Challenges to successful automation

by Dan Malovany
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Many high-speed bakeries are so automated that bun lines can automatically adjust during changeovers and other gaps in the process.
 

It may be touted as the biggest or the best, but be careful what you wish for when adding the latest moulder, panner or other key component to a production line — especially one that’s been around for a decade or more.

In many ways, investing in a piece of equipment can be like recruiting a star baseball or basketball player who can significantly alter the chemistry of a team. While the expectation is to enhance overall performance, the new piece to the puzzle can set off an unexpected chain of events — or even a domino effect — that can take days or weeks or even longer to get everything working on the same page again.

To avoid untoward surprises, strategic capital investments require not only preparation and evaluation but also anticipation. In many cases, installing one new piece of equipment on the front end of an operation may trigger a bottleneck down the line. Such a situation simply results in additional investments to further fine-tune the process and get it to operate at the optimal level.

Yes, automation can be a beautiful thing, but be prepared to expect the unexpected when it comes to integrating the new with the old. How do you avoid any surprises?

“Four main challenges come to mind,” observed Jerry Barnes, president, Unified Bakery Technology, which creates integrated bakery solutions for The Babb Group. “The first involves a clear understanding of the new system’s impact and being careful not to introduce unforeseen bottlenecks or service headaches. The second involves ensuring that product transfers both into and out of the equipment are seamless. Next, one should make sure that electrical interlocks are cleanly interfaced, and fourth, identify safety considerations to mitigate any hazards that may be introduced.”

On bread and bun lines, bakers need to predetermine the new system’s overall compatibility to ensure a smooth transition, according to Aaron Favors, field service manager, Baker Thermal Solutions, part of the Middleby Bakery Group. “It’s important to maintain pan sizes, rates and flows when refurbishing some equipment and adding new equipment to other sections of the line,” he pointed out. “All equipment has maximum outputs based on pans or pieces per minute. These numbers are fairly easy to find, and our sales staff and engineers have spreadsheets that can be easily manipulated to show various scenarios.”

Space can be a concern, especially when installing a piece of equipment in the middle of a line, suggested Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of sales and marketing, Formost Fuji. “So many times, you are given an allotted space, and it’s approved by the bakery engineering staff, but then it changes during the course of a project,” he said.

Shoehorning a piece of equipment after it’s already built can cause unnecessary delays. “Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting all of the players to the table at the same time before the project begins,” Mr. Gunnell added. “That way, you can determine what needs to be done mechanically or electronically to integrate that piece of equipment into the line.”

In addition to space, don’t forget to consider ceiling height. Vertical challenges often limit the ability to expand or even install certain types of new equipment.

“Most of the older bakeries were not constructed with the high ceilings that you see in newer bakeries today,” noted Bob Harrington, vice-president of sales and marketing, Capway Automation. “The higher ceilings allow us to take advantage of the lack of floor space by using the available building height in our equipment designs.”

Continue reading to learn the importance of backward compatibility. 

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