Big-league slicers that make the cut
Advances in technology simplify production of difficult-to-produce flatbreads, frozen foods and gluten-free baked goods.
BakingBusiness.com, Aug. 1, 2012
by Dan Malovany

With the proliferation of new products to meet emerging consumer trends, today’s slicers need to prove they’re a cut above the rest. They need to be deft as a dancer to precisely slice the thinnest delicate flatbreads or tough as a nail to process rock-hard frozen fully baked or par-baked products. Healthy ingredients pose another challenge. They may be good for building strong bodies, but these new formulations create a host of problems for operators at the end of the production line.

“Low-fat and low-oil breads provide challenges by creating gluten build-up in the slicer,” noted Allen Wright, vice-president of sales, Hansaloy, Davenport, IA.

Specifically, the thin size and soft textures of flatbreads leave no margin for error, and the ongoing popularity of these products has forced equipment manufacturers to think outside of the bun, according to Ray Anater, senior sales executive, LeMatic, Jackson, MI.

“You need a very precise machine,” he said. “You need a flat conveyor bed for the product to rest on. The product must be guided into its proper position, then you need a flat-top conveyor and set the blade midway between those surfaces to slice it without the blade flexing.”

With soft-textured flatbreads averaging about 3/8 in. thickness, the blades must be positioned at 3/16 in. between the top and bottom conveyors. Talk about literally sandwiching a thin. To secure the blades, LeMatic created a gap between the conveyor lanes on its slicers to add blade guides. LeMatic offers slicing systems with three, four or six discrete lanes that can operate at speeds ranging from 100 to 150 slices a minute, depending on the size of the product.

When it comes to flatbreads, most bakers prefer band slicing similar to cutting hamburger buns, although some companies prefer a wedge cut or a web slice — where blades cut from both sides of the product and leave a small sliver of the product attached in the middle so that the halves of sliced thins remain attached throughout the downstream stacking and packaging process.

Healthy complications

Additionally, many flatbreads are high in gluten and fiber and often contain inclusions such as raisins, whole grains, spices or even vegetable bits. Such ingredients enhance the nutritional profile of these lower-calorie bun offerings, but Mr. Anater noted they tend to gum up slicer blades, resulting in tearing instead of slicing of products.

To counter this problem, he added, LeMatic’s blade guides also serve as spring-loaded scrapers that lightly ride on the blade. Along with oil misting, the scrapers control gum-up. Compressed-air nozzles blow particulates off the blades down stainless steel chutes underneath the scrapers into a catch pan where they can be collected.

Using cold compressed air, Mr. Anater said, also controls the temperature of blades that can get too hot from friction during the slicing and scraping process, increasing waste and reducing blade life. Even with these controls, flatbreads are tough on the slicing process, and blades may need to be replaced during an 8-hour shift.

Cold cuts

On the other end of the spectrum, slicing hard frozen products continues to gain in popularity, noted Matt Stanford, vice-president, Bettendorf Stanford, Salem, IL. “We’re getting a lot of calls for slicing frozen foods such as biscuits, English muffins and bagels,” he said.

Slicing frozen baked goods requires specialized heavily built machinery as well as new blade technology and different cutting styles such as curved-tooth and hollow-ground blades. “Everything you put into the machine has to be beefed up by 50%,” Mr. Stanford said.

Unlike fresh breads, rolls and other baked goods that tend to flex during this process, frozen foods don’t give. This means slicing systems need to be built with spring-tensioning devices, top hold-downs and conveyors that flex for effective slicing.

Additionally, friction from slicing often heats up blades. If the blades get too hot, the two halves of a frozen roll or bagel tend to melt slightly along the sliced sections and will stick together unless they’re separated by deflector plates until the affected areas refreezes.

According to Mr. Stanford, gluten-free products made with tapioca-based ingredients can be tricky to slice because they’re stickier and firmer than soft white bread. “All of a sudden, you’re needing a whole new method of slicing,” he said. “If you take a reciprocating slicer with a longer-stroke crankcase, you can get a nice, clean slice. Still, you may have sticking and buildup and the headaches that come with slicing sticky or gummy products.”

Slicing and dicing

Creating crunchy, dry croutons or creating smaller cubes for stuffing often need specialized equipment. “The main challenges come in the nature of the type of bread product being processed,” said Mike Jacko, vice-president, engineering, Urschel Laboratories, Valparaiso, IN. “Variables such as hardness and density of the product plus moisture conditions of the processing plant have a direct impact on cutting. Maintaining precise drying times and proper ambient humidity levels are keys to the process.”

Advances in technology involved in the design of the Urschel DiversaCut 2110 ease sanitation because the feed zone is entirely separated from the mechanical zone, Mr. Jacko noted. To simplify changeovers, the machine is equipped with a cantilever crosscut spindle and a circular knife assembly with a handled, removable support.

With many companies searching to differentiate their product lines, Mr. Jacko said, slicing systems need to be increasingly versatile. “With the DiversaCut 2110, a company can produce crisp, angled croutons. With a few part changeovers, it can produce a stuffing mix with less-defined angles and a calculated number of fines for a home-style appearance,” he explained.

In today’s competitive environment, he suggested that turning potential waste into value-added products can produce extra savings. “Fine reductions of bread products can easily be converted into coatings,” he said.

Two options for accomplishing this include Urschel’s Comitrol milling line or grating screens on the Model CC.

Clean and simple

Many baked goods are also finding their way into frozen sandwiches and entrees, requiring slicers to be designed to USDA specifications for heavy washdown and sanitation, Mr. Stanford observed. Bringing a slicer up to such standards may require creating easier access to grease points; spacing out bearings, doors, guards and covers; or using rounded framing and tubes to eliminate crumb buildup.

Although many slicers come with programmable controls and other bells and whistles, simplifying machines can reduce the time it takes to clean and maintain systems if done logically. “Everybody doesn’t need a servo drive on every component,” Mr. Stanford said. Often posting simple directions on how to set up a machine can help operators properly adjust blades and guards.

To reduce labor, waste and operating costs, Mr. Wright encouraged the industry to focus on the fundamentals and education. “What I mean by that is that so many bakeries are doing more with less people that the details of operating a piece of equipment get lost,” he said. “Turnover is an issue for bakers, and that turnover causes valuable operational information to get lost.”

Companies like Hansaloy, he said, offer training to augment what is being done by the bakery on the production floor. With slicing systems, getting man and machine up to speed is a practical way for making the cut when playing in the big leagues.