Cookie & Cracker Technology: In the Details

by Laurie Gorton
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In these economic times, biscuit and cracker manufacturers must lower production costs and stretch their technology dollars farther. Trends in the market favor the baker who can put forward interesting new products, enhance “value” offerings and improve operating efficiencies. In addition, cookie and cracker producers must juggle increasing demands concerning food safety, allergen control, changeover time, staffing and production tracking, while also meeting orders without interruption.

Diffi cult financial times heighten the temptation to “make do” with old pieces of equipment, but Mike Ninichuck, vicepresident, engineering, Total Baking Solutions LLC, Roundup, MT, warned against false economies. Lines installed 20 to 25 years ago will be fully amortized, but that doesn’t make them fully efficient in fuel or labor use.

Manufacturers of cookie and cracker equipment are taking these needs to heart as they engineer systems for use now and in the future. Such changes, already part of these machines, have made equipment easier to clean and operate and flexible enough to accommodate a constantly shifting mix of products. “With a better-controlled process, bakers get more reliable and more consistent product quality, with fewer problems in packaging as well as less scrap and lower fuel usage,” said David Barnwell, president, Spooner Vicars Bakery Systems, Plano, TX.

Engineering that addresses such demands with highly reliable systems is critical. “Our customers have to be able to live with these machines every day,” said Gus Skapek, national sales manager, Hosokawa Confectionery & Bakery, Memphis, TN.

EQUIPMENT MOVES.

“With the current economic situation, there seems to be a definite move to lower-cost products — staples such as crackers and other ‘value’ items. You see an increase in snack crackers as well,” Mr. Barnwell said. Dietmar Mertel, general manager, Fritsch USA, Cedar Grove, NJ, confirmed interest in smaller-sized products, including cracker bread styles. Lowering the cost of production will involve more automation, energy efficiency and consistent quality, according to Mr. Ninichuck. “Everyone is continually looking for new ideas and technology for increased production in the cookie and cracker industry. Baking cookies and crackers can only happen so fast, or else quality is compromised. Let’s face it: If cookie and cracker manufactures could bake a cookie or cracker in 30 seconds, they all would be doing it!”

The answers come in the form of wider processing lines, more adaptive ovens and new technologies for dough transfer during moulding.

The worldwide trend to wider biscuit and cracker lines occurs, in opinions voiced during many interviews for this article, because processors need the additional output but don’t want to put longer lines into their factories. “Wider allows shorter lines but at the same output,” Mr. Barnwell said. Lines of 1.5 m (59 in.) are becoming more standard these days, and he noted that the company is being asked to look at even wider lines. Forming, too, yields lower unit costs because staffing needs are the same as narrower lines.

This preference was confirmed by Jamie Douglas, product manager, biscuit division, Franz Haas Waffel- und Keksanlagen-Industrie GmbH, Leobendorf, Austria. “There is a real demand for high-capacity lines,” he said, describing a 1,600-mm (63-in.) wide by 100-m (328-ft) long oven line. “People want to get the most out of their investment, to get more output for the money. For example, this wide line can make 50% more product yet the price is just a 15% premium [over a conventional 1,000-mm line].”

Wide lines require changes in upstream technologies. “When laminating/sheeting and rotary moulding lines are lengthened, we have to make the engineering more heavy duty to maintain the correct thickness of the product across the line,” Mr. Barnwell explained.

“Such systems can replace two old lines with one big line,” Mr. Douglas said. Benefits are multiplied by using designs that improve changeover efficiency and ease cleaning. “We have been designing quick ways to change out our sheeting lines and die rollers,” he added.

“It’s all in the details,” Mr. Barnwell emphasized.

INNOVATIVE ABILITY.

Novel capabilities can open unique market opportunities, so innovations in forming systems have attracted attention recently. For example, a dough extrusion system has been devised that can manage extrusion, encrusting and/or wire-cutting of multiple-flavor doughs. “We see more and more complex products combining up to three doughs,” said Claus Abrahamsen, sales director, US, Canada and Mexico, DFE Meincke, Canton, GA. He reported big interest in these products from North American bakers.

Originality also benefits the consumer appeal of sandwich cookies, said to be increasing in popularity because of their “value” as comfort foods. A Peters new sandwiching machine, described by Thomas Melnick, international sales manager, Peters Products, The Peerless Group, Sidney, OH, can produce 3-layer creme sandwich styles (three basecakes with two layers of the same or different flavored fillings), but it also makes traditional sandwich cookies. “This new technology gives our customers much more flexibility when they need to produce biscuit or cracker creme sandwiches for ever-growing, highly competitive worldwide markets,” he said. The machines come in 2-, 4- and 6-lane configurations with maximum speeds ranging from 1,600 to 4,800 sandwich cookies per minute.

“But sandwiching flexibility doesn’t stop there,” Mr. Melnick continued. “All three models allow you to run nearly any shape biscuit and cracker shells, including rounds, squares, rectangles and specialty shapes.” The machines handle basecakes ranging from 1 in. (25 mm) to more than 2.75 in. (70 mm) in diameter.

A new capping system, developed as a joint project between Franz Haas and Houdijk, was specifically designed for ease of cleaning and fast changeover, according to Mr. Douglas. The HMH Depositor and Capper inverts every second row, deposits aerated creme filling through a manifold and aligns bottom and top basecakes with a pneumatic stopper system.

Consumer interest in whole grains means that cracker and flatbread makeup lines must be able to handle an increasing range of seeds and toppings, according to Mr. Mertel. He described a servo-controlled retracting unit to “guarantee” accurate depositing of such materials onto dough sheets and cut pieces.

Underlying these and other engineering innovations is the knowledge that processing lines must be designed to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace. “We see a lot of emphasis on consumer product life cycles,” Mr. Skapek said. “They are not as long as they once were. So our customers want us to supply a platform that can adapt as their customer demands change over time.”

OVEN ALTERATIONS.

More and more, oven builders are adopting hybrid designs that optimize heat delivery according to product needs, yet such systems must also enhance their flexibility. The increasing need for such adaptability occurs because bakers want to make more than one style of product per line. They want the freedom to supply a given oven line using a variety of forming methods such as rotary moulding and sheeting systems.

“We have seen a trend for flexibility on medium-size lines,” Mr. Douglas observed. Haas developed a multi-variant oven that combines radiant and convection heating. Inside, the oven can be radiant and/or convection throughout. It has good flexibility in baking and produces even color.

Hybrid oven design was Spooner Vicars’ choice for improving control over how products brown across the width of the oven belt. “As belts get wider, the problem of edge burning becomes more difficult to control,” Mr. Barnwell explained. The heavy oven bands retain heat and restrict airflow through the band. While forced convection heating addresses this problem, the company chose to go one step further and added extraction under the band as well as on top. “Normally ovens extract from above the band, and that often draws up air from below,” he said. “With solid or heavy bands, air tends to go around the edges, thus contributing more heat to the edges. Bottom extraction minimizes the air going above to even the bake.”

Additional advances have been achieved through automatic computer control of conditions within ovens and dryers. In the case of Strayfield dielectric dryers, installed at the end of ovens to equilibrate the moisture profile of cookies and crackers, software upgrades significantly improved operational control of the system and shortened changeover time to 30 seconds or less, according to Brian Gramoll, sales manager, Strayfield USA, Milwaukee, WI. The Allen-Bradley touch-screen system accommodates 40 different product “recipes,” with more memory available as an option. “Software history pages display and log any faults automatically,” he noted. The result is faster and easier discovery and diagnosis of faults, with the payoff in reduced downtime.

The system also tracks product characteristics, alerting operators and adjusting conditions. For example, when very wet product enters the dryer, a high-moisture alarm is sounded to notify the operator. “The machine will increase power and, if required, also slow the belt speed to ensure final desired moisture,” Mr. Gramoll added.

OPERATING EFFICIENTLY.

Improvements in heating technologies have reopened the once-settled question of whether indirect-fired or direct-fired ovens are better for cookies and crackers. For example, direct-fired ovens are seeing use for items that previously required indirect heating methods, and alterations in the operation of heat exchangers in indirect systems are aiding fuel efficiency for the entire system.

“The big thing with ovens is fuel efficiency and reduction of fuel consumption,” Mr. Barnwell said. Spooner Vicars moved into hybrid oven technology, selling more direct-fired, forcedconvection ovens. “We put the forced convection in the end zones to achieve better control over moisture removal,” he explained, noting that the heat exchanger method used by indirect-fired ovens causes some loss of fuel efficiency and can limit the amount of air passing through the oven zones.

Better airflow and more insulation, however, are boosting the efficiency of indirect-fired ovens, according to Mr. Ninichuck. Total Baking Solutions altered the way air is introduced into the bake chamber and returned to the combustion section. It also increased the insulation value to minimize heat loss. “These two factors add up to energy savings,” he reported.

Another way to achieve fuel efficiency is to place cookies on the oven band in space-saving patterns. Baker Perkins developed an angled wire-cut system for cookie depositing. Dan Christie, technical manager, Baker Perkins, Inc. Grand Rapids, MI, explained, “This can increase the productivity of existing cookie lines by 15 to 25% by laying down the cookies at an angle to create ‘nested’ patterns that improve use of the baking surface. The actual productivity increase depends on cookie size.”

Better operating efficiency can also be achieved by advances in weight control such as the DFE Meincke v50 depositor’s innovative method for feeding dough to the formers. It uses a separate sprocket-pump for each row to improve piece-weight accuracy across the belt. “We see standard deviation all the way down to 0.2 to 0.5 on products with one dough and 0.4 to 0.6 on products made with two doughs,” Mr. Abrahamsen said.

Automation of dough feeding was cited by Mr. Christie as a way to bolster accuracy. “With most types of forming machines, piece weight is affected by the head of dough in the hopper,” he explained. “Installing an automatic dough feed ensures that weight is consistent across the width of the machine, all the time. Yield and product quality consistency are improved, and labor requirements reduced.”

Retrofitting new heads onto existing wire-cut machine bases is another choice mentioned by Mr. Christie. “It offers ‘best in class’ weight accuracy through improved filler block technology; product changeovers in minutes without tools through a patented clamshell head; and cleaning and maintenance time reduced to a fraction of that previously required — with a substantial impact on product quality and operational efficiency and an investment payback of a few months,” he said.

Hosokawa, which specializes in lines for production of granola, sports and nutrition bars, developed its Bepex-Hutt Formpress system with a 3-roll configuration. According to Mr. Skapek, the new design represents “a renewed emphasis on weight control — critical in these economically difficult times.”

Equipment that requires frequent operator intervention also needs highly skilled staff to run it, but this level of line labor is not always available in bakeries. “The RBS/Exact goal is to reduce the number of trained employees required to operate our complete lines,” stated Shawn Moye, director, biscuit and cracker, Reading Bakery Systems (RBS), Robesonia, PA. Thus, the company seeks to make line components completely compatible and designed to operate seamlessly. “The entire line can be observed from the operator interface at any individual component. Equipment is self monitoring, self reporting and often self correcting.” This factors create an environment requiring fewer trained employees.

FAST-CHANGE ARTISTS.

Reduction of changeover time continues to figure prominently in design of cookie and cracker processing equipment. Mr. Barnwell noted, “Changeover times are always an issue.”

During the past few years, companies have made serious inroads into speeding up these procedures. For ex- ample, DFE Meincke’s v50 system combines three depositing technologies — extrusion, encrusting and wire-cutting — in one unit. Fritsch’s new Multicut line combines punch-andturn methods with interchangeable forming modules that can be installed or removed without any special tools.

The ability to fully clean dough-handling equipment constitutes an essential part of the changeover discipline, and cleanout has been substantially improved through re-engineering of cookie and cracker equipment. As Mr. Moye emphasized, concerns about allergens and pathogens are at an all-time high. “Equipment must not harbor anything that might threaten product safety,” he said. “Equipment must be quick and easy to clean and inspect.”

“With clamshell design, we moved our ExACT mixer designs from ‘no tool disassembly’ for cleaning to full ‘no disassembly’ cleaning,” said Jim Warren, general manager, ExACT Mixing, RBS. Other features include isolation of wet washdown areas from other parts of the system.

Better access to interior parts allows more thorough cleaning and sanitation. Mr. Abrahamsen observed that the v50 extruder’s pump house and die plates can be taken out easily and quickly for thorough cleaning during production changeovers. “We see our customers focusing on the design of the sheeting lines and hybrid ovens, looking at the ability to clean the line as fast and easy as possible,” he said. DFE Meincke-Vuurslag configured its lines with panels giving fast access to laminating belts, hinged cleaning doors on the oven spaced 2 m apart and the easy removability of belts between gauge roll stations.

Larger oven doors on Baker Perkins systems improve access for cleaning and maintenance and are particularly important where there is an allergen risk, according to Mr. Christie. “Walkways on top of the oven are also an asset for maintenance of burners and fans, which is important to maintain combustion efficiency and thus reduce energy consumption,” he added.

Clean by design also describes a new Franz Haas machine for filling and assembling sandwich cookies. The usual chain-and-pin systems for transporting basecakes through the filler tend to attract dirt and are difficult to clean, especially to allergen management standards, according to Mr. Douglas. “We came up with a vacuum belt to position the bottom cookie,” he continued. “This is a common belt style and can be changed in minutes.” Besides, vacuum methods draw crumbs away from the product zone.

RBS takes an “in sight and in mind” approach to processing equipment. As Mr. Warren and Mr. Moye explained, this design method uses machinery guarding only in OSHArequired areas. The ability to visually inspect the equipment at all times results in fewer operation interruptions, while the open design makes equipment much easier to sanitize.

Cleanable design is also showing up in bar processing technology. Because bar forming is generally a cold process, food safety is necessarily a big component of equipment design in this category.

“Food safety is a hot topic, but Hosokawa has been involved in this subject for a long time,” Mr. Skapek observed. Tool-less disassembly permits operators to access components without special tools or the need for skilled help.

Previous designs of Hosokawa-Bepex bar former/extruders required the operator to break down the whole machine to perform an allergen cleanout. “We’ve made the former’s back and side panels removable,” Mr. Skapek said. Clamps now secure these panels. “An additional benefit is that the operator gets 6 in. more access space, so the interior can be scrubbed out and cleaned to meet allergen protocols.”

Although today’s difficult economy suggests caution when making capital investments, investment now in technology that increases yield and decreases costs will pay even greater dividends in the better times to come.

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