Poultry Packaging Automation Keeps Costs Down

By Mike Terry
Posted In : poultry
Poultry Automation

With the New Year comes new consumer preferences in poultry packaging. Younger generations of customers are transforming formerly minor trends into the new reality of the packaging industry, cementing packaging convenience, sustainability, innovation, and reduced waste as the “must-haves” for the present and future.

In response, packagers seeking to stand out are now looking to more modern, eco-friendly packaging alternatives to overwrapped Styrofoam trays. Vacuum skin packaging (VSP), PaperSeal®, and optimal thermoformed saddle pack-style poultry packaging are not only meeting the needs of their customers more effectively but offer better preservation and differentiate their products with new features in an already crowded market.

But even with the broad array of benefits offered by superior thermoformed saddle packs, these efforts are leaving poultry producers at a loss.

New demands for advanced packaging and the lack of skilled labor from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to create a very real disconnect between production speed and volume requirements and the limitations and costs of manual production.

The question then becomes:

“What can I do as a poultry producer to effectively rise to these new challenges? How do I reduce costs, maintain production levels, and even see an attractive return on investment (ROI) from the innovation pipeline?

The answer lies in product-to-pallet automation.

Step 1: Evaluate Your Current Packaging Process

If thermoformed saddle packs are the first half of the poultry packaging horizon, automation completes the picture of a brighter tomorrow. As a poultry producer, you now have access to a full suite of new technologies to not only facilitate automation from infeeding to palletizing but to remedy the undeniable difficulties of labor, efficiency, safety, and sustainability that confront many poultry operations nationwide.

In the initial stages, it is important to remember that the automation of your packaging process will be dependent on various factors, including your product’s attributes, production parameters, individual investment capital, and goals. However, designing and implementing poultry packaging automation across your production lines begins with a simple individualized assessment of your poultry packaging process:

  • How is your product arriving into the system?
  • What state is it in (frozen, semi-frozen, fresh, cooked)?
  • What is the speed at which your product is entering the machine?

Step 2: Implement Automation across Production Stages

As your project team begins to formulate a deeper understanding of your organization’s production processes and manufacturing systems, they will start to balance your automation’s complexity, space, and cost requirements with efficiency and production volumes. Solutions and support eventually emerge for every phase of the thermoforming process, effectively maximizing efficiency and future-proofing operations against labor shortages, training and turnover costs, and the rigors of company growth and new product options.

For example, automation is ideally suited for the latest advancements in thermoformed poultry in saddle pack-style packaging. Automated thermoforming couples unique mechanical advantages unavailable with other forms of robotic automation systems with an already impressive array of packaging benefits to optimize presentation, preservation, production, and product marketability:

Primary Automation

Processed poultry arrives chaotically at a thermoformer machine via conveyor belt. Automated pick and place robots with integrated 3D vision-guided systems locate product and place it onto the thermoformed webbing for packaging at high rates of speed. As a result, efficiency and precision nearly double vs. rates achieved by manual intervention, and human labor is freed to complete less strenuous and repetitive tasks that require nuance.

Secondary/Case Packing Automation

After a thermoformed package is vacuumed, sealed, and perforated for individual portion control, high-speed automation, such as the TFS Automatic Extraction System, pulls product from the thermoformer. Synchronized robotic arms then align and place product on a conveyor belt for secondary case and retail packaging in cardboard Regular Slotted Containers (RSC) or Reusable Plastic Containers (RPC) while simultaneously conducting quality control inspections for wrinkles in the packaging film, defects, or mislabeled printing. This automated process produces the highest success rates in secondary packaging at the highest volumes.

Automated Palletizing

At end-stage palletizing, stacks of RSC are automatically aligned, loaded onto pallets, and shrink-wrapped for transport to various distribution centers at approximately 60-70 cases per minute for greater consistency and less product damage than manual case packaging.

Programmable Logic Controls (PLC) & Allen Bradley Integrated Architecture

All automation is calibrated and centrally controlled by sophisticated PLCs, such as Rockwell Automation’s Allen Bradley® Integrated Architecture™. These systems synchronize and control disparate automation equipment and provide the push-button printout of your equipment’s Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). Your automation works as a conduit, collecting data and information from your entire product line and gives you one point of touch screen reference through the system’s Human Machine Interface (HMI). As a result, you get a more accurate efficiency reading for entire line and calibrate individual automation for improved system performance.

The Cost & ROI of Poultry Packaging Automation

Cost will always be a primary factor in your considerations to automate. Expenditures such as equipment, training, and installation require an upfront investment.

However, automation in the poultry packaging sector has proven to enhance OEE for better production and lower total cost of ownership (TCO) over time, providing you with an attractive innovation ROI.

As a rule, you should have an in-depth analysis of your ROI criteria and timeline before integrating any automation. Historically, producers set their ROI goals for 1-2 years.

Due to the lack of labor during the pandemic, these criteria have changed industrywide. Poultry producers have seen their ROI timelines to a more realistic 3-4 years on average, or even indefinitely, to simply address concerns brought on by labor shortages and costly production gaps.

The great news is automation’s ROI sits comfortably on this timeline, recouping and reducing various expenses by the third year.

How is that possible? We’ll examine the various sectors in which poultry packaging automation provides robust savings, reducing costs significantly and justifying investment in thermoforming automation for the present and future.

Labor Savings

According to industry experts, before the COVID pandemic, the average cost of a full-time poultry plant production worker with benefits was approximately $50,000. However, in the current professional climate, manual labor costs have increased to approximately $70,000 per year, even for entry-level employees.

A poultry plant using a thermoformer machine for food would need approximately four employees to manually load product for just one shift, costing roughly $280,000 per year.

Now, double that.

Many plants operate with two, 12-hour shifts, bringing the total number of employees to manually handle product to eight at approximately $560,000 in costs per year.

However, salaries and benefits are not the only places labor costs come into play.

Though difficult to quantify, turnover rates in poultry plants can be as high as 150% in many plants nationwide. Finding, training, and retaining skilled labor requires time and effort, even before putting an employee out on the line. As a result, this cost translates to not only training expenditures but also lost productivity.

Additionally, many poultry producers turn to staffing agencies to find the labor they need at cost. Plant operators also face various labor-related costs such as citations and penalties from the Department of Labor due to unsafe working conditions, fees for workers’ compensation claims and other legal actions, rising federal, state, and local payroll taxes, workers’ compensation insurance coverage, and more.

Automation works to negate these expenses, all within three years, by handling tedious, repetitive, or dangerous tasks and reallocating skilled labor in other places on the packaging line. This, in turn, reduces the necessary manual labor workforce overall and the ancillary labor costs.

Efficiency Savings

Efficiency nearly doubles over the lifetime of your system in any place you integrate automation. Whether primary, secondary, or palletizing, these efficiency savings compound and give you the OEE you want from your poultry production.

For example, poultry packagers seeking high-speed thermoforming production will need approximately 60-200 packages per minute. Two employees can load around 100 poultry packages per minute through manual labor. However, loading at requisite high speeds will require at least four people and all the associated expenses.

With automation, half the equipment is required, loading product at approximately 60-200 packages per minute with greater accuracy, consistency, and quality at a lower annual cost.

Saving through Safety

Legal experts estimate that finger fractures and dislocations can cost up to $8400 per employee. Multiply this by the total potential number of employee claims per year, and you could see payouts in the billions (assuming more than 100,000 employees for a mass poultry producer).

Integrating automation to handle potentially dangerous tasks lowers accidents and safety-related incidences and stops the flow of workers’ compensation claims or lawsuits for injuries sustained on the job.

Sustainability Savings

Thermoformed saddle pack-style packing is placed into RSCs for secondary packaging and palletizing and shipped to grocers and retailers across the country. Poultry producers focused on sustainability can opt for alternative automatic case packer machinery and realize savings through the circular economy created by automated tote management systems.

RPC automation equipment depalletizes totes shipped back from retailers, singulates and destacks them, and rotates them 360 degrees to clear them of debris. Once cleared, they are automatically put through a washing and drying system and sent back out onto the line with no manual intervention to be filled with product.

This process bypasses cardboard RSCs and manual labor in the palletizing process entirely, saving hundreds of thousands in training and personnel costs per year.

Set Savings & Efficiency to Automatic

Demand for sustainability, convenience, innovation, and reduced waste is handing the future of poultry packaging to thermoformed saddle packs. Those producers who plan to innovate to meet consumer preferences are called to answer the challenge of innovation with strategies like efficient, cost-saving steps like automation to thrive.

By investing in technological improvements and packaging solutions that meet modern criteria, you can continue to use state-of-the-art automation to add value to your products and services, minimize operating costs, and see improved ROI from your automated systems, no matter how complex.

Make Harpak-ULMA your poultry packaging automation partner for the New Year and beyond, and let our experts show you what automatic efficiency and savings can be.


Want personalized advice from a packaging expert?

Producers come to us to solve their unique packaging challenges. Tell us about your project and get expert advice today.