the plant has received 37,500 visitors.

Overall, the DMRI is aiming to have completed the roll-out of it automation techniques to all Danish slaughter lines by 2007, with the deboning and cutting lines being completed by 2008.

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