For pie producers, these points of emphasis are even bigger when looking at depositing lines. Those fillings not only give the pies their most distinct flavors, but they also cost money. Inefficiency can cause costs to jump. Wasted fillings mean wasted money.

“When there is an improvement in accuracy, it leads to less waste and a greater yield,” said Lance Aasness, executive vice-president, Hinds-Bock, Bothell, WA. “And that’s what bakers have always been looking for.”

Running on automatic

More than anything, Mr. Aasness said, bakers are looking for automation. It may not be what most plant workers want to hear, but the quest to automate more and more processes has ramped up.

“There has never been a greater focus or emphasis as there is right now,” Mr. Aasness said. “Now, more than ever, it seems like every meeting we’re in, it’s the reduction of labor that is being talked about.”

Naturally, one of the biggest advantages to automation is uniformity. One of the greatest obstacles keeping bakers from efficiency is the consistency of the prepared filling. The filling can be a changing variable during daily production, leading to inconsistent deposits and weights.

“Consistency is a critical value in pie depositing equipment,” said Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager for Handtmann, Lake Forest, IL. “Bakers need to be sure all filling batches have the viscosity and other physical characteristics and that they are processed at the same filling temperature and other conditions to prevent unexpected changes in their depositing performance.”

Pairing automatic depositing with weight control can be beneficial, said Frank van Hees, sales engineer for Vanderpol Waffle Systems, The Netherlands.

“An accurate servo-driven volumetric depositor with touch-screen control, in combination with an automatic weight checking system, can optimize production flow,” Mr. van Hees said.

The pressure for more automation in depositing comes from other factors as well.  Bakers are starting to feel the effects of health care regulations, some of which have caused insurance costs to increase. They also hear the national discussion regarding minimum wage laws, which could also lead to increased overhead.

“That plays a big role in all these talks about automation,” Mr. Aasness said. “It’s really shining a bright light on automation, reducing labor and increasing efficiency.”

Hinds-Bock’s lines have seen a move to greater automation, not so much when it comes to fillings, but when it comes to depositing toppings onto pies. After the fruit or fillings are deposited, the pies move downstream where the line automatically portions and spreads the dry toppings, such as streusel, nuts, sugar or cinnamon.

“On the smaller, single-serve products, we are doing a lot more automation,” Mr. Aasness said. “We’re automating a process that historically was done manually. Not only is there a reduction in labor, but there’s also an improvement in accuracy, which leads to less waste and greater yield of the dry toppings.”

And while automation can lead to great increases in efficiency and waste management, it is just part of a process that begins with a good look at what the baker is working with.

“Automation is the name of the game, and that’s what we get asked to look at all the time,” Mr. Aasness said. “In order to automate, you’ve got to be careful up front and make sure you do your due diligence. That’s understanding the specifications of the project and testing up front so we specify the appropriate equipment and approach.”

Stressing weight

When overseeing the deposits, many producers keep a close eye on their filling volume. Many times the consistency of that volume is much more of a focal point than variation in the weight of the filling.

Weight can change with density. Variations can come from chunks in the filling and are hard to avoid, yet packaging regulations stress accuracy in weight, not volume.

“Even a special stirring mechanism in the storage container and storage hopper will not avoid an uneven spreading of the chunks in the filling,” Mr. van Hees said.

One solution to this, he said, can be to split the fillings into solids and liquids and work with separate depositors. Thus, bakers can more accurately control the weight of the fillings, leading to a more consistent product and less waste.

“By using two depositing systems, an accuracy of approximately ±2% can be guaranteed,” Mr. van Hees. “But most fillings are pre-cooked and cannot be split.”

John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development for Reiser, Canton, MA, also pointed out that smooth-flowing fillings are not the problem for most depositing equipment; challenges in weight come with thicker fillings.

“It is the highly viscous products or products with big pieces that benefit from our depositing system,” he said. “Exact weight means more consistent baking and more consistency in the packaging.”

Mr. Zelaya also stressed the importance of weight. Integrated online weighing is now able to perform a progressive comparison of target and actual weights with individual portions.

“That is becoming much more valuable because it achieves a minimum standard deviation around a set target value on the order of tenths of a gram,” he said. “And that micro-precision in depositing makes a real difference in bottom-line performance, especially with premium fillings.”

Smart, integrated weighing can virtually eliminate rejects caused by underweight products, therefore knocking down the associated reprocessing costs and making a big difference in operations where more automation is the goal.

Of course, exact portioning and weighing are hefty goals when it comes to pie depositing. Consumers will always want pies with chunky fillings that make depositing more difficult. Mr. van Hees suggested maximizing the size of chunks in the filling. Mr. Zelaya noted success with gently moving fillings, which helps in maintaining the integrity of slices and large pieces of fruit without smearing.

“Our depositors handle big particles and inclusions in pie fillings gently and with great accuracy. That’s always valuable and even more so with the move by many to more artisan or premium fillings,” Mr. Zelaya said. “While chunky fillings traditionally have slightly bigger weight fluctuations with traditional depositors when compared with fully homogenous fillings, our vane cell technology does not require increases in weight limit tolerances to handle them.”

According to Mr. McIsaac, inconsistencies in weight can cause one of the biggest hurdles in staying efficient. “From our perspective, it is underweight and overweight portions going into the shells and inconsistent filling portioning,” he said.

Balancing act

Time, as they say, is money. And when depositing lines meet downtime, bakers and pie producers are watching money trickle away.

“At Handtmann, we are seeing the most concern about cleaning and unplanned downtime,” Mr. Zelaya said.

Sanitation is a routine efficiency issue for bakers, but it often gets overlooked. When a depositing line comes to a halt in order to be cleaned, the amount of time that passes can exceed what was planned.

“The time and labor saving from equipment that has been designed for tool-less assembly and complete wash-down can be significant, especially when calculating the life cycle cost of equipment,” Mr. Zelaya said. “It’s important to look for equipment that is easy to clean thoroughly. Make sure it can be fully washed down and is accessible for inspections.”

One way to increase time efficiency, according to Mr. Zelaya, is to schedule production with the longest-run item and then switch to shorter runs. “If you plan production to start with the high-volume products, your cleaning, sanitation and changeover cycles with shorter runs benefit from the familiarity of having them occur closer together,” he said.

But it’s not just downtime that provides the opportunity for bakers to be quicker and more time-efficient. When lines need to change between products that may include a variety of fillings with different viscosities, a quick turnaround can lead to higher production rates.

“The bakers coming to us are more and more looking for the flexibility of quick changeovers,” Mr. Zelaya said. “They’re working with high-value fillings and each demands a very precise portioning.”

Sanitation and changeovers can be planned. Sometimes, line stoppages show up unannounced, which can throw a figurative wrench into any efficiency goals.

“We’re being told easy-to-use internal diagnostics that help teams quickly troubleshoot equipment failures are becoming much more important,” Mr. Zelaya said. “Unplanned downtime from breakdowns can have a big impact on total efficiency.”

Of course, time management doesn’t only come into play when the lines are down for cleaning, changeover or repair. Quickness when the lines are running is important, as long as the deposits are still being made consistently, a task that led Mr. Aasness to return to his points about automation.

“By automating, quite often there is an improvement in throughput and speed,” he said. “The automation is really beneficial for the producer of the product. They’re making more of it, and they’re doing it more efficiently.”

Planning ahead

Sometimes, the best offense can be a good defense. The most effective steps toward a more efficient depositing line can come in defending against bad fits. When looking to make upgrades or installing new lines, especially when adding new automation, a little bit of homework can go a long way. Bakers have to be certain a line can accurately handle their products and give them the taste profiles and appearances they’re currently achieving manually.

 “We have to do a lot of testing up front to make certain we can run our customers’ formulas properly, to make certain their recipes can be automated,” Mr. Aasness said. “We have in-house testing equipment to make sure that before we agree to take on a project we know we can accurately and reliably run the customer’s products. All that planning in the early stages can be the biggest step in running an efficient line.”