Do it now? Or do it later? Most often, bakers decide to automate ingredient handling when designing a new facility, but things are different for existing bakeries. Economies of scale and potential ingredient savings need to balance out capital costs. And then there’s the problem of shoe-horning a bunch of tanks and scales into an already tightly packed plant.

Making the decision to automate some or all ingredient handling activities involves many factors.

All food manufacturers today feel the pressure to produce food that’s safe to eat and easy on the consumer’s pocketbook. To achieve these goals, they need to manage their input costs, make efficient use of their capital and comply with increasingly stringent food-handling rules.

Three main drivers now steer bakeries into automated ingredient storage and handling methods, according to John Hunter, sales account manager, value-added products, Buhler, Inc., Plymouth, MN. “One, is there an opportunity to save labor or make it more effective?” he asked. “Two, do you want to improve quality by reducing scaling mistakes? Three, do you need to have better records to manage your traceability program?”

Shifting cost factors

Looking at the cost-benefit ratio, there’s much to be gained from automation. “Generally, bulk ingredients are cheaper,” observed Lisa Arato, application engineering manager, Zeppelin Systems USA, Inc., Odessa, FL.

There’s also the matter of accurate scaling. “The biggest reason for automation is usually to eliminate manual weighing or ingredient identification errors where the wrong ingredient is added,” Ms. Arato said.

Actually, the operational savings come in a package, explained James Toole, product manager, bulk handling systems, KB Systems, Inc., Philadelphia. “As you get into micro and minor systems, operational considerations shift more to eliminating manual pre-batching and operator error, better control of the mixing process, and automated lot and batch control, as well as more rapid and flexible product changes,” he said. “But today, more than ever, there is a growing concern for employee ­fatigue when handling and lifting bags.”

Ms. Arato confirmed the labor issue. “Ergonomics and the reduction of worker compensation claims are also benefits of automation,” she said.

Use of bulk totes goes a long way to reduce labor. “There’s a push away from manual handling of bags in many businesses because of labor efficiency,” Mr. Hunter said. “This is often a tipping point favoring more automation, and if you use temp workers, you may make that decision sooner rather than later.”

An important benefit of applying automation to salt, sugar or specialty flour — ingredients used at rates of 5 to 50 lb per batch — is the savings accrued when the baker can purchase these materials 2,000 lb at a time in super sacks, according to Mr. Toole. He reported that the company is developing a line of self-return bag dump and super sack systems.

But can you justify the considerable expense? “If you’re a small bakery and not seeking business from larger customers, automation does not make a lot of sense,” Mr. Hunter said. “But if you’re getting constant increases from your customers, automation may help by addressing the output levels they are seeking.”

Every bakery is different

Typical bakery formulas use a lot of a few ingredients, some of others and a tiny amount of still more. Bulk, also termed “major,” ingredients make up the majority. Flour, for example, constitutes around 55 to 60% or more of bread’s raw materials and up to 88% for crackers. Sugar at 30% is cake’s major ingredient. Minor ingredients — yeast, eggs, milk products, starch and fiber — typically range from 5 to 10%, and micro ingredients, such as enzymes, gluten and salt, are added at 5% or less. (All percentages are based on total formula weight.)

By and large, volume tells you when to go to bulk automation, but frequency of use is what determines when to computerize control over minor and micro ingredients. But it varies for every bakery. “Different customers will have different views on the threshold,” Mr. Hunter noted. “Quite a few automate in stages, moving from bags to bulk. Flour is an easy decision to automate. Then they will go down the list in order of use.”

When considering the move to automated ingredient handling, bakers should take advantage of any opportunity to see how others work with such systems. Vendors of these systems can assist in the introductions, according to Kevin Pecha, sales manager, food, AZO, Inc., Memphis, TN. These visits, he noted, provide an unfiltered opinion on the pros and cons of the automation process.

Aaron Irvin, director of systems and products, Shick USA, Kansas City, MO, observed, “Minors are different for everybody.”

Because of that, companies automate minors and micros at a variable pace. “There is no perfect formula to justify minor and micro automation,” Mr. Toole said. “The level of automation that makes the most sense will be based on a blend of factors that are unique to each baker’s products, manufacturing strategy, consumption requirements, and level of automation desired.”

Bakers need to weigh various factors. Large bulk systems typically focus on savings based on bulk ingredient delivery and reductions in labor and bag waste, Mr. Toole noted. “Minor and micro systems, however, expand on those same benefits with improved dosing accuracy and consistency, improved lot tracking, improved recipe sequencing and control, and less operator error,” he added.

Taking into account differences in ingredient usage patterns, bakers may want to consider threshold levels and maximum and minimum weighments when considering an automated ingredient system. In other words, what is the threshold for switching from manual scaling to automated handling?

“In our opinion, usage levels in excess of 20 50-lb bags per hour usually indicate the need for automation,” Ms. Arato advised. The frequency of use also makes a difference. “Ingredients used in every batch may necessitate automation,” she added.

Any exceptions? “Allergens or colored ingredients may still need to be hand-added,” she noted.

The efficiency of frequency

Economy of use strongly influences the decision of which ingredients to automate. Thresholds, explained Jason Stricker, executive account manager, Shick USA, involve the minimum weighment required by the customer’s formulas. “But if an ingredient shows up in small amounts in every item, then it’s a good candidate for automation,” he said.

Edward Brackman, vice-­president, sales, The Fred D. Pfening Co., Columbus, OH, agreed. “It is not so much a quantity of usage as much as a consistency of usage,” he said. “If a baker uses a specific set of ingredients in most or all recipes, a case can be made to automate them. This applies in all product types.”

He noted, however, “Micro ingredients that are added in very small quantities tend to be cost prohibitive [to automate].”

During the course of a year, ingredient usage can vary, which affects its suitability for automation, according to Mr. Pecha. “Some ingredients are seasonal, so equipment can be configured to be interchangeable.” Rarely used materials will likely remain manual additions. “The goal is to provide a reduction in the amount of manual intervention, while maintaining the quality of the finished goods at a reasonable capital cost,” he added.

Mr. Hunter cited salt in bread and milk powder for cakes and cookies as ingredients used across the board by many product varieties. “In other words, automate the things you use the most frequently,” he said. “That takes the rest, which have to be hand-weighted, down to a manageable level.”

In terms of quantities to be dispensed per batch, threshold limits can vary from a half-pound to a matter of a few grams. “Equipment with that level of precision can be expensive,” Mr. Stricker explained. “Another consideration with such small weighments is that you need to be certain that every bit makes it to the mixer.”

One bakery that Baking & Snack visited recently solved the delivery question by always scaling salt last. The salt flushes any lingering bits of previously scaled drys forward to the batch-receiving bin. Another bakery set up its automatic liquid ingredient system with formula water as the last to be scaled into mixer lines to ensure complete delivery of all liquids.

Other factors enter the efficiency equation. “How long does it take to prep ingredients? Does this affect the throughput rate?” Mr. Hunter asked. “Those are questions to ask to get to maximum use of your assets.”

Labor is an asset, too. If a company requires many hand-adds yet doesn’t have a lot of staff available to perform this task, those operations are good candidates for automation.

Sometimes, it’s the overall number of formulas run by the bakery. Breadmaking operations with a limited roster of product types are relatively easy to automate. But with more varieties, the sheer number of ingredients adds to the difficulty of automation.

Sometimes, it’s the physical attributes of the ingredient that determines whether it can, or should, be automated. Powdered emulsifiers don’t flow well. Proteins and dried fruits are sticky. Fragile particulates, such as chocolate chips or nut pieces, present different challenges. “That impacts how the automation will be done,” Mr. Stricker said. “A baker can automate inclusions in many ways, including mechanical methods such as cleated belts and buckets.”

And there’s the matter of cleanliness. “Sanitation also plays a big part in spending money to automate,” Mr. Pecha explained. “The fewer the personnel involved, the lower chance that a spill or contamination can occur.”

Fitting the facility

Installing automated ingredient storage and handling technology in an existing bakery will alter how — and where — ingredients are warehoused. The upside? Pallets of bagged ingredients won’t consume as much valuable floor space as before, and you’ll save on disposing of empty bags. The downside? You have to put those silos, holding bins, dump stations and sifters somewhere.

“Automation decisions also depend on how the facility is set up,” Mr. Stricker said, “on how ingredients are received and how much space is available in the plant.” Ingredients received in small containers have to be stored, moved and handled to dispense, but larger containers, such as bulk totes, create less waste and are easier to automate. And when it comes to warehousing ingredients, “most bakers prefer to maximize space for finished products rather than raw materials,” he added.

Fitting the system to the staff running it is also important. Controls should be intuitive, because “to the operator, simplicity is key,” Mr. Stricker said.

Whether the automated system is part of a new bakery or a retrofit at an existing one, “transition should involve the hands-on supervisors in what’s being designed and built,” Mr. Irvin said.

The rapidly advancing pace of technology today makes it easier to get people involved in such projects. “Everyone typically looks forward to getting [the automated system] up and running,” Mr. Brackman said. “The best advice we can give is for bakers to make provisions in their budget to hire the necessary personnel or support systems.”

The size of such an investment requires buy-in not only during the planning stages but also through startup and operation thereafter. “The commitment of the company and all its departments to use the system properly and maintain it properly is essential,” Mr. Brackman stressed. “Without support from management, production, engineering and sanitation, these systems will deteriorate very quickly.”

Planning should give attention to the future. “Your automation plan should fit your goals with the flexibility to expand or change as your business changes,” Mr. Toole said. “Spend the time up front to understand the benefits and impact of automation in your company and partner with a firm that can help guide you in those decisions.

“Remember that not deciding to add automation to your company when it’s practical can cost you revenue and growth,” Mr. Toole emphasized. “No decision can many times be just as bad as the wrong decision.”