Unleashing Innovation: How Automation Is Transforming the Pet Food Packaging Landscape

By Mike Terry
Posted In : Automation, thermoforming, packaging automation, flow wrap, rockwell automation, tray sealing and forming, pet food packaging, premium pet food packaging, automation trends, humanization, premiumization

Humanization and premiumization now shape consumer preferences across the fast-paced world of premium pet food packaging. With the demand for high-speed efficiency and product throughput higher than ever, traditional forms of manual labor will ultimately fall short, leaving you at a loss and guessing at what your next move to improve production may be.

Many producers fall back on tried-and-tested pet food production methods to gain time, ensure products are shipped, and meet some measure of their revenue goals.


In a modern pet food market that prioritizes premium quality and innovation, the answer is not to settle for outdated approaches.

The future proof-solution to revolutionize the way you package premium pet food lies in embracing one key packaging feature: automation.


Why is premium packaging so essential to warrant investment in system automation? The desire for premium packaging is a matter of consumer psychology.

Pet owners are fundamentally changing their purchasing habits, seeking premium brands and paying top dollar for healthier, high-quality ingredients to satisfy their pets’ tastes and dietary requirements.

cat food packagingWhile consumers continue transitioning from dry-bagged pet food to wet and semi-wet options, pet food is becoming more customized. It has transformed into a retail product that is no longer sold in bulk but sold to consumers with premium packaging as a standard – all designed to lock in flavor and freshness longer and create a perceived premium value and retail appeal to earn years of loyal consumer spend.

This new customization now requires a premium packaging system to match new product formats. The transfer of equipment used in the processing and packaging of human food to pet food has become more mainstream and prevalent, even expected, to maintain quality.

As a result, many producers have upgraded their operations to include more advanced packaging systems, such as tray sealing and forming, flow wrap, and thermoforming. They seek to accommodate new customer demand and deliver the dynamic premium packaging and preservation they need.


Yet, even updating your pet food packaging line with more advanced applications is only the first step. Opting for pet food packaging automation to replace inefficient manual labor ensures you can meet your increasing production goals, future revenue projections, and innovation goals and complete your evolution from outdated to upgraded pet food production.

How does pet food packaging automation accomplish all this? By fulfilling the need for speed.

Let’s look at an example:

More investment in premium packaging design translates to fewer premium products per retail carton. However, this decrease does not automatically require producing fewer cartons per hour and elevating already inflated pet food prices.

It means increasing product-per-minute speeds for pet food production through automation to ensure modern demand is met and company growth and revenue can increase simultaneously. The common question then becomes:

“What kinds of production speed do you need to realize optimized, automated production?”

Automated Lines

Trust the numbers:

A dual-lane thermoforming system with automated cartoning capabilities can produce approximately 160 premium pet food packages per minute (ppm).

Using manual labor for this same process and trying to match automation’s capabilities, you would need 5-7 workers, minimum, on a premium pet food line; forming customized retail cartons, loading product into cartons consistently, and sealing every carton properly for palletizing and shipping and to protect product quality and integrity before hitting store shelves.

Human labor simply cannot sustain those numbers across two to three shifts, every shift, across 300+ days of operation per year. The opportunities for human errors, inconsistencies, and downtime are too great.

Product quality and the value of your premium packaging may suffer, creating a domino effect that can negatively impact production downtimes, brand reputation, and overall annual revenue.

Implementing automation solves this in a stroke.

Automated Lines



Despite pet food packaging automation’s ability to increase production efficiency, you may still worry about its operational costs and return on investment (ROI). An investment of this magnitude, even value add automation, can be significant – especially at seeing automation’s price at first glance.

Regardless of an “end” to the Pandemic, however, the reality is labor resources have not been replenished to the former abundance that producers in pet food and other industries have enjoyed. You may still struggle with labor challenges and see your operational profitability and distribution processes negatively affected year over year by a lack of human resources.

These labor shortages will ultimately lead you to get more creative with your investment – putting more capital into automation at different operational levels to satisfy production, efficiency, and revenue goals vs. continuing to lose profit through inefficient manual production.

The good news is your investment in automation will pay dividends, and your ROI timeline is less than you think.

How much less? Consider this:

With premium pet food packaging automation, you can meet the production numbers necessary to hit revenue projections, streamline your production at every stage, and eliminate many production costs associated with human labor (downtime, product shrink, illness/injury, salary, turnover, etc.).

In fact, experts estimate that automation on a premium pet food packaging line replaces up to THREE workers per shift (or SIX workers per year). At an average annual salary of $50,000-$60,000, automation can save you more than $150,000-$200,000 per shift per year in labor costs.

Across two production shifts, you’d see annual savings of more than $300,000-$400,000, which can be reinvested into production innovation and cement your place as a stand-out premium brand in the pet food space.

These savings translate into an ROI timeline of only 1-2 years or less, depending on your specific packaging application.


Yet pet food packaging automation’s benefits to labor and production don’t end with a shortened ROI timeline. Automation also reduces labor costs across every stage of the operational process, from employee hiring and retention to legacy knowledge and future-proof pet food production:


According to a 2020 Work Institute report, voluntary turnover costs topped out at $630 billion across the U.S. Today, the numbers are still rising.

Why? The average cost to find and train replacement workers for manufacturing – especially given the adverse conditions commonly found in pet food packaging plants – can be up to $33,000 per employee. If you’re operating production with manual labor, these turnover costs can cut deeply into innovation capital, which you could otherwise allocate to improve efficiency, production, and ultimately revenue.

Additionally, premium high-speed pet food packaging is a more precise process requiring a more sophisticated system to prepare hundreds of packages per minute. Automation streamlines this precise production and standardizes machine controls and processes, simplifying new employee training and only requiring a handful of existing trained specialists to yield optimal system efficiency.


The availability and cost of labor precipitate automation investment due to not only scarcity but the loss of legacy knowledge and skill found within the older generation of workers nearing retirement.

Experts estimate that 25% of workers in the food processing and packaging sector are over 55. When they retire, there are ALMOST NO workers training for food processing and manufacturing careers. To fill this legacy labor gap, producers will need to implement robotic automation and ensure future requisite high-speed production rates for premium pet food.


Machine standardization is an often overlooked yet enormously important advantage offered by premium pet food packaging automation. When you standardize production through advanced automation controls (such as the ubiquitous Allen-Bradley Controls from Rockwell Automation), you create a more familiar and streamlined packaging system that operates with increased efficiency across primary, secondary, and palletizing stages.

Standardized packaging systems offer improved agility through faster equipment installations, motor and Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) changeouts, and reduced downtime through better personnel training and easier system use.

Additionally, a standardized, automated pet food packaging system will also always meet your unique production specifications, regardless of product material, format, or SKU. This versatility allows standardized, automated controls to save you more, intrinsically, across nearly every facet of your operations, including training, production, repairs, maintenance, and spare parts fulfillment.

Year over year, once you standardize, you’ll reduce your parts and services costs significantly, minimizing your initial automation expenditure by maximizing your ROI and gaining the capital to optimize your premium pet food packaging at high speed.


Automation gathers operational and process data at different production levels, giving your plant operators access to each device’s information, including drives, sensors, motors, actuators, and more. This gathered data presents opportunities for improved productivity through continuous monitoring and process feedback, running conditions, operational performance, and product traceability from raw pet food materials to finished product.

Moreover, pet food packaging data gathered through automation and smart connected machinery is instantly accessible via remote access on various personal devices utilized by personnel. As a processor and manufacturer, this connectivity gives you better control over plant floor operations and pet food quality and more precise insight into essential, monitored data points, including product manufacturing, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), energy consumption, waste, and cost at every stage.


In the ever-evolving world of pet food packaging, automation has emerged as the key to unlocking innovation, meeting modern high-speed production demands, and satisfying the needs of today’s discerning pet owners. With humanization and premiumization driving the market, you must adapt your pet food packaging systems with leading-edge automated solutions to stay competitive and cater to consumers who seek only the best for their pets.

As automated pet food packaging becomes the industry standard, partnering with forward-thinking original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to future-proof your operations will yield ROI dividends and numerous benefits – from optimizing accuracy and productivity to improving product quality and safety across all packaging stages.

Eager to discover how automation can benefit your pet food packaging operations?

Contact our experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging today to learn more, or tune into our podcast “Wrappy Hour!” where we discuss packaging automation in-depth and show you the future of packaging automation.

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