Sunday, April 21, 2024

Some Shuckin’ Good!

By Minal Abhange 

There are many health benefits to eating crab meat, but have you ever wondered how it gets from the sea to your plate? 

Not many may realize that today the majority of crab we enjoy is processed with the help of automation. 

“Traditionally crab meat was harvested manually; however, considering the decline in labour, automation is the defined route the industry is slow and steady moving towards,” says Paul Hearn, a Mechanical Engineering instructor at Ridge Road campus.

Paul recalls helping his father’s catering business as a teenager, “I hated the long hours and working on holidays, and that’s when I knew I did not want to do that, instantly. I wanted to pursue Engineering since I was in Grade 9. I had a liking for Math and Science and at a very young age I knew I wanted to design machines.”

How does it all happen?
The Automated Snow Crab Robotic Workcell Prototype was built in collaboration with the aforementioned organizations however, the overall design and invention were spearheaded by Paul.

The prototype sits inside a tall, plastic chamber roughly the size of a shipping container. A conveyer belt carries the cooked crab into the chamber, where a robot places them on one of two plastic saddles.

Next, the crabs are held in place and all legs are separated and washed simultaneously with the help of two-bladed robotic arms.  The legs tumble into a grey plastic tub below, are sorted, sectioned and ready for packaging.

Paul graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in 1986 with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering, and this was only the beginning. He was eager to work in the field and gain experience. In doing so, he had the opportunity to oversee a lot of research projects, machine designs, and prototyping initiatives. 

Crab moving through a conveyor belt inside the Automated Snow Crab Robotic Workcell Prototype is picked up by a robot, which then sorts and aligns them on two plastic saddles before they are ready to be cut.

Next, he had the opportunity to work as an Engineering Manager, overseeing industrial automation and machine vision system development. Then he was the Managing Director, supervising x-ray vision system development and deployment. 

“Today all those experiences contribute to my success,” he says. “All these roles helped in defining that I was always destined to facilitate automation with the help of my experience in machine design technology.”

It was an unexpected journey to where he is now, but one that brought him a step closer to help share his knowledge and expertise with students and help bring back career opportunities to the province. 

“I never imagined I would be working in the crab and fishing industry. Working on the crab plant robot with Ocean Choice International (OCI), The Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI) and Marine Institute serves as a great opportunity for the class I teach at CNA. If you have ever eaten fish or crab at a restaurant, it was likely butchered by a robot. It may sound terrifying; but robots are the new innovation taking over tasks like butchering and extracting crab meat.”

The impact of this automation is enormous as everything happens at lightning speed. According to Paul, automation is important for the crab and fish industry.

“Since a moratorium on cod fishing was put in place in 1992 — obliterating tens of thousands of jobs in the process — shellfish like shrimp and crab have become increasingly important to industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, crab is sent overseas for meat extraction (delicate work that used to be done in the province) where labour is cheaper than in Canada. With the help of a robot that we created, we are now equipped to do the work here for less than the cost of a living wage. With this would bring the career opportunities back home and help benefit in shaping a strong future for crab and the fishing industry.”

To find out more about the Mechanical Engineering Technology program, or other Applied Research initiatives at CNA visit


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Glenda Tompkins
Glenda Tompkins
Glenda is a 20-year marketing and communications veteran currently specializing in photography/videography and social media management. She has garnered multiple awards for her innovative, strategic campaigns at CNA. Her experience includes writing, editing, graphic design, event planning, and more. When she’s not reviewing social media engagement analytics, she enjoys spending quality time with her young family.


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