Knowing when to automate ingredient handling

by Charlotte Atchley
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“The incremental cost of each additional ingredient automated will rise linearly, but the poundage and incremental value will decline," said Bill Kearns, Phening.

Despite the benefits of automating minor and micro ingredients, it can be difficult to know when it’s the right time for a bakery to make this jump. Each bakery must weigh the cost and the benefits.

“Typically, you see bulk ingredients automated in most facilities, but you see minor ingredients automated in less than half of the operations,” said Darren Adams, engineering manager, Fred D. Pfening Co. “Generally, the cost of the equipment is the preventative point.” Justifying this cost is the key in determining whether a bakery is ready to automate its minor and micro ingredient handling.

It may not be beneficial for bakers to automate every minor ingredient because many of them are so minimally that hand-adding is still preferred. However, minor ingredients that are used in large volumes are going to justify that cost.

“In most bakeries. a relatively limited number of ingredients make up most of the volume of minor ingredients used, and it may be very beneficial to automate six, eight or 10 ingredients, rather than trying to automate many,” said Bill Kearns, vice-president, engineering, Phening. “The incremental cost of each additional ingredient automated will rise linearly, but the poundage and incremental value will decline.”

Automating the handling of these ingredients can save on material costs. “One of your cost benefits to higher-usage minor ingredients would be the fact that you buy them in bulk, and you can weigh the cost advantages if you’re going to use 1,000 lb over the week versus 100 lb per week,” Mr. Adams said. “You can probably get a price break on ingredients you buy in large quantities.”

The number and size of production lines and their throughput are good indications of whether a bakery is ready for this level of automation, according to Stephen Marquardt, sales director, food, Zeppelin. “When you have a lot of batches to run, this is when it gets stressful for the operator to keep up systems,” he said. “I would say [the decision] depends on capacity and the amount of ingredients.”

Taking a look at the sheer count of ingredients and products styles can also hint that it might be time to automate. “For bakers with minor ingredients consistently used over a number of SKUs, it’s definitely worth investigating,” said Jason Stricker, sales manager, Shick Solutions. "When producing goods that have similar minor ingredients, automation of those ingredients can allow customers to reap the benefits.”

If a baker is experiencing quality issues due to inaccuracy or omitted ingredients, he said, automating can be a potential solution in those cases, too. The cost of inconsistent product quality and wasted batches can push a baker to automate.

“A baker will have difficulty initially accepting the capital cost of equipment over the operating cost of a laborer,” said Kevin Pecha, sales manager, AZO. “The tipping point is accepting the fact that some of the variability in the production outcome is a result of the invariable uncertainty in the performance of the operators.” 

Looking at overall business resources can also help bakers weigh costs and benefits. According to John Hunter, sales account manager, baker supply systems, Buhler, bakers should ask themselves about the possibilities of labor reduction, production efficiencies and reduced risk of errors.

These benefits can seem a bit cerebral and not easily tied to an immediate financial return, but they are improvements that deserve attention. “The real struggle for many smaller bakers has been justifying the initial equipment costs with the many intangible benefits, making the decision many times more strategic than financial,”said Mike Palmer, manager ingredient systems applications and services, Gemini/KB Systems.

By taking this leap, when the time is right, bakers may be surprised at how much payback comes from consistent quality batches and improved production efficiencies.

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