What it does: Manufactures food-processing equipment

What it does: Manufactures food-processing equipment

Before bacon nabbed a starring role in everything, the lowly pork belly inspired some cutting-edge technology at the Chicago headquarters of Provisur Technologies. The company’s meat processing machine cuts about 80 percent of the bacon sold in grocery stores. Utilizing scanners, lasers and cameras to turn slabs into slices, the equipment is so sophisticated it can automatically vary the thickness of its cuts on the fly in order to fill packages with a precise weight and number of strips.

“People think of food processing as nuts and bolts, something that’s not very sexy,” CEO Mel Cohen says. “When I describe the precision engineering involved, I get the ‘wow’ or ‘I saw something like that on the Discovery Channel.’ ”

Provisur is sixth on Crain’s innovation list for the quality of its patents issued last year, according to an exclusive analysis by OceanTomo, a Chicago boutique advisory firm and merchant bank for intellectual property. Provisur’s most highly rated innovation was for technology that automatically loads sliced meat into packages for sale.

“In the past, it often was hand-loaded into packages after it was sliced,” Cohen says. “This doesn’t eliminate the need for operators, but it reduces the need for hand packaging. You can do variety packs of meats. It makes the packaging more attractive, which makes it more appealing to the consumer.”

Inventions such as continuous-feed equipment can improve output 15 percent, and autoloaders can reduce the amount of labor.

“Patents have become a competitive advantage,” Cohen says. Provisur was awarded seven in 2015.

“We’re innovators,” he adds. “There are a lot of copycats. People are always waiting for patents to expire or trying to design around patents.”

Provisur, which is owned by the Crown family’s CC Industries, traces its roots to Formax, a Mokena-based company that got its start in the 1970s by providing machines to McDonald’s suppliers when the restaurant chain outsourced the making of hamburger patties. After several acquisitions, Provisur now makes machines that form hamburgers and chicken nuggets and filets, as well as grinding, mixing, cooking and slicing equipment.

Food machine has become increasingly high tech in recent years. Provisur’s machines are controlled by computers and touchscreens. Nearly 100 of Provisur’s 550 employees are engineers. “We have as many electrical and software engineers as mechanical engineers,” Cohen says. “Twenty or 25 years ago, it was more mechanical engineers.”