To increase profits, bakeries often attempt to differentiate their baked foods with topping and finishing touches. Embellishments such as nuts or candy, sesame seeds, streusels, icing strings and even sheens enhance baked foods, allowing companies to attract consumers’ eyes and charge more for their final products.

Bakers are practically required to offer value-added toppings, according to Stewart Macpherson, owner and vice-president, sales and marketing, Unifiller Systems, Delta, BC, pointing out that the ever-growing trend is to top baked foods using larger chocolate chunks, whole nuts, fruit and even broken cookies.

Recent health trends have led bakeries to topically apply seeds such as poppy, sesame, sunflower and flax to baked foods, according to Shawn Moye, executive director of sales, Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA.

Toppings typically enhance the cosmetic appeal or provide a homemade look, but they also can add flavor, said Clay Miller, sales engineer, Burford Corp., Maysville, OK.

Automated topping equipment should maintain and improve product quality and consistency. “Consumers are looking for the best value, and they interpret this as quality, taste and price. Toppings influence this by adding to the ­visual effect and taste of the finished product,” said Norm Searle, COO, Axis Automation, Hartland, WI. “Manufacturers interpret this as meeting customer expectations, product labeling laws and not giving away expensive ingredients.”

Guaranteeing accuracy

To precisely and accurately add toppings and finishing touches to baked foods, bakeries rely on topping ­dispensers, salters, seeders, flour dusters and icing machines.

“The biggest challenge in automating this process lies strictly within the properties of the individual product to be applied, and the most important requirement that enables the process to be automated, in a word, is consistency,” Mr. Macpherson said.

Making sure toppings are accurately and evenly added represents one — and possibly the greatest — challenge. “We offer a full range of ­applicators to ensure each type of topping is applied in a precise and accurate amount in 24-hour-a-day-operations,” Mr. Moye said.

In fact, Reading offers three different types of topping machines — screens, pocketed rolls and vibratory feeders — to cover the variety of products being topically added prior to baking. “By offering a wide range of applicators, we can meet the topping needs from salt, sugar, flour, seeds, candies and nuts,” he said.

Similarly, Moline Machinery, Duluth, MN, manufactures a variety of topping equipment from vibratory dispensers for nuts, oats, sprinkles and other large particulates to galzers/crumbers for depositing a combination of glaze and crunch-style toppings to donuts.

As long as the size of chunks, chips, granules or particles are consistent, the chance of successfully automating the spreading, sprinkling or depositing increases greatly, Mr. Macpherson said.

Moist, sticky and oily products are not free-flowing and can inhibit the distribution, thus causing machine blockages, he said.

Christy Machine Co., Freemont, OH, designed self-cleaning dispensing rolls for its topping equipment to pick up irregular-shaped toppings such as chopped nuts to give bakeries the best and most accurately applied products, according to Randy Fielding, the company’s president. “Dispensing rolls have the ability to put the right amount on revolution after revolution,” he said.

Targeting savings

Because toppings can be costly, bakers do not want to waste these ingredients; therefore, they often employ reclaim systems. However, in some instances, products are on pans or a solid conveyor and cannot be recovered; then, targeted application is necessary.

Burford designed its Smart Seeder/Topper to target seeds, oats, grain blends and other dry toppings onto bread and buns on high-speed production lines. The system automatically adjusts its settings to provide accurate coverage using pan guides and sensors to offer ingredient savings, according to Mr. Miller. “We offer custom mandrels for each different pan for the Rotary or Smart Seeder,” he said. “We will build that mandrel for bakers’ products, their spacing and their topping.”

To enhance this topping system, the company recently introduced its pulse width modulation (PWM) sprayer, which electronically adjusts the water sprayer that assists with adhering toppings to proofed buns. With the PWM, operators no longer manually regulate the water stream, which may cause overspraying or pattern widths to be off, Mr. Miller said. The fully programmable PWM sprays at up to 10,000 cycles per minute.

By precisely positioning coders that monitor line speeds, Axis Automation also provides targeted application of toppings. “We can control our machine so that we can precisely start and stop, repeatedly, regardless of how fast or how slow the process might be,” Mr. Searle said. When using expensive ingredients such as nuts, blueberries or even custom-blended grains, the savings provided by targeted topping systems are important.

Unifiller also offers systems to automatically add almost any manufactured and packaged toppings such as chocolate chips, sugar strands and decoration sprinkles. “We have the solutions and technology to automate and apply these types of sprinkles to the top of cupcakes or distribute and sprinkle the required product evenly over a moving target using product sensors and photo eyes,” Mr. Macpherson said.

To meet customer needs, Christy Machine custom builds its dispensers and will include technology such as photo eye sensors if that is what the bakery desires.

It also uses reclaim systems because, as Mr. Fielding noted, “No one is wasting anything.” Christy Machine offers a bucket conveyor as part of its reclaim systems to collect and deliver the ingredient back to the hopper.

Reclaim equipment is an effective way to recycle expensive ingredients when using less costly topping equipment. “The more it costs, the more important it is to reclaim it,” Mr. Searle said.

These systems must have gentle handling to minimize breakage, he noted. But at the same time, Axis Automation’s reclaim systems screen materials to ensure no debris such as dough pieces will pass through.

Improving returns

Bakeries today want to achieve quick ROI for any equipment purchases including topping systems. And ROI on topping equipment is twofold, according to Mr. Miller. It’s the added value to the baked foods and being able to charge more for products with toppings.

The return is based on ingredient cost savings that the automated systems provide by precisely and accurately placing the toppings so there is less waste and fewer returns or complaints, he said.

Additionally, Mr. Searle observed that bakeries’ ROI for new topping equipment will include a reduction in labor costs as well as equipment downtime. “ROI has become very important nowadays,” he said. “In most cases, people are looking for less than a two-year ROI, and if they can get a one-year ROI, it will be a slam dunk.”

Sanitizing for safety

Recent food safety requirements demand bakeries place a high priority on the ability to properly sanitize topping equipment. And, as Mr. Searle pointed out, unsanitary conditions can lead to product recalls.

“Because of this need, all of our units are constructed entirely of stainless steel and food-grade plastics,” Mr. Moye said.  Reading’s units also have an easy-dump mechanism for complete evacuation of materials from the hopper and to allow quick and effective cleaning in this area, he added.

According to Mr. Fielding, Christy Machines builds all of its topping equipment to USDA-specification even for the baking industry.

To meet bakers’ concerns about sanitation, Burford makes its topping equipment washdown capable. Also, Burford is currently developing a machine it will introduce at the International Baking Industry Exposition in October. The small to mid-level cantilevered machine will be designed to fit in a tight space so that bakeries can move it in or out of lines to spot deposit onto pans. While it will still feature the company’s mandrel system, Burford is working to minimize the number of mandrels needed while still making it flexible for product changes.

“The target market is for those transitioning from hand topping or who have tight areas,” Mr. Miller said. “The direct-drive system will replace our economy seeder, offering a lower cost way to spot deposit without changing out mandrels every time.”

Much equipment exists for applying toppings and finishing flourishes to baked foods, and by adding these final touches, bakeries not only increase the value of their products, but they also boost their bottom lines.