Dan Malovany on New and Improved

by Dan Malovany
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Some days you just can’t help but feel old and stupid. That happened to me a couple weeks ago during a visit to White Castle. Yeah, I’m a palooka. My system needed a little lubrication so why not plop down $2.99 for three sliders, fries and a small drink? Now that’s my idea of portion control.

Then the young man behind the counter told me I owed only $2.84. Smart ol’ me thought I caught a lucky price break until I got my receipt that said “SENIOR DISCOUNT” in bleepin’ all-capital letters. At 51, I officially became “old.”

When it comes to equipment, old is often something that needs to be replaced, but new is not always the answer. In many instances, the solution involves the best of both worlds, and that means finding new applications for existing technology that has established a record of being tried and true. Shearer’s Foods, for instance, used proven technology from other industries and applied it to its new Massillon, OH, plant to make it LEED Platinum certified and one of the most sustainable snack facilities in the nation. As a side benefit, the company noted, certain systems such as the infrared burners in its oven not only save energy but also help produce tortilla chips that consistently exceed the gold standard for the industry. Now that’s innovation.

Incorporating technology from other industries can be challenging. Take robotics. The baking industry first began applying them around 20 years ago to eliminate the repetitive motion problems caused by the labor-intensive process of hand-making sandwich cookies. However, the first generation of robotics, which had been mainly used in the auto and other heavy industries, were clunky and expensive. In fact, I remember a plant manager explaining that their system had been purposely programmed to be slightly inaccurate because the bakery wanted the sandwich cookies to look “homemade.”

About seven years later, I visited that bakery again, and its next-generation robots could sandwich cookies with much more speed and dexterity. Moreover, this sandwiching system came at about half the price as the original one. Advances in software, vision systems, motors and other technology made the robots much more precise in picking and placing the delicate cookies. When I mentioned that the products no longer looked homemade, I got that “knowing look” signaling that the company line had changed. That’s because the once-new technology had become new and improved.

In today’s challenging economy, prototypes can be an especially difficult sell partly because they come with a shipload of risk, according to Bill Zimmerman, a veteran baker and consultant to the industry. “People want something that’s reliable,” he said. “You’d better have one heck of a sales group if that piece of equipment is a prototype. People just can’t afford to take those types of chances.”

Some people claim the industry is often slow to change, but in the case of new technology, it may be partly due to the diffi culty with finding skilled maintenance and engineers, added Gary Swymeler, vice-president of engineering, The Long Co., Chicago, IL. “It’s a rare situation where you find someone who has the expertise in PLCs but will still crawl into a proofer or show someone how to clean a chain on an oven,” he said. “Typically, the problem is people who have all of this knowledge aren’t willing to work for a bakery, or if you get them trained, they go somewhere else to make more money and not have to work weekends.”

Labor reduction remains the main justification for ROI, but bakers are searching for new systems that also offer better sanitary design or energy-saving features in the name of sustainability. “OEM vendors are getting pressure from their customers to improve the sustainability of the machine that they are making, and that’s driving a lot of innovation in the industry,” noted David Dixon, senior director, strategic accounts, at the engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, MO.

In these changing times, I try my best to keep up with the latest in technology. Unfortunately, my now offi cially recognized old age has yet to translate into wisdom. Not long ago, I accidentally referred to an MP3 player as a Walkman, and now I’m known as “Walkman Dan.” Never mind that there is a Sony Walkman MP3, I was busted.

But I know how to solve this problem. It just takes a tried-and-true solution that requires a bit of innovative thinking. Yup, I’m heading over to that nearby liquor store that cards everyone.

That should teach everyone I’m not as old or stupid as I look.

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