Preparing Production for Automated Protein Loading: An Insider’s Look

By Mike Terry

Your automation needs updating. You’ve decided to upgrade your protein loading operations to meet your customers’ needs, the industry’s hygienic sanitation standards, and improve your throughput simultaneously.

Congratulations! You have taken a step in the right direction towards optimizing your production for the present and the future.

But that step is only the first one.

Now, you need an expert partner to guide you through implementation, ask the right questions from your first meeting, and provide the necessary insights to ensure you get the most from your automated protein loading system.

Insider Inquiries Checklist for Automated Protein Loading

When integrating advanced automation into your existing protein loading process, there are important questions your automation partner should and will ask you from the onset. The answers to these questions will provide a detailed layout of your current operational capabilities, specific product and packaging characteristics, floor space and footprint allowances, budget, and more.

What are these essential inquiries? Initial conversations with your packaging partner may sound like this:

Product Arrival

  • Is your product coming in bulk?
  • Is your product coming in stacked on top of each other?
  • Is your product coming in somewhat separated, but spaced out irregularly?
  • Is your product arriving already singulated from upstream?

Product State

  • Is your product fresh?
  • Is your product frozen?
  • Is your product tempered?
  • Is your product crusted?

Line Speeds

  • What is your current line speed?
  • Are you doing 50 picks per minute (ppm)?
  • Do you want to do 60-75ppm?

Packaging Type

The Controls Platform & Ancillary Equipment

  • Are you incorporating any ancillary equipment such as x-ray, check weigher, etc.?
  • Where do you need this equipment? Upstream? Downstream?
  • What controls the “handshaking” between your automation and the packaging equipment?

How Do These Questions Help Implement Automated Protein Loading?

Every operation is unique to the producer, industry sector, and system. By ascertaining the answers to these questions as early in the process as possible, your OEM partner can provide feedback on production optimization for specific processes in targeted areas.

Equipped with these essential data sets, Harpak-ULMA’s automation experts will then design a customized automated system that is uniquely tailored to your production requirements and scalable for the future. This saves you time, money, and offers a better implementation and ROI timeline.

This process information includes:

  • The Best Way to Grip and Pick Product with Automated Robotics
  • Product quality
  • Correct Product Count
  • Future Automation Scalability

Top Considerations for Automated Protein Loading 

Before integrating automation for your protein loading operations, you must consider several key factors. These elements are important as they will influence every aspect of your process, from product flow and safety to scalability and overall throughput. We explore the top considerations through the eyes of our automation experts:


The primary consideration for automated protein loading is space consideration. Filling customer orders means processing and packaging proteins. When adding any type of automation equipment, it is important that those additions don’t interrupt any of the existing process flows or negatively impact productivity.

The goal of automation is to go faster and simplify complex processes, so you don’t want your automation updates to interrupt that or cause disquiet among your workforce because you’re changing your protein loading.


There are also issues of safety and egress to consider. Is it safe to service and maintain the new equipment in your plant? It doesn’t help to install new automated equipment that you cannot access.

New vs. Existing Footprint

Finally, it is essential to examine your plant’s current footprint vs. the new footprint that includes automation. It is common for automation experts to ask for a CAD layout of your floor after the first meeting during discovery or an audit. This helps to determine and define usable vs. non-usable spaces for any new automation equipment.


Your equipment may be designed to run a certain type of protein, like chicken breasts. However, you may want the versatility to run various proteins like drumsticks, thighs, or wings on the same machine.

Can the automation do that and how do you scale it to do so?

Absolutely. Automation offers you the scalability to run a myriad of products on the same equipment with minimal changeovers to improve productivity and throughput.

Variable Robotic Speeds

Variable robotic speeds within acceptable tolerances are also important for scalability. You never want to overwork your equipment, but your system will always be designed to produce 15-20% more products per minute (ppm). For instance, if you set your goals at 80-85ppm, Harpak-ULMA’s automation can accomplish 100-105ppm at top speed.

Pick Up for Downed Lines & Product Changes

When identifying production gaps through Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) testing, it is critical to know how to minimize downtime and efficiency lapses if your equipment breaks down.

Is there a way to divert to a manual pack, offline? Is there a way for one robotic system to speed up and cover the processing if the other fails? Instead of dropping to 50% production rate, can you effectively go 60-70% until your system is fixed?

With automated protein loading from Harpak-ULMA Packaging, you can.


Improvements in throughput are an enormous consideration when implementing advanced system automation. Our systems are designed to give you 15-20% uplift for your throughput at peak speed and keep your robotic “clock speed” reasonable without causing equipment wear and tear.

Optimizing Automated Protein Loading from the Inside Out

Labor challenges in protein loading are forecasting to increase, not decrease, over time. Yet, automation has evolved, and continues to evolve, to meet new challenges and give you options to satisfy your production needs.

ROI that was previously two years or more now pays you back on hard labor costs alone within 18 months with automation. Advantages in productivity, efficiency, safety, and throughput continue to improve under automation’s guidance.

What is important is to have a clear understanding of your specific production goals when consulting with your automation experts, always keeping the big picture in mind. It is not enough to simply consider what you want to solve in the present. It is essential to develop potential automated solutions for operations five to ten years in the future.

As your automation partner, we design your equipment to last. Let us help you hone your production insights and design system automation that benefits your operations long term.


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.