Although people are still responsible for most of the picking and staging in fresh bread shipping, robotics may represent the future as they are tested in other bakery categories.

“Running a profitable manual or semi-manual picking operation has become increasingly challenging for managers who are faced with skilled-labor shortages, high-product turnaround, order inaccuracy, security and a great deal of conditioned warehouse space,” said Derek Rickard, distribution systems manager, RMT Robotics, Grimsby, ON.

The company developed several flexible robotic gantry picking solutions that can be used with either corrugate case- or crate-held products. “Our solutions are designed to completely automate case and layer picking in high-SKU, high-rate operations by combining large and fast gantries with a network of conveyor and integrated support equipment,” he said. “Cases or crates are received and temporarily stored on the floor under gantries and then selectively picked to fulfill orders.”

Bakeries in Finland have partially or even fully automated order filling ­using robots to select the product as it comes off the production line, said Marc Braun, president of Pcdata, East Granby, CT. The driving forces behind such large-scale automation are high labor rates and safety standards, he added.

However, while automated order filling has not infiltrated US fresh bread bakeries, Mr. Braun observed that cake producers have gravitated toward these solutions because products have higher margins and the box ­packaging is easier to automate.

Although ToolBox Software North America does not manufacture robots, the St. Paul, MN-based company will integrate them into its picking solutions, according to Ralf Ulmer, executive vice-president of sales.