Alleviating Labor Challenges with Automated Protein Loading: A Producer’s Pocket Guide

By Mike Terry
Robotic Protein Loading

Protein loading can be strenuous, time-consuming, and physically demanding without automation. The process requires up to eight human operators on a production line, all manually loading, cutting, styling, and arranging product into the ideal packaging array.

Supporting this process means integrating system automation to increase efficiency, decrease human error, and achieve the packaging dexterity needed to maintain a strong production throughput.

If you haven’t fully automated your protein loading process, your outdated operations could cost you your commercial viability.

New Protein Loading Challenges from Modern Labor Shortages

That thought may be jarring, but it rings true.

Human labor has never made protein loading less expensive, time-consuming, or more precise. What is more, in the past, automation did not possess the digital judgment, system coordination, or real-time dexterity to guarantee the optimized protein placement or packaging results producers needed.

When COVID-19 hit U.S. manufacturing, labor shortages spiked to all-time highs. Those labor shortages compounded these challenges due to a lack of skilled and unskilled labor and created an urgent need for new inefficiency solutions for meat and poultry processors.

Today, though solutions are presenting themselves, labor scarcity is getting worse, not better.

Experts estimate that 25% or more of our modern manufacturing workforce is 55 or older. Most will retire in the next five years without new workers to replace them. And, without a viable solution, forecasts predict meat and poultry processing operations will continue to suffer.

What Is Causing Labor Shortages in Meat & Poultry Processing?

The problem is attracting and retaining talented, high-quality workers in processing plants. Many potential workers, especially from younger generations, see manufacturing jobs, like protein loading, as repetitive, labor-intensive, and unrewarding.

According to a survey of 3000 young Americans aged 18-24, only 11% thought that trade schools could lead to rewarding, high-paying jobs.

And they are not wrong.

The incentives for working in food processing – even with better pay, improved benefits, and even tuition reimbursement – aren’t that enticing. When compared to other opportunities, such as four-year college, Amazon warehouse employment, and other less strenuous vocations, there is little debate.

Traditional protein loading and packaging are very labor-intensive at every stage. Processing a primal cut of meat can take up to 10-15 people. Inspection, arrangement, and placement into trays or singulation for loading and packaging may require another 8-10. These complex tasks also require staff to work closely on an assembly line in a cold, wet environment, wearing protective gear all day.

Even with outdated automation at any production interval, the protein loading process is still difficult to run continuously at desired rates and rarely provides the return on investment (ROI) you need.

Automated Protein Loading Marches Forward

The question then becomes:

“How do you process protein into neat, attractive packaging without sacrificing production speed, lowering employee satisfaction, or attempting to draw from a depleted workforce?

The simple answer: automated protein loading innovation.

Robotic Loading

New enhancements in automated protein loading now make it technologically and financially feasible to overcome even the most daunting production challenges and REDUCE labor needs by up to 75% per line.

The keys to these breakthroughs are crucial developments in robotic vision, gripping, and perception module systems from industry leader and Harpak-ULMA Packaging partner, Soft Robotics. Enhanced vision systems, such as mGrip AI and advanced pneumatic gripping systems, have become true game-changers for protein loading.

As proteins are processed fresh in various shapes and sizes, and conveyed in chaotic arrays into packaging equipment, new automation features analyze, style, and load difficult, stacked, or irregular proteins in REAL-TIME. This continuous analysis and action offer loading accuracy and dexterity previously unavailable via automation and creates various new benefits across multiple packaging applications.

Real-time protein loading automation now reduces or eliminates product loss, minimize production inefficiencies, and allows flexible high-speed product loading for thermoforming, flow wrapping, tray sealing, and more.

Automation Solution Components: An In-Depth Look

But how do these systems accomplish this real-time analysis and production? Has protein loading automation improved so Robotic Gripperdramatically over such a short time to allow for such groundbreaking innovation?


To understand the answer to these questions, you must examine how these new solution components work individually AND in tandem with each other to achieve optimized and unprecedented automation functionality:


Traditionally, protein cuts would arrive chaotically – in bulk or piled on top of each other – and pass under a 3D vision system for inspection, orientation, picking, and placement inside a given packaging format. However, the excess space between that vision system and the robotic picker allowed for faults, defects, and product loss, as the independent automation systems could not adjust in real-time.

To counter this, packagers would have to install ancillary equipment such as vibratory tables, a sorting system, linear feeders, and laning systems to ensure optimized product spacing and simplified direction between the vision system and the robot picker.

The Soft Robotics mGrip AI Perception Module solves that issue by interconnecting the automated robotic systems – the Intelligence Module (“brain”), mGrip gripping systems (“hand”), and Perception Module (“eyes”) – and changing the 3D vision system’s orientation to hover OVER the pick place. This new, seamless AI communication and vision system orientation allows for optimal product arrangement in real-time, regardless of arrival configuration or product movement.


Concurrently, innovations in Soft Robotic’s pneumatic finger gripping systems help to overcome laning and picking, labor scarcity, and product contamination challenges on the same equipment through integrated operational AI.

Real-Time Picking

In the past, it was a struggle for Automation systems to pick and place products arriving chaotically in real time. Now, the gripping systems, designed for multiple product SKUs and applications, allow for intelligent, conveyor-based picking and optimal adjustment for moving piled or overlapped product. With this improved flexibility, you can now attune your system and produce faster or slower (up to 60 picks per minute on average depending on size and weight of product), depending on your processing needs.  Plus, the expensive feeding systems such as linear vibratory tables are not needed.  This saves the manufacturer both cost and valuable floor space in the plant.

Intelligent Picking

But reactional, real-time picking isn’t the only advantage offered by mGrip AI technology. Using a 3D vision system placed ABOVE the product loading area, grippers can now see and assess exact product locations in real time, even if product orientation changes, and automatically retrieve them for further processing. This intelligent picking eliminates the need for repetitive, strenuous, manual labor and offers exceptional savings in terms of ergonomics and employee staffing and retention.


Previous AI processing for automated systems was largely independent. Today, the Intelligence Module in the mGrip AI uses high-speed 3D image processing to control all robotic motion, including grasp planning, object singulation, and execution. This better field of vision helps the three systems working in tandem to grab errant or chaotically arrayed proteins and seamlessly load them, eliminating product loss and reworks.

For example, with previous automation, there were tasks only human workers could accomplish in real-time. If the product weren’t aligned correctly, a human laborer would adjust it manually for packaging. For secondary case packing, if the automation could only produce two rows of 24 in a 50-pack box, a human laborer would pack those extra two proteins by moving around packaged product for a better fit. The automation components couldn’t work together, as the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough.

Now, the mGrip (hand) and Perception Module (eyes) work together continuously in real-time – all centrally controlled by the Intelligence Module (brain) to achieve the desired production configurations and packaging outcomes.


These collaborative protein loading automation innovations do not mean anything, however, without one key element for today’s manufacturing environment: hygienic design. While the idea of hygienic design is nothing new, modern hygienic variations given to leading-edge automation make all the difference.

In updating automation for today’s post-pandemic clean rooms and processing lines, Soft Robotics has made IP66K-IP69-IP69K sanitation adherence the standard for not only their food-grade gripping systems but also all system designs for loading and packaging proteins.

Another innovation that Automation suppliers are using today are “spatula style” mechanical pickers that utilize a Venturi Air System with precise spring-guided suction loading. Air is taken in but spat back out into the ambient air at the end of the movement, providing the precision of finely tuned automated placement with the hygienic safety of modern regulatory safeguards.

But these hygienic designs extend past gripping systems to include a broad array of additional hygienic, FDA-approved components for automated protein loading such as:

Icon - Conveyor

  • Conveyors with Removable Washdown Belts
  • Control Cabinets with Sloped Tops
  • Enclosed Wiring for Robotic Loading Cells
  • Covered Feet with No Exposed Threads
  • Complete Stainless-Steel Design

While these hygienic measures may seem minute, they make essential strides in improving system efficiency, productivity, and cost savings in many ways:

  • Provide easy access for thorough cleaning and fast equipment changeovers
  • Offer easy component removal for nightly third shift washdowns and sanitizing
  • Help to avoid recall expenditures due to product contamination

Return on Investment (ROI) for Automated Protein Loading

While these new advancements in automation provide definitive production benefits and solve labor challenges, as a producer, you’d be reluctant to implement costly automation without monetary return. And you’d be right.

The bottom line is integrating this type of cutting-edge automation can save you up to $600,000 per year. And that is just to start.

Traditional ROI timelines for automation have been approximately 18-24 months. Labor has changed this. Now, the real challenge is finding the correct number of employees to work together with automation to ensure optimized productivity, product quality, and ROI.


To keep the ROI calculations simple, the equation looks like this:

“Capital Cost – Hard Savings = Payback Period”

With the previously mentioned 75% reduction rate in labor, you would factor in laterally or upwardly moved staff and the capital cost of the automated systems.

For example, if you have eight employees on one line and move six of them to different, more attractive positions (keeping two for final product QA), you can save up to $50,000 per person, per shift, per year in salary costs.

That is $600,000 (assuming six people on two shifts annually). If your automation costs are $300,000 in that effort, your ROI timeline is six months.


There are other indirect ROI factors that modern automation offers to your unique production operations as well, which are no less important to your investment planning.

Training & Recruitment

Icon - TrainingExperts estimate that the cost of training a single new employee for protein processing in meat and poultry plants is about $8000. Moreover, there is an additional time investment (two weeks on average) for training employees on production sequence and operating equipment. Unfortunately, there is also no guarantee they will stay on after training to fulfill their roles. Automation can spare you that expenditure, reduce staffing and employee retention costs, and improve production overall.

Ergonomics & Safety

Icon - SafetyPackagers are always looking to make their workspaces safer and prevent expenditures on lost time due to injury and workman’s compensation claims. Automation increases safety and ergonomics at every packaging stage by minimizing human error, fatigue, and disability caused by workplace accidents.

For instance, if you automated your palletizing operations, advanced robotics could take over the responsibilities of a human operator with a 0% risk of injury. Boxes that weigh 25- 50lbs could be loaded repeatedly, eight feet high or more over two full shifts, without incident.

Future Product Efficiency

Icon - EfficiencyYes, automation improves efficiency. But it also allows you to go faster, do more, and proactively improve operations for the long term.

With updated automation, you can ask:

“What would we like to do in the future?”

“What production goals are our Sales Team asking us to hit for new or prospective clients?”

Consider if you’re producing 60-85 parts per minute (ppm). Equipment with integrated automation from Harpak-ULMA Packaging is designed to improve on that base level and produce 100-105ppm at top speed. That is the goal you want to hit with your automation and an ideal reason to invest in the future.

Automate Your Protein Loading or Get Left Behind

Labor challenges in protein loading and processing are only going to intensify. With a younger generation of workers opting for a college education or seeking employment in less strenuous positions, human labor is quickly becoming unavailable.

Meanwhile, advanced protein loading automation is already evolving to meet and overcome those challenges and changing into something more than an option. It is rapidly morphing into a capable necessity and one of the only ways to keep your protein processing profitable.

The time is now to take advantage of the automation options that match your needs.

Talk to our experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging. Make us your automation partner and let us show you how state-of-the-art automation technology can give you the efficiency, ROI, and operational foresight you need for future protein loading success.



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