A common rationale for investing in hatchery automation has traditionally been to reduce labour costs or to overcome the challenge of recruiting for monotonous, relatively strenuous work and long working days.
Yet the use of hatchery automation systems is growing rapidly in modern hatcheries - and not only in countries with relatively high labour costs. Hatcheries in low labour cost regions are also capitalising on the improved accuracy, workflow, overall quality and financial benefits that automation delivers.
There are many good reasons to introduce automated processes in the hatchery, and a range of (semi) automatic equipment solutions are available. These solutions reflect the variety of opportunities that exist in hatcheries of varying sizes, process plans and outputs, to improve productivity and performance.
In the egg traying room, for example, eggs are transferred from small pulp or plastic trays to setter trays. Careful handling of the eggs, to avoid hairline cracks and ensure that the eggs are placed sharp-end down, is essential for good hatchery results. Well designed and adjusted automation achieves greater accuracy and consistency than manual egg handling. And when we consider that in an ordinary hatchery transferring 230,000 eggs/week, a one per cent increase in hatchability represents an additional 100,000 day-old chicks/year, it makes sense to weigh the cost of a manual v. automated process!
Care in handling during egg transfer is also critical. Here this is more challenging, because the egg shells are more fragile, due to calcium absorption by the embryo for bone development. Automated candling and egg removal save considerable labour, depending on the system chosen - and deliver better results, especially where the percentage of clears is higher than 10 - 15%. Automation also allows for more effective waste separation: especially beneficial if, for example, clear eggs are being brought to value, e.g. as egg powder for use in pet food.
Inside the chick handling room, the equipment used depends largely on the size, type and local work force situation of the hatchery. The priority is to ensure that chicks leave the hatchery as fast as possible, in premium condition. If labour saving is the main priority, stackers/destackers, connecting conveyor lines, automated basket storage and automated chick separation may be a logical choice. In weighing up the options, consider also the cost of time needed, for cleaning, disinfecting and accurately grading chicks. Further automation in chick handling may include chick counters and boxing systems, sexing tables, vaccination tables and spraying systems.
Hygiene is another area of hatchery management well-served by automation. A large range of automatic washing equipment is available for cleaning setter trays, hatcher and chick boxes and various trolleys. Systems are also available for dealing with hatchery waste, such as macerators and vacuum waste lines.
Hatchery automation systems are becoming an essential factor in the operation of the modern hatchery. And cost rapidly becomes an investment, when the main benefits include a higher number of uniform, high quality chicks, accurate process planning and timely delivery.
- Consult a specialist when planning hatchery automation systems, as many factors need to be considered and several options are available.
- Decide what has the highest priority in making the choice for which processes should be automated; labour saving or quality improvement.
- Invest first in egg handling automation for setting and transfer if the focus is on quality improvement, as this is where relevant benefits will be gained - mainly by reducing the incidence of hairline cracks and a greater accuracy in point-setting.
- If the aim is to save on labour, invest first in internal flow automation systems - from stackers/destackers, conveyor systems and automated chick separation, to fully automated basket storage.