When to Automate

by Lucy Sutton
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Baking and snack production wouldn’t be where it is today without some level of automation, but the convenience of such systems comes with a price. Jim Kline, president of The EnSol Group, Flemington, NJ, is an expert in this area. Formerly director of engineering for Bestfoods Baking and George Weston Bakeries, Mr. Kline has worked with bakeries and snack food plants for more than 30 years to plan and install new lines and manage their day-to-day operations.

One of the most important advances to bakery automation is “robust line integration capabilities that provide reliable exchange of process information, coupled with software that provides the baker with improved access to production information and the ability to use this information to optimize process performance,” Mr. Kline said. Advances in inline systems to monitor and control process operations in makeup and proofing/baking are also key, he added. In an exclusive Q&A with Baking & Snack, Mr. Kline shared his insight on how to manage the switch to automated processes. You can reach him at jkline@theensolgroup.com.

Baking & Snack: What presents the greatest challenges in automation?

Jim Kline: If one considers only bread and rolls, then the non-clustered, irregularly shaped and artisan products have traditionally been the most difficult to automate. Laning and aligning loose products and those of irregular shape for topping, slicing or packaging are difficult. Traditional methods are not effective, and nontraditional methods such as robotics and variable-speed timing belts are typically expensive.

If one steps back from traditional products and looks at the broader baked goods category, then 1) sweet goods — especially those crumb-topped, iced, sticky, random-shaped products — 2) laminated products with delicate outer crusts such as Danish and croissants, and 3) individually wrapped products that combine speed with some of these more difficult product characteristics certainly go to the top of the list for difficulty in automation.

Regarding the most difficult part of the process to automate, hands down it is packaging. There are several factors that complicate packaging automation: product diversity, product size and speeds. It is not uncommon for bakers to have eight or more changeovers on a single line each day. The diversity of products also contributes to the high cost of automation that confronts the baker. Today, improvements in vision systems and end arm effectors have gone a long way to address the complexity that confronts the baker in attempting to automate their packaging operations.

Which processes still require a human touch or monitoring to ensure they’re done successfully?

It really depends on the size of the bakery and the extent of automation. Although there are good inline quality systems available, they are expensive. Monitoring of the process and product quality is one of the most common areas where the human touch is needed. The downside of this is ensuring consistency person to person, shift to shift and day to day.

Physical attributes are easy to characterize using simple process aids to measure weight and size. However, quality checks for which there are few quantitative measures — color, shape, product appearance, package appearance and package quality — have greater opportunity for variance and error.

Other areas still requiring more of the human touch are decorating, collating products in packaging, and reacting to process or equipment problems.

Which products are better suited for automation?

Products of consistent size and shape, products having long production runs or infrequent changeovers, products that are common in the marketplace. Products common to the marketplace benefit from proven results and continuous improvement programs that advance the process and the equipment used to manufacture these products.

In regards to artisan baking in particular, what considerations must a bakery account for? How much automation is too much to consider an operation artisan?

Artisan products can be divided into two broad categories. The first is where the products are handmade and reflect the skill of the bakers who make them. The second is more a classification of products determined by the product itself rather than by who makes them.

Those products identified by the craftsman who made them will naturally have greater individual involvement in production. The equipment used by these bakers is classified for retail bakers and smaller commercial bakers. The process, while enabling higher-speed production, still requires the skill and touch of the baker in producing the desired finished product.

In the second category of artisan, machinery replicates artisan products. There are many items that lend themselves to this approach and production model: French bread, baguettes, Italian breads, rolls and laminated products.

So when do artisan bakers need to be concerned about the application of technology? Simply stated, when it changes their products and/or alters their stated business principles; when the equipment does not support their ability to retain the product attributes or quality that they have built their business upon.

Regarding automation consistent with maintaining the artisan focus, it must be remembered that irregularly shaped products; non-clustered products; hard, irregular crusts; and inclusion of seeds, grains and fruits are all considered attributes of artisan products. These attributes, desired by consumers and points of positive differentiation for the artisan baker, are trouble for process engineers and machinery manufacturers. Because of the unique product attributes, for artisan bakers, unlike commercial bakers, the greatest opportunities for automation are in ingredient handling, makeup, proofing and baking. Improvements in these areas will assist the baker in operational efficiency, throughput and quality.

What is the best way to train production workers so they can quickly adjust to new equipment and processes?

The skills required to maintain a piece of equipment need to be considered before it is acquired. Are the personnel capable of overseeing, running and maintaining it? If so, then it is a good investment choice.

The greatest problem with training workers is the training skills of the trainer, be it a bakery supervisor or a supplier’s representative. Most supervisors and field personnel who train for suppliers have never been instructed to train or to educate adult learners. AIB International conducts “Train the Trainer” seminars; holding one prior to startup of a new bakery or a new baking line has proven very effective at reducing startup time and improving knowledge transfer.

Assuming a mechanic has the fundamental skills required of them, then as in production, the success of the training program is dependent on the skills of the trainer and the quality of the training materials.

How has the integration of equipment advanced to further automate complete lines?

Equipment manufacturers are building open communications capabilities into programmable logic controllers and personal computers that enable full line integration, and software capable of integrating the process line is now robust, dependable and tailored to meet the baker’s needs. This allows the baker to address lot tracking, process monitoring, track material usage and to simply integrate independent process operations. It also enables remote access to the process to monitor real-time performance and troubleshoot equipment issues.

What will it take for the industry to feature lights-out facilities with completely automated lines that require no human interaction?

It exists today. On a limited basis, it has existed in Europe for nearly 20 years. The technology is there for mixing and baking, and several US baking companies have gone to sensory lighting systems in these areas; lights are only on when someone needs to be there.

Packaging and distribution are another story, the technology exists for a limited few — those with infrequent or no changeovers for shifts at a time. Pick-and-place systems for bars, cookies and snack products are well-developed and provide good returns on high-speed lines. However, for the majority, people are needed. Technology is available, but the cost for those that have frequent changeovers, multiple stock-keeping units and multiple package put-ups is very high.

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