As the rest of the baking industry tries to navigate the waters of gluten-free, reduced-sugar and whole grains, cakes remain an indulgence, impervious to such better-for-you trends. Instead, cake bakers are finding success by diversifying their product lines and pouring their energy into using high-quality ingredients to make their cakes as decadent as possible.

These trends toward increasing variety and relying on more indulgent ingredients mean the basic needs of cake depositing are more important than ever. As bakers opt for pricey ingredients, they need depositors to be as efficient and precise as possible so as not to waste that precious batter. While bakers are diversifying their product ranges, changeovers and sanitation have to become even faster to reduce downtime. With all these automation improvements, bakers cannot afford to sacrifice product quality, so equipment must be able to handle a wide variety of viscosities and delicate batters without damaging them.

Depositing on target

When it comes to depositing cake batter, accuracy is the baker’s No. 1 priority. The proper amount of batter must hit the pan at the right place every time, or else the baker loses money. This is even more important today with the run-up in ingredient costs. “With ingredient costs rising in almost every sector — sugar, flour, fat, butter — the importance of weight control with piston depositors has never been more critical,” said Stewart Macpherson, vice-president, sales and marketing, Unifiller, Delta, BC.

Traditionally depositors are air-driven with operators taking measurements and manually adjusting the depositor’s mechanical components. To remove this opportunity for human error and inaccuracy, Unifiller moved to a completely computer-controlled system for its multi-piston depositor, the MultiStation. At the computer terminal, the operator can select the weight of the deposit as well as speed and number of rows in the pan. The computer adjusts the machine to continuously deposit batter according to those parameters.

While some systems rely on gravity and pressure from the depositor to deliver consistent weights, the Handtmann system employs vacuum technology on the infeed side so it can exercise more control over weight.  According to Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager, Handtmann, Lake Forest, IL, the servo-driven multilane flow divider accurately portions every depositing cycle across a wider range of specific gravities.  

The batter density comes into play when trying to maintain consistent deposit weights. “If the specific gravity varies, then the deposit weights will vary,” said Bob Peck, E.T. Oakes Corp., Hauppauge, NY. To control the batter’s specific gravity and make the necessary adjustments, E.T. Oakes employs mass flow meters for both the incoming batter and air injection. This allows an operator to adjust the amount of air injected in the batter and control the final desired density. “Without the mass flow meter, we don’t know for sure what the incoming batter flow and initial specific gravity actually are,” Mr. Peck said. Exercising that much control over the batter’s final density helps maintain weight accuracy once the product reaches the depositing manifold.

“Our cake depositing manifold has the ability to adjust the amount of distribution to each pan cavity. The total weight/flow coming in is very consistent, so all we have to do is distribute it across the width of the manifold through very accurate metering valves,” Mr. Peck explained.

These variations in cake batter, even within the same batch, can also cause issues in accurate portioning, said John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, Reiser, Canton, MA. With Reiser’s vacuum-assist on the infeed of batter, the company’s machines can deposit the same weight every time despite variations from batch to batch or within a batch.

Haas Mondomix’s latest piston depositor, the MPRD, ensures precise deposits by using a sleeve, slot and piston design. When the piston pulls back to draw in batter, the slot moves forward to close the connection to the source of the batter. The piston then moves forward to deposit the batter. This motion creates a more precise depositor, according to Claus Abrahamsen, technical sales manager, Franz Haas Machinery of America, Inc., Richmond, VA. Each piston is also servo-driven.

Accuracy is a two-fold challenge. Bakers need machinery to deposit a precise portion of batter into the pan, but also they need the batter to hit the pan in the proper place. Batter that misses the pan will not make an acceptable finished product of the desired weight, no matter how precisely it was scaled. On top of this issue, drips of batter on the sides of cake pans also become very difficult to clean once the oven bakes those misses onto the pan, according to Rod Gregg, vice-president, sales, Hinds-Bock Corp., Bothell, WA.

To ensure a clean deposit, Hinds-Bock’s depositors use positive cut-off nozzles. “They open and close in time with the deposit and positively shut the product off so there’s no dripping of cake batter on the pan,” he said. This eliminates problems resulting from inaccurate messy deposits and baked-on debris.

To prevent its computer-­controlled depositors from missing the pan, Unifiller added the capability for the depositor to read the edge of the pan. This lets the depositor know there is a pan in place, ready to receive the batter.

Automation lets bakers fill larger orders and grow their business, but they don’t want to expand capacity at the expense of their product’s quality. While automation and machinery can speed up production and improve efficiency, they can also undo the desired characteristics developed in the mixer or aerator and cause reject product.

Preserving product integrity

The mixing process develops batter characteristics that will influence the finished product volume and crumb characteristics, but all of that can be undermined by the depositor, which simply transports batter to the pan.

“In the mixing stage, bakers incorporate air to achieve the specific density that they’d like to get and, thus, the volume of the crumb in the finished product,” Mr. Zelaya explained. “When you are not gently moving the batter, you can affect the aeration and change the batter density. The cake will bake differently and give you a different product texture.”  To prevent depositors from degassing or compressing the batter, equipment suppliers have developed gentle systems to maintain batter characteristics.

Handtmann’s vane cell technology and simpler geometry enable the company’s depositors to move the batter gently through a short travel path, reducing friction and minimizing associated rises in temperature.

Unifiller addresses this challenge with larger apertures. This means less restriction on batter flow and gentler action when drawing in the batter and depositing it. While this helps with delicate chiffons or sponge cakes, larger apertures also address challenges that arise when depositing heavier stiff batters and batters with large inclusions. By enlarging the port from the hopper, Unifiller has removed areas where large inclusions could get hung up in the depositor.

Depositing batter for a sheet cake is often done in multiple deposits across the sheet pan. This creates multiple round drops of batter that don’t always flow together. According to Mr. Gregg, when the batter does not flow together before the oven, it creates weak areas that can crack in the cake. To avoid such problems, bakers have been asking for one large deposit spread in the pan that spans edge-to-edge.

In answer to this, Hinds-Bock uses a servo-driven pump to deposit the batter in one shot. A specialized nozzle called a “ribbon spout” will spread the product out, creating a wide curtain across the pan. This prevents parting lines and breaking in the cake.

Reiser also addressed this with its smart conveying system, which evenly spreads cake batter throughout the pan from one end to the other. The company developed diving heads that descend into the pan and rise during batter deposition. This action prevents air from being trapped under the batter as it’s deposited.

Ensuring depositors won’t harm the finished product’s integrity, equipment suppliers have opened the doors to a wider variety of cakes that can be deposited automatically.

Changing things up

The cake category may not be subject to the health and better-for-you trends, but the bakers of cakes typically offer more diverse product lines. “Very rarely does a cake bakery at a wholesale level run only one product,” Mr. Gregg said.

Versatility can be built into a new cake processing line to accommodate long-term growth. “We try to find out what the baker is going to make today and what could happen in the future because we can configure the machine in such a way so that very little change is needed,” Mr. Abrahamsen said. “It’s better for us to give the baker a system that’s a bit more flexible.”

Mr. McIsaac asserted that it’s important that a piece of equipment have a wide range of products under its belt. “No one can afford a piece of equipment that can only perform one function,” he said. Reiser’s Vemag depositor can deposit the cake batter as well as icing the same cake farther down the line. The company’s range of attachments also helps bakers handle changeovers between products and expand their product line at any time.

To handle a variety of pan sizes and cake batter types, bakers look for equipment that is easy to changeover and requires minimal sanitation. This includes standards such as equipment that’s simple to move and take apart, combined with PLCs pre-programmed with formulas and machine parameters.

“It’s critical that the design is kept to a minimum of change parts and product contact parts. Such design results in fewer parts to clean, fewer parts to lose and fewer parts to maintain,” Mr. Macpherson said.

Unifiller’s depositors can be dismantled in less than 15 seconds without the assistance of tools. When changing among products with similar formulas, the

depositor can simply be flushed with clean water. When switching from a batter with messy inclusions such as blueberries, he noted this ability to quickly clean the depositor comes in handy.

Tool-less disassembly has become standard for flexible equipment. “You don’t need a mechanic; you don’t need tools,” Mr. Gregg said, describing Hinds-Bock’s depositors, which has internal dies to match specific pans that are pinned in place, making it easy to change out the machine’s dies when necessary.

For E.T. Oakes, changeovers are as simple as changing the manifold.  Operators use a take-away cart to remove and install the depositing manifolds quickly. In cases where sanitation is necessary, E.T. Oakes makes equipment with CIP capabilities as well as equipment that are easy to disassemble for cleaning.

Because cake batter tends to be a very flowable product, cleanability doesn’t dominate the conversation as it does in other bakery categories. “Ninety-five percent of the batter comes out in the depositing stage,” Mr. Gregg said. “Cake batters flow really well, so our machines are designed to be very gentle on the product and minimize cracks or crevices. They have a very open product flow path.”

However, cleanability is a concern when it comes to allergens such as nuts that may appear in cakes. Franz Haas upgraded its Haas V depositor from the V45 and V50 models to the V60 for cleanability and easy changeovers. The head, pump house and die plate all release easily. Despite the ease with which a baker can take apart and clean its depositor, Mr. Abrahamsen said he’s finding more bakers are buying two depositors instead of worrying about sanitation downtime. “It’s not because the machine isn’t cleanable. It’s because the entire allergen wipe-down process takes an hour to an hour and a half,” he explained. 

Bakers are seeing how spending capital upfront could result in longer production runs, and in the cake business, that’s a good thing.      

Streamlined presentation

Cake batter may make up the bulk of the finished cake product, but the icing is what sells Icing is all about presentation, and the latest technology in automated icing systems has made decorating more accurate and less wasteful.

Unifiller automated the finer points of icing with the latest technology to help the decorating nozzles self-adjust. For round cakes, the company’s equipment spins the cake while measuring it with lasers and infrared sensors. This information guides the decorating nozzle, even adapting its action to uneven surfaces as it goes to work.

For writing on sheet cakes, Unifiller combined its robotic decorating technology with a mapping system that scans the cake’s top surface. The scan sends the map to the decorating jet, which will remember the surface’s contours, so it can write a message on the cake that still holds up to the baker’s presentation standards. “The robot that we use writes with a very fine tip, so if the surface of the cake varies by a half an inch, your script isn’t going to look very nice,” said Stewart Macpherson, vice-president, sales and marketing for Unifiller.

Beyond accurate decorating, Woody Associates, York, PA, aims to provide more pattern versatility and waste recovery with its latest technology. Servo motors allow bakers to change different patterns easily while maintaining the consistency of the process. Woody Associates’ recovery systems catch excess icing, filter it and reuse it. This helps bakers control ingredient costs.