Emerging challenges for the world of sheeting and laminating aren’t particularly coming from anything new. The demand for quick, convenient, tasty baked goods and snacks isn’t a recent trend. The move toward healthier foods and more whole grains isn’t something that has taken anyone by surprise.

It’s more a question of flexibility that is being asked of sheeting lines and laminator equipment.

Throw those first two challenges together — along with a demand for more high-quality products with cheese and meat fillings and seeds, grains, spices, roasted vegetables and other unique toppings — and bakers are seeing an increase in consumers looking for an array of non-conventional baked goods and handheld hot snacks in foodservice, in-store bakery, deli and convenience store settings.

It all adds up to a need for versatile sheeting and laminating equipment so bakers can broaden their product portfolio with a whole new array of baked prepared foods.

Against the grain

The traditional pastries produced by sheeting and laminating systems have, for the most part, centered around croissants and some sort of Danish filled with fruit, cheese or a combination thereof.

The status quo seems to be changing.

The demand for premium chocolate, caramelized onions and other sweet or savory fillings in higher-end pastries has skyrocketed.

“You’re seeing people wanting to take these conventional laminated pastry-type doughs and give them some type of interesting filling,” said Eric Riggle, vice-president of Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH.

Jon Thompson, national sales director for Rheon USA, Irvine, CA, pointed out that fast food restaurants are spurring this trend. Customers are looking to the drive-thru for new handheld foods with non-traditional fillings, especially in the morning.

“We’re noticing them getting into breakfast items, pastries and Danish,” he said. “The McDonald’s of the world have always had those fruit pies, but most folks pick those up in the afternoon. Operators are looking more for items that people will have with their coffee.”

These unique fillings have led to new challenges for bakers using sheeting and laminating systems.

Instead of dealing primarily with liquid-form fillings, they are incorporating more complex and chunkier fillings such as sausage, scrambled eggs or potatoes, to create an array of grab-and-go products.

“Sheeting systems are excellent at producing the flakiness and texture that pies and handheld meals require,” said John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, for Reiser, Canton, MA. “Often these lines have piston-style fillers to deposit the fillings, which work well with liquids and easy-flowing fillings. However, many producers want chunky fillings with great piece identity and weight control. We’ve been able to integrate such capability into the line and deliver precise portions in the right position and time.”

Stuffing all these ingredients into a handheld product presents challenges of its own. Like many other products made on sheeting and laminating lines, maintaining the crumb structure is critical.

“The key is no-stress dough feeding and forming,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager for Moline Bakery Equipment, Duluth, MN. “After you take the dough from the mixer, you have to form it into a sheet and cut it into individual product sizes. The key is to not degas it in that process.” The emphasis on dough forming is deliberate. “What sets some systems apart is the dough forming performance,” he added.

Keeping it clean

Most non-conventional fillings that bakers use for these handheld products fall into the meat or dairy category, which the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates. The cleaning protocols for such lines are different from those made on lines inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. That means all of the line’s equipment being used must now be capable of complete sanitation, something that hasn’t always been necessary in the past.

“Historically, sheeting lines have not been washed down, but more and more companies are requiring this now,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s just redesigning it for cleanability, sustainability and easy wash-down.”

For OEMs, the need for full cleanability means eliminating nooks and crevices that could trap food debris.

Previously, many systems simply were not designed to be wet cleaned.

“In today’s world, with the expectations around allergen management and cleanability, you’ve got to have wash-down equipment. But some of the older equipment just won’t work any longer in those types of systems,” said Jerry Murphy, president of Rondo Inc., St. Moonachie, NJ, pointing out Rondo’s ASTec lines, which are made to be washed down. “We’ve solved that with ASTec and our sanitary technology.

“In our control system, we have the ability to track a sanitation cycle,” he added. “It guides the operators and also provides a log, which can then be printed out for your sanitation records. It doesn’t let you do shortcuts.”

Naturally, all of this means operating a USDA-inspected line, one that should include high-pressure washes and easy-to-disassemble equipment, according to Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager at Handtmann Inc., Lake Forest, IL.

“First, high-pressure wash-down designs should be mandatory for every element on the line,” Mr. Zelaya explained. “If equipment cannot be thoroughly cleaned in your facility’s production area, then look for equipment featuring tool-less disassembly and for modular designs that are easy to move into sanitation washrooms.”

Flexibility for fillings

The presence of meats and dairy products doesn’t only present the challenge of sanitation; it also gives bakers something else to think about when it comes to depositing.

“Anytime you’re getting into that, you’re talking about integrating depositing,” Mr. Moline said. “That’s where the challenge comes from, but it’s really what bakers want to do. You need the technology and flexibility to make quick adjustments to your system so you’re not wasting a lot of product when tuning your system. And the system needs to be smart enough to make self-­adjustments as well.”

With sheeters and laminators generally known as the most efficient and cost-effective way to produce high-volume doughs, the vital step is using the right depositing system.

“Sheeters and laminators are all about the crust. The depositing system is about the product integrity and placement,” Mr. McIsaac said. “Breakfast items that contain IQF eggs present special challenges with respect to product integrity. We have a double-screw system that has worked well with these types of products, resulting in gentle handling with precise weights.”

Incorporating ancient grains

Along the health lines, many consumers are drawn toward products made with whole and ancient grains — such as quinoa, kamut and millet — seen more in artisan products.

By nature, Mr. Riggle said, these doughs tend to be wetter and higher in absorption, creating difficult processing challenges. The dough doesn’t transfer easily, so extra care must be used in applying enough dusting flour to process the dough without it sticking, causing contamination and buildup.

“Artisan products tend to have a long pre-­fermentation time, where the dough is given time to relax and gas up before it goes to the processing line,” Mr. Riggle said. “Therefore, a lot of the lines we’re selling are no-stress or low-stress technology that doesn’t degas the product and creates a nice, aerated cell structure.”

Mr. Murphy echoed the points about ancient grains being processed in a wetter state and said that leads to bakers needing a precise plan in how to deal with them.

“It’s important for bakers to understand the product they’re trying to make and how they’re going to handle those ancient grains,” he noted. “From there, we can help them figure out what’s the best way to apply them or handle them on the line.”

Minimizing the waste

With premium fillings and toppings and more high-quality products using ancient grains, bakers find themselves using more high-cost ingredients. Naturally, they’re looking for production lines that will help them minimize waste of these upscale ingredients.

“What we tend to do is make sure any excess that is applied can be reused and recirculated through the system,” Mr. Riggle explained. “That can mean targeted hoppers, targeted application, recycling conveyors and recycling systems. We want to make sure we can apply them efficiently and accurately but also that any overage can be recycled. That impacts the bottom line tremendously.”

Mr. Moline pointed out the importance of reducing dusting flour. Enough flour is needed for smooth processing of the dough, but wasted flour can be expensive for the baker.

“Our side-load, automatic-fill flour bins are really designed to integrate with flour reclaim systems,” he said. “It takes manual labor out of it and also allows flour to be recycled.”

It’s just another of the challenges being presented by the ever-growing needs of consumers. But Mr. Thompson said these hurdles won’t stop OEMs and bakers from providing these in-demand products.

“I don’t see where sheeting and laminating lines are going to be restricted from making a very wide range of products using wide ranges of ingredients and fillings,” he said. “I don’t see anything that isn’t doable.”