The Need for S-p-e-e-d!
By Lisa White
Whole-muscle meats are driving the development of today’s high-speed packaging systems.
In many industries, the importance of speed cannot be underestimated. This rings especially true where meat packaging is concerned.
Because meat packers and processors are constantly seeking new machinery and systems to help them increase their throughput, line speeds are becoming quicker. Consequently, innovative packaging systems are being developed to keep up with the faster production pace.
And in the case of whole-muscle meats, companies that provide these systems are stepping up to the plate with machines that offer increased speed and the newest technology, along with an emphasis on food safety in regards to both design and maintenance.
Segment trends
When talking about the speed of packaging machines, Daryl Shackelford, vice president of sales and marketing at Lodi, WI-based Alkar-RapidPak, says “high speed” is defined in terms of cycles per minute and the number of packages per cycle. The formula looks like this:
cycles/minute x=packages/cycle = packages/minute
Many agree that retailers are typically catalysts for trends in the high-speed packaging segment.
“Kroger is the biggest promoter of trays wrapped with PVC that are put into master bags with MAP for extended shelf life. With tray lids today, you can get from sixty to eighty packs per minute, depending on the tray size,” says Harvey Fine, vice president for Atlanta, GA-based ULMA Packaging Systems. “Wal-Mart uses the rigid tray with MAP and a lid that uses a stretch wrap. These machines perform at sixty to sixty-five packs per minute.”
Along with retailer expectations, new technology also helps spur machine innovations. For example, one significant trend in the high-speed segment is the adaptation of new technology that helps improve the cycle rate of packaging machines. “The higher cycle rate on RapidPak machinery is accomplished through the applied used of servo motor technology for all major mechanical motions, especially for the lifting of the bottom forming die and the bottom sealing die,” says Shackelford.
While other rollstock packaging machines lift the bottom dies using pneumatic systems, which are based on magnetic valves activating air cylinders to push a lever system, he says the servo motor lifting systems are not only faster, but they improve accuracy and can be precisely programmed. “This system has a major impact on improving the cycle rate of a packaging machine. In addition, these motors are quiet, which helps create a low decibel, ergonomically-friendly environment for workers who operate and load the machine,” says Shackelford.
Although not a new trend, whole-muscle meats have benefited from high-speed modified atmosphere packaging or MAP technology. MAP uses either 80 percent O2 + 20 percent CO2 or 80 percent N2 + 20 percent CO2 to preserve meat. The high oxygen content in these packages helps maintain the meat’s bright red color, or oxymyoglobin, while carbon dioxide impedes bacterial growth.
Enhancing productivity
Today’s high-speed packaging systems also have incorporated features that further enhance productivity. “If you are trying to take a hard-to-handle roast beef weighing four pounds or more and slide it into a bag, it is a difficult task,” says Bob Koch, director of sales for Multivac’s food division, based in Kansas City, MO. “Our machines provide an exposed cavity where the product is dropped in. This greatly enhances productivity by two-fold or more because of the ease of loading the meat into the form, fill, and seal machine.”
He says another big trend is the machines’ ability to improve the look of shrink technology. “We coined the name FormShrink. The use of more flexible materials, particularly those with high shrink characteristics where we can replace shrink bags with roll stock technology, is becoming more popular with high-speed units,” says Koch.
What’s new?
The emerging trends in high-speed packaging systems for whole-muscle meats have spurred manufacturers to update features and increase options for meat processors and packers.
Addressing the needs of food processors seeking to customize the shape of their products for aesthetic or more practical purposes, Multivac unveiled its FormShrink® system late last year. This system efficiently creates a skin-tight package in virtually any shape and seals it for optimal shelf life. “When the product comes off of the packaging machine, it goes through a shrink tunnel or system, where there is a hot water bath. This shrinks the film up to 40 percent or more to create a second skin around the product’s contours,” Koch explains. “FormShrink automatically creates a package custom-tailored to whole-muscle meat product with no unwanted excess film, saving the processor time and money.”
This advanced packaging can be used in conjunction with Multivac’s new R550 and R250 rollstock machines.
Another new introduction, Multivac’s latest high-speed tray sealer is designed for large volume operations with demanding tray packaging environments. The T 450 seals up to 150 standard trays per minute in a two-lane configuration. For operations using the T 450 to package various tray sizes, the system also is designed for quick changeovers without tools, minimizing downtime. The machine is engineered with servo drives to provide vibration-free transport. The basic T 450 is equipped with gas flush for MAP, continuous feed conveyor, a tray transfer system and a sealing die with an integrated cutting unit. Additional options include tray de-nesters, tray in-feed conveyors, in addition to weighing and labeling units.
ULMA Packaging’s newest high-speed line, the Pacific Master Bag Machine, is an industrial process that can be used for packaging whole-muscle meats in trays with MAP for extended shelf life. Using shrink barrier film, the process creates an air-tight package. “This line is geared for companies that use the traditional PVC overwrap process,” says Fine. “It is accomplished on a stretch wrapper. In line, we can group packages to create a master bag in singles or multiples.”
The Pacific Master Bag Machine’s cross and longitudinal sealing systems are designed to obtain hermetic seals with shrink barrier film. The unit also features a double reel holder with pneumatic fastening system and motorized system for the unwinding of the film. It offers a parameter setting for up to 50 products.
The machine is powered with independent motors for each of its movements, which are controlled by an industrial PC. This increases the machine’s versatility, allowing for a quick and easy format change. The user/machine interface has a 12-inch color touch screen and utilizes user-friendly Microsoft Windows graphic icons-based software.
Also, the Pacific Master Bag Machine’s design makes it easy to clean as well as provide hygienic operating conditions. Built on a stainless steel frame in a cantilever execution, the design minimizes the accumulation of dirt and dust. The infeed conveyor also is made of stainless steel for easy cleaning.
Another new system the company has unveiled is a high-speed tray lidding system for use with PVC, polyethylene, SS and polyolefin film packaging. The Galaxy model was developed to meet market sectors, such as the whole-muscle meat segment, that are demanding increased productivity in fresh product packaging with stretchable film. This machine has robust mechanics and state-of-the-art electronics, which offers both reliability and flexibility to deal with a wide range of trays and products.
Offering automatic or manual programmable operation, the system features a double motor-driven coil support with automatic coil changing system. Variable pre-stretching and folding can be accomplished according to tray dimensions. In addition, the system’s programmable film length helps minimize film consumption.
Other features of ULMA Packaging’s tray lidding system include an automatic feeding carriage, programmable speed according to tray / product, end of film detection for each coil, an error self-diagnose in the unit’s command panel and an easy-to-clean assembly that is anticorrosive.
Although there are a whole host of smaller issues, Shackelford says the one other major point that Alkar-RapidPak continues to develop is the use of larger foot-print tool sets to provide more output and more packages per minute. “In other words, where the industry may have traditionally used a packaging machine with tooling for a certain application that produced a package array of three packages by two packages, RapidPak would probably configure the application to use tooling in a 2 x 4 matrix or maybe even 2 x 5. RapidPak typically configures its machines in narrow web widths and long indexes. This allows us to evacuate and gas flush faster, while simultaneously producing more packages per cycle. The net effect is higher output,” he explains.
However, these larger die sets, or tooling sets, are heavier and more cumbersome to work on. “This tends to make the machines more difficult to change over from one die set to another. So hand-in-hand with the larger die sets, RapidPak also has developed a number of significant quick change enhancements with a key focus on ergonomics and worker safety. One such development is our side extractable bottom die feature,” says Shackelford.
An up-and-coming development in the high-speed packaging systems segment is the development of compact thermoforming machines. “This is smaller, lower-end, and less expensive machinery that can create the same packaging as its larger brother. However, this can be accomplished in a lower-volume meat processing facility,” says Multivac’s Koch. “The reason is that the cost is justifiable. Processors can spend under one-hundred thousand dollars for a system that looks like those used in higher-volume facilities, but the output is lower. This will bring more producers to the marketplace and take the labor out of their operation.”
Future predictions
What does the future hold for high-speed packaging systems? Many agree that this segment will continue to benefit from emerging technology.
Fine at ULMA Packaging Systems says the use of high-speed central packaging for whole-muscle meats is growing. “Muscle cuts are coming on gradually and will drive this movement. We see an increasing number of companies are doing more with high-speed packaging for these meats,” he says.
Koch agrees.
“We will continue to see packaging of whole-muscle meats in the traditional form, filled, seal packaging with flexible barrier laminate materials. We are already seeing more pre-packaged case ready product in a non-traditional case ready form. The industry has done a good job in educating consumers about centrally processed clean products in vacuums. In the years ahead, we also will see an increase in the number of products brought in a case-ready format,” he says. NP
Lisa White is a freelance writer based in Illinois.

Technology providers participating in this report include:  
• Alkar-RapidPak, Inc., phone (608) 592-3211, e-mail, or visit
• Multivac Inc., phone (816) 891-0555, e-mail, or visit
• ULMA Packaging Systems, phone (770) 345-5300, e-mail, or visit