Recently I was confronted with an interesting situation during a project in Nigeria. We had developed functional specifications for a rather straight­forward modernization of a wholesale bakery, including a flour handling system. When the bids came in, this simple project became much more intriguing. One of the bidders chose to base its bid on a dense-phase flour transfer system, rather than a dilute phase. (Dilute phase is by far the most common for US and European bakeries.)

The baker was not familiar with dense-phase technology. However, I knew about it from my career before I joined the baking industry. In the snack food industry, dense-phase transfer was used commonly because it is less damaging to whole grains and corn. But in baking, we do not deal with whole grains and corn and large batch transfer. Instead, we deal in small batch sizes and highly accurate scaling. But for our project in Nigeria, we had this bid — and a very good one at that — that met all our design criteria. It just didn’t fit the mould.

In many ways, we were faced with one of the ultimate questions when it comes to designing and building a new bakery. Specifically, when is the right time to change, try new methods, explore new technology and invest for the future? The answers are not simple. We recognized it was basically a problem-solving exercise. We needed to develop a clear understanding of the technology and then assess the pros, cons, risks and changes associated with this potential move. To start with, we identified the right people to evaluate the technology. It was a different group from the one assembled to review the bids we had received and to make financial decisions. In this case, we wanted the people who were going to use and maintain the equipment to have a greater voice.

Developing a thorough understanding of the process proved to be the most complex task. We needed to go beyond the sales presentation that had been provided on the technology to be able to draw comparisons with the alternatives. Because we were looking to install a total flour transfer system, we did not have any concerns with marrying dissimilar systems that bakers often encounter when evaluating new technology.

The Internet proved quite helpful because it provided much-needed information and the opportunity to get a balanced view of the technologies being evaluated. We were surprised to learn that dense-phase technology is used by most of the millers supplying the bakery.

Developing the pros and cons was the easiest, but then we needed to consider the risks associated with installing either system and how these risks could be mitigated along with what contingencies could be developed to minimize the risk associated with installing either system.

Training became the main focus of the contingency program because none of the suppliers had service representatives in the region. In fact, the nearest service rep was several days away because of visas required for entrance into Nigeria. Each person being trained would receive a personal copy of the training materials, which would become the operator’s guide. These materials covered all aspects of the equipment and provided space for taking notes during the training sessions.

Although the bakery is still deciding which system to use, everyone was comfortable with the evaluation process and the knowledge gained. We also realized the necessity of being aware of all technologies that are available. We all depend on our suppliers to keep us abreast of new developments, new equipment and systems, and improvements that can be made.

But how do we keep current with what is outside our circle of resources? How do we get exposed to new and emerging technologies that may have application in our industry? What is out there that we could benefit from and do not even know about? All too often when we answer the ultimate question, yet another arises that challenges us to be better operators in the long run.

Pros and Cons

To determine whether a dense or dilute phase ingredient handling system is best for an operation, bakers should consider the following qualities of each system and compare its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Operating efficiency
  • Component design
  • System performance and reliability
  • Batch accuracy
  • Batch flexibility
  • Controls
  • Maintenance and sanitation requirements
  • Installation time
  • Supplier support (pre- and post-installation)
  • Supplier experience
  • Confidence in the supplier
  • Cost assessment.