This robot can process a crab in seconds, and it might actually save rural jobs

A new robot that can almost instantly separate a crab from its legs may turn out to be a blessing for the seafood industry, its proponents believe.

Robots used to cut crab may actually help keep processing jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador

A robotic crab butchering machine could have significant implications for processing companies in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The robots are coming. And they're headed for rural Newfoundland.  

The world's first full-on crab plant robot sits inside a tall, plastic chamber roughly the size of a shipping container. A conveyor belt carries the splayed crab into the chamber, where a robot scoops them up and places them on one of two plastic saddles.

And then the blade descends.

The dismemberment is swift: there's a short screech as the blade cuts through the shell and sends tiny chunks of meat into the air. 

The legs tumble into a grey plastic tub below, sorted, sectioned and ready to go.

The machine was unveiled this spring, developed by Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, in partnership with the College of the North Atlantic, Ocean Choice International and the Marine Institute.

Its functions are simple — cut the crab in half, or remove its legs — but its impact could be enormous.

The machine was designed to be a part of a robotic system that would extract the meat from the crab's shells, a process which is often done overseas.

Its designers are also hoping it will solve a few workforce problems in fish plants caused by changing demographics in rural Newfoundland.

"Younger people are not being attracted to the industry," said Bob Verge, managing director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation.

"A large part of the labour force in our processing sector now comes from the baby boomer generation. We can't replace those baby boomers with an equal number of younger people."

​Work has been shipped overseas

According to Verge, the meat extraction used to be done by hand in Newfoundland and Labrador plants, but the labour became too expensive.

The sections are now being sent overseas for meat extraction, where the labour is considerably cheaper.

Bringing that step back to Newfoundland plants would allow plant operators to make more money and get more value from the resource.

Crab are send down a belt to be processed robotically. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"Instead sending our crab out as sections with meat in its shell, we can get a higher price if we sold the meat instead," he said.

Verge hopes the robotic crab butcher will solve a sociological problem, too.

The population in rural Newfoundland is aging and shrinking. Many young people in rural Newfoundland leave their communities for good when they come of age.

It's a looming crisis for the province, and it's affecting the processing workforce.

"If you talk to operators of fish plants today, everybody needs more people," he said.

Bob Verge runs the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, which promotes research and development in the seafood industry. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Greg Pretty, industrial director at the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW), backs this up.

"The average age is about 55 years old now in seafood processing," said Pretty. "To backfill those positions, it's often difficult."

Fish plant jobs are wet and cold, and they don't pay much: maybe $15 or $16 an hour.

They're also seasonal — the crab season is short, and plants need a lot of people for a short amount of time.

Are robots taking jobs from people?

Both Verge and Pretty say concerns about the crab butchering robot replacing workers are not entirely supported.

Verge said that since the machine's ultimate intent is meat extraction, a job which is performed overseas, the robot would not be replacing any existing jobs in rural Newfoundland.

Stephen King, one of the robot's engineers, sets the machine to cut crab into sections. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

What's more, he said machines like these can actually increase the quality of the jobs available in plants and help attract young workers.

"[Technology] attracts those young people," he said. "It creates better, different jobs."

Instead sending our crab out as sections with meat in its shell, we can get a higher price if we sold the meat instead.- Bob Verge

Pretty agrees with him, at least about the quality of the jobs offered.

"In instances where a company purchased a lot of machinery we find while there is a displacement of actual labour there is an increase of skilled trades," he said.

"Somebody has to maintain those machines. In that, there is also an increase in income for the individuals."

"That doesn't affect the season, unfortunately."

Processing is a backbone of rural industry

It's a complicated and pressing problem for the province: though it's easy to find someone who will say there are too many processing plants, those plants are essential to rural Newfoundland.

Several studies out of the Harris Centre at Memorial University have found it to be what's called a propulsive industry. In a nutshell, while processing contributes little to the province's overall gross domestic product, it holds up many of the other industries in rural communities.

Rob Greenwood is the executive director of the Harris Centre at Memorial University. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

"The fish plant in a community and the fish harvesting people who bring the fish into the plant don't necessarily show up as the main source of GDP in the region," said Rob Greenwood, executive director of the Harris Centre.

"But if you go to the welding shop, they exist to service the harvesters and the plant, for the most part. If you go to the trucking business, most of their business is because of the fish activity," he said. 

"If you go to the motel, yeah they get some tourists for three months of the year, but it's people coming and going in the fish industry."

In other words, if fishing thrives, rural Newfoundland thrives.

Right now, both fishing and rural communities are undergoing unprecedented levels of change, driven by technology and changing demographics. Greenwood says only time will tell whether technology and demographics will work together, or against each other.