Juggling knives

by Charlotte Atchley
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Slicing baked goods can be a delicate process. Bakers must consider a plethora of variables, including temperature, size and shape. For desserts, bakers have to consider the delicateness of cremes and inclusions. For loaves of bread, the crumb and shelf life become priorities. “Stale time is important,” said Tim O’Brien, vice-president, marketing and sales, Urschel Laboratories, Valparaiso, IN. “Soft, gummy bread is difficult to cut. However, you can’t stale it for too long or else you’ll get a lot of fines.” On top of the typical variables to take into account, bakers today must balance the ever-growing diversity of their product lines.

As consumers have become more health-conscious and health fads have brought bread into the crosshairs, segments of the market have demanded all kinds of new products — from breads made without gluten to buns and rolls packed to the brim with ancient grains. On the other end of the spectrum are sweet goods and desserts that become more indulgent by the day with more fillings and inclusions than ever. Adapting to all these trends doesn’t come without a cost in the production line. These new baked goods respond differently to automated equipment, and the bakers, operators and equipment must be adjusted to keep up with demand, even down to the slicer.

With so many considerations to juggle, today’s equipment improvements aim to make the baker’s life easier by not only streamlining changeovers between product varieties but also improving sanitation, maintenance and general operations — anything the equipment can do to keep things moving down the line.

Adapting to agility

For the past few years, the bread aisle has become more and more diverse as consumer tastes move away from traditional white bread to more premium alternatives. This push for diversification prompts bakers to expand their product ranges and improve the flexibility of their production lines. “The market is constantly evolving,” said Alain Lemieux, engineer at AMF Bakery Systems, Sherbrooke, Canada. “We are seeing greater demand for gluten-free, fruited and other variety breads, thus there are implications in our equipment designs. Our slicer solutions need to support the bakers willing to serve these specialty bread markets in addition to functioning efficiently with a more conventional bread type.”

The key to flexibility is minimizing the time and work that goes into replacing equipment as production shifts from one product to the next.

Urschel makes changeovers simple with less complex equipment design. “Downtime is important whether its changeovers for sanitation or changing for different cuts,” Mr. O’Brien explained. “The design of the machine makes changeovers easier: minimal fasteners, easy-to-remove cantilevered spindles. All the things that make equipment easy to clean also make it easy to changeover.” 

Grote Co.’s equipment also simplifies changeovers between different product sizes and types with toolless changes that are easy to perform. The Columbus, OH-based company also adapts its standard slicing system to meet specific niches and applications. The compact 613-VS2 gives small and mid-sized bakeries an automated slicing system that is often seen in larger operations.

Specialty products, such as artisan bread, can prove tricky for slicers because of their inconsistent shapes and sizes that sometimes differentiate from loaf to loaf. Bettendorf Stanford, Salem, IL, addresses that by developing machines to handle product variation. These systems control the product throughout the process with side belts, feather guide rails and an automated loader for the paddle bagger.

AMF Bakery Systems redesigned its infeed conveyors not only for smoother operation and easier maintenance but also to accommodate a wider range of bread varieties.

Ryan Technology, Hillsboro, OR, addresses the wide range of products being made today by building a slicer that can handle it all. “Our slicers have always been very flexible as far as what types of products can be sliced on our machines,” said Sandra Ryan, the company’s vice-president of operations. “You can slice product as different as bagels and croissants on the same machine.”

Ms. Ryan attributed this level of flexibility to its slicer’s blades, which are 12 and 14 in. in diameter as compared to most slicers, which use 6 in. diameter blades. “The smaller blades make it possible to do multiple lanes, but in most cases, our single-lane slicer can do the same volume,” she said. The equipment can also be adjusted for products of differing widths and heights.

Adjustability enables flexibility on Erika Record Baking Equipment’s Krumbein BBS-VE. This slicer not only can adjust the height, depth and position of the cut, but it also features an adjustable speed conveyor. To also prevent damage during slicing, the machine has an upper conveyor that gently grips the product as it is cut.

Bakers of cakes, bars and other delicate and sticky products can find versatility in ultrasonic inline high-speed slicing systems. According to Doris Boily, general manager, Matiss, Saint-Georges, Canada, once the XY Inline Cutter is installed in a plant, there is minimum to no setup or tooling to change in order to switch from product to product. When a baker comes to Matiss looking for a slicer, products are tested and the parameters for each item’s perfect portion are programmed into the machine’s software. Every time a changeover needs to occur, an operator simply selects the appropriate recipe on the HMI, and in a few seconds, the cutter will adjust the dimensions and speed of the blade to suit the new SKU.

Not only are changeovers fast and simple, but the XY Inline Cutter also has many capabilities. It can not only slice frozen foods, but it can also handle ones at room temperature after cooling from the oven. It can slice products directly on the belt as well as those that are already in a box. The ultrasonic technology can also score products rather than make a clean slice straight through. “We’re very flexible,” Mr. Boily said. “We can adapt this XY Ultrasonic cutter to different production lines, and we will also adapt the ultrasonic technology to their process.”

Matching blade to bread is also critical when considering flexibility. “A hard-crusted dense loaf of bread tends to do well with smaller fine scallops in the bread,” said Allen Wright, vice-president of sales, Hansaloy Corp., Davenport, IA. “Contrast that, a soft traditional white or wheat bread tends to do better with larger scallop sizes as a general rule.”

According to Mr. Wright, as the US market has moved away from traditional white bread and as the variety of bread has increased, more and more bakers have turned to blades with smaller scallops to accommodate that crumb style.

Ease of access

Slicers by nature are dangerous pieces of equipment. Sharp blades don’t have a preference what they’re cutting, whether it’s bread or an operator’s fingers. Equipment suppliers, however, are continuously working to ensure that operators are safe when working with automated sharp blades.

AMF Bakery Systems recently completed an overhaul of the slicer guarding and safety features on its Saber 60 and 75. “We’ve added lots of clear Lexan windows to improve visibility on key areas like the blades and guide adjustment points,” Mr. Lemieux said.

The company also updated its main drive motors and brakes with newer technologies. This not only reduces the frequency of periodic maintenance, but it also improves brake reaction time. “Blade stop delay in emergency situations has been reduced by half, thus leading to even safer operation,” Mr. Lemieux added.

Sanitation and maintenance continue to be top of mind for bakers, even at the slicing station. “Bakery doesn’t have the same sanitation requirements as meat and dairy, but the industry is still interested in that,” Mr. O’Brien said. Urchsel’s slicing equipment finds uses in both meat and baking application. Because of the baking industry’s increased interest in improved sanitation, Urschel’s newest machine, the Affinity dicer, has piqued the baking industry’s curiosity. The dicer is extremely sanitary and can dice at high capacities due to the mechanical design of the machine, including the three-knife configuration, fee drum and feed spindle. The Affinity also features two motors where most only have one. “The original application was for meat and cheese dicing, which needs high capacities, but the baking industry is also interested in high speeds and sanitary equipment,” Mr. O’Brien said.

The Affinity was also designed to assist users in meeting the US Department of Agriculture’s high sanitation standards for the meat and dairy industries. To do that, the equipment’s design aims to make cleaning easier and prevent places where bacteria could gather. The cantilevered spindles are easy to remove, and the machine has minimal fasteners. Surfaces are sloped to promote self-drainage. The food zone is isolated to limit the amount of surfaces coming into contact with the food.

During AMF Bakery Systems’ update to its slicing equipment, the company also took access and sanitation into consideration. Engineers added doors to improve the ease of maintenance and sanitation. Most of the flat surfaces were eliminated inside and outside the machines in order to prevent crumb build-up and encourage a cleaner operation.

Build-up of crumbs on the blade can also cause issues of sanitation and decrease the quality of the slice. To combat this, Ryan Technology began using Ryton coating on its blades. This coating prevents the collection of residue on the blades and helps release sticky product.

The very nature of ultrasonic technology makes it more sanitary and helps extend blade life. The knives on an ultrasonic cutter vibrate at 20,000 times per second. “This vibration permits cutting sticky product without it sticking to the blade,” Mr. Boily said. “The fact that the product doesn’t stick to the blade means the baker won’t have to stop production to clean the blade.” This makes ultrasonic technology suitable to cutting cakes, cheesecakes, pies or any applications containing cremes or a high-sugar content. This vibration aspect of the cutter not only means cleaner knives but cleaner slices as well.

Streamlined operation

If a bakery is going to invest in an upgrade, the equipment should bring efficiency, more capacity and capabilities, and improved sanitation and safety.

One of the keys when it comes to slicing equipment is the blade itself. A clean, precise cut is the most important thing a slicer can deliver, and to keep those clean cuts coming bakers must change the blades often to ensure prime sharpness. Lengthening the life of a blade results in longer runs of products and reduced downtime.

To get that high quality slice throughout the entire blade’s life, Mr. Wright said the blade must be made from a high-quality steel and be a consistently ground razor sharp edge that will last over time and not degrade quickly.

“If the blade starts to degrade, the slice quality starts to go down, so slicing can become rough, uneven,” he said. “It can create a lot of crumbs. Keeping the blade in pristine condition allows it to have the same quality on slice one as the last loaf that’s sliced.”

To ensure bakers get a quality slice every time and lengthen the life of the blade, Hansaloy has devised its blade to maintain its sharpness longer and not degrade prematurely. With these improvements, bakers are seeing a 10 to 15% increase in blade life.

Other upgrades help streamline the process of slicing and attaching a new machine into an existing line. To eliminate some labor needs and streamline production, Grote Co. expanded the capabilities of its 613 Multislicer to include an optional pass-through conveying and targeting system. This enables bakers to slice and apply baked goods directly onto baking trays and screens.

When it comes to equipment upgrades, Bettendorf Stanford has focused on easy-to-use controls. “Ease of setup and controls has been one of the main drivers of our units whether that is mechanical encoders on the guides or automated set-up via touch screens,” said Matt Stanford, customer service for Bettendorf Stanford. All this makes repeatability and consistency in the process easier, which continues to be important in delivering consistent quality of product.

According to Ms. Ryan, Ryan Technology has made improvements to the electronics, blade height adjustment mechanisms and other features all to improve usability of the equipment for the operator.

In the spirit of making things easier, AMF Bakery Systems updated its discharge conveyors to improve product transfer and integrate tunnel guarding between slicing and the next step in the production line. AMF Bakery Systems also aims to keep the slicer controls and operator interfaces up-to-date with the latest technology. This ensures that the human-machine interfaces are as intuitive as possible and easy to learn. “Our AMF engineering teams are focused on making the lives of the operators, sanitation and maintenance staff easier,” Mr. Lemieux said.

With the latest upgrades, slicers run more efficiently, flexibly and safely than ever before, ensuring baked goods get a clean cut.        


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