Automating ingredient handling

by Shane Whitaker
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While most bakeries or snack manufacturers use some ingredients at rates that justify bulk storage in silos or tanks, these facilities also batch many other ingredients at much lower levels and maybe only need some in a few formulations. They most likely receive these ingredients in 50- or 100-lb bags, super sacks or intermediate bulk containers (IBCs).

In many cases, the ingredient consumption rate dictates the need for automated bulk systems to reduce warehouse traffic, storage requirements and personnel, according to Mike Palmer, general manager, KB Systems, Bangor, PA.

Although most ingredients are offered in small bags, not all materials are available in bulk bags, totes or even bulk truck or railcar, according to Cam Martin, Midwest sales manager, Shick USA, Kansas City, MO. He noted that the first question a plant will need to answer when determining how it wants to receive ingredients is what the supplier can provide.

Just because ingredients aren’t stored in silos or tanks doesn’t mean their handling can’t be automated. Ingredients received via bulk trucks and railcars are usually stored and delivered using fully automated systems, while those delivered in bulk bags and totes often benefit from semiautomatic ingredient handling systems. Mr. Martin pointed out that bag dump stations are considered somewhat automated but will require manual labor to dump the bag.

Material cost justifications represent a main factor in determining how a facility receives ingredients. “Some materials may not be used in large enough quantities to justify the cost savings of going to a more automated system,” Mr. Martin said.

Weighing the options

Bill Kearns, vice-president, engineering, The Fred D. Pfening Co., Columbus, OH, said fully automated systems can be expensive and sometimes difficult to maintain. Also, some ingredients don’t lend themselves to automation for one reason or another.

“The dump stations and bulk bag unloaders offer a degree of automation with less expense and more reliability,” Mr. Kearns said. “The ability to move these functions away from the mixers and off the production floor adds flexibility to the design, improves traffic flow and results in a cleaner environment both around the mixers and in the bag dump/ bulk bag area.”

Plants need to evaluate several factors to determine their ingredient handling strategies. Among these, according to Mr. Palmer, are the rate of ingredient consumption, savings between bulk and bags, seasonal ingredient requirements and availability of bulk tanker deliveries.

Bag dump and super sack stations work well at bakeries that may not be able to benefit from bulk truck deliveries or need to adapt quickly to changing market needs. “For the most part, delivery automation and conveying systems between bulk storage and bulk bag and tote systems are typically similar,” Mr. Palmer said.

Today, bulk bag and super sack systems incorporate intelligent controls and features more commonly found in larger bulk systems such as automated batching and inventory control. “In many cases, combination systems that accept both bag and super sack ingredients give the bakery more buying flexibility and control of costs,” Mr. Palmer said.

The cost savings garnered from a high level of automation make it a top goal of many manufacturers and food processors, according to Russell Nadicksbernd, sales and marketing, AZO, Inc., Memphis, TN. “Operational and financial advantages are inherent in the automation of major ingredients such as flour, sugar and salt. However, those advantages decline as bakers consider the automation of minor and micro ingredients,” he added.

If the cost of automation cannot be offset by operational and material cost savings, Mr. Nadickbernd said dump stations, bulk bags and IBCs are preferred despite increased handling and labor costs.

Nearly any ingredient used in today’s baking processes can ship in bulk bags. These include, but are not limited to, cornmeal, cake/pancake mixes, wheat flour, oat flour, potato mix, shaped products, sugar, salt and dextrose, according to Dan Capwell, marketing coordinator, Flexicon Corp., Bethlehem, PA.

Bulk bag unloaders allow automating ingredients used in moderately large quantities but that do not justify silo or tank systems. “These might be specialty ingredients such as multigrain mixes or ingredients used in smaller quantities in most recipes like salt,” Mr. Kearns said. “They also allow remote location of the equipment, providing better fork truck access and improved sanitation, as well as reducing congestion on the production floor.”

Many bakeries find receiving materials in bulk bags an effective way to reduce the cost of procuring them compared with manually dumped bags. “Bulk bags are more rugged than the traditional paper bags, meaning they are less likely to break, either in transit or while in storage,” Mr. Capwell added. “Bulk bags are available in a variety of sizes and with interior liners to prevent product contamination and degradation.”

Jeff Dudas, CEO, Spiroflow Systems, Inc., Monroe, NC, also noted a movement toward plastic-lined super sacks because they are able to store products for longer periods of time. Another trend favors nitrogen-purged super sacks when processors need better shelf life for stored ingredients.

Ensuring ingredient flow

In general, Mr. Dudas said, bakers appear to be moving away from smaller 50-lb bags toward the bulk bags. Even larger delivery modes are changing. “Some companies have gone away from large rail and truly bulk systems to super sacks because they can handle and move them better in their factories,” he said.

Because most manufacturers are not as knowledgeable on the actual discharge of the ingredients inside bulk bags, according to Mr. Capwell, they often turn to equipment suppliers such as Flexicon, Spiroflow, Pfening and others for the solutions to their ingredient handling needs.

Ensuring smooth and efficient flow of ingredients into the processing machinery is the primary purpose of any bulk bag discharging system. Often this process begins before the bags are placed on the discharger because, in some cases, the material may have set up inside the bag. “In the past, bakery personnel resorted to beating the bags with baseball bats, crowbars, scrap lumber, etc. to loosen the material,” Mr. Capwell explained. “Flexicon helps solve this problem with our Block-Buster bulk bag conditioner.”

These conditioners feature two hydraulic rams that press the sides of the bag together, loosening the materials for discharge. A variable-height turntable option for a more thorough conditioning raises or lowers the bags.

Bulk bag unloaders are commonly equipped with integral hoist systems to facilitate bag loading and unloading. These systems can be equipped with a variety of discharge options, including screw feeders, airlocks or direct discharge into a surge hopper. Either loss-in-weight or gain-in-weight systems can automatically weigh ingredients and automate inventory control. “Providing load cells on the bulk bag unloader frame allows real-time monitoring of the remaining ingredient and is used to give advance warning when a bag is about to need replacing,” Mr. Kearns observed.

Tracking ingredients

Ingredient tracking has become increasingly important as manufacturers seek to mitigate possible operator error and contamination issues. “Integrated electronic control solutions allow the operator to acknowledge and confirm the addition of these critical smaller ingredients in the correct quantities, which ensures batch integrity and accuracy,” Mr. Martin said.

AZO developed systems that, while manual in nature, employ an automated backbone to deliver greater oversight. “The operator can be required to scan a bar code on the bags or bulk container before conveying the ingredient,” Mr. Nadicksbernd said. “The system verifies that the bar code correlates to the ingredient being requested by the system and allows the process to continue. This gives bakers and snack manufacturers a greater degree of oversight and confidence in their process. It also gives companies documentation and validation when dealing with product complaints, recalls or possible litigation.”

Dump stations, bulk bags stations and IBCs allow the flexibility for bakers and snack manufacturers to adapt quickly to new consumer tastes and will enable processors to manage future changes. These systems also provide bakeries with the ability to automate their ingredient handling but are also much more flexible than silos or tanks.
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