What’s hot, and what’s not? For marketing gurus, staying ahead of the competition means correctly answering that million-dollar — often multi-million-dollar — question. While conventional wisdom historically recommends first-to-market as a most popular option, many wholesale bakers and snack manufacturers now consider best-to-market as the most prudent and successful strategy in the long run.

On the plant floor, keeping up with the sometimes relentless requests for new — or newly reformulated —products  requires strategic thinking and thoughtful risk analysis before bringing production in-house, especially when it comes to the ingredient handling. Although creative solutions abound, even the addition of a few new or improved ingredients can add exponential complexity to a highly or even semi-automated operation.

Consider what’s trending at the current moment. “Customers are talking about gluten-free, non-GMO, organic — all of these products are going to require some sort of segregation from other ingredients that are non-organic, GMO or contain gluten,” observed Jason Stricker, national accounts manager, Shick Solutions, Kansas City, MO. “You need to pay particular attention to how you segregate those ingredients to minimize the cleaning of equipment. You have to maintain the integrity of those systems for the customer to claim its products are gluten-free, organic or non-GMO. It’s similar to how you would approach an allergen in terms of keeping it segregated and minimizing the amount of equipment that needs to be cleaned during a recipe changeover.”

Various flours such as whole wheat, hard wheat, all-purpose and pastry varieties can share the same conveying line in automated equipment because small amounts of cross contamination generally don’t affect the final product, according to Michael Palmer, applications manager, Gemini/KB Systems, Bangor, PA.

Specialty flours are a different story. “While this in and of itself is not a big issue, it many times requires more ingredient handling equipment and dedicated storage and production equipment, as well as a host of sanitation activities between processes or equipment that share multiple ingredient production runs,” he explained.

In some instances, the question becomes not only whether to automate but also how to do so in the most cost-effective manner. Often that means taking it step by step as movements such as clean label or ancient grains strive to gain enough traction to become mainstream. “Currently, those are niche markets,” said Eric Kartlick, sales engineer manager, Northeast and South Central US, Zeppelin Systems, Odessa, FL. “Volume bakeries are not running these products five days a week, three shifts a day. They’re running one shift. They’re setting up a separate mixer or separate room and loading the ingredients by hand and not automating it because there is not enough return on investment at this time.”

These niche segments also can morph in unpredictable ways. Look at how gluten-free has evolved over the past few years. “Product developers are still discovering new and better ingredients for these gluten-free products,” Mr. Stricker said. “You have to consider the particular characteristics of the ingredients that you’re not only handling now, but you also have to consider ‘families’ of ingredients because you’re unable to predict what somebody might be bringing to market in the next six months that suddenly becomes the next, hot gluten-free ingredient. When automating, a lot of times, you have to go beyond the requirement for the current ingredient so you can help a client in the future.”

Litany of difficulty

Bakers face a lengthy list of challenges, thanks to new formulations and products that make the baking and snack industries so vibrant. Fortunately, there are as many solutions, noted Bill Kearns, vice-president, engineering, The Fred D. Pfening Co., Columbus, OH.

Highly hygroscopic ingredients such as whey, he said, tend to readily absorb moisture from the atmosphere and become sticky or otherwise hard to handle. Use of dehumidified air will reduce this problem.

Ingredients sensitive to mechanical handling can start out as a powder but, under pressure, end up looking like toothpaste. Mr. Kearns suggested bakers try a shaftless screw or vibratory feeder instead of a standard screw feeder. 

Flakes, such as instant potatoes, often align themselves, then bridge in bins and may need mechanical stirring to keep flow moving. Meanwhile, Mr. Kearns pointed out that some fiber additives require air jets or agitators to promote flow. Likewise, crystalline ingredients with irregular or elongated crystals can become packed together. So can ingredient mixtures with a large range of particle sizes. “Keeping batches uniform and avoiding separation is troublesome,” he said.

Sprouted grains and heavily seeded baked goods that are on-trend and bakers who are purportedly disrupting the bread market could pose future quandaries for automating ingredient handling. “If demand for these products does increase, the challenge becomes how to automate their delivery into the process,” said John Hunter, sales account manager, bakery and ingredient handling, Buhler, Plymouth, MN. “If you don’t handle them properly, their properties can change dramatically.”

Non-free-flowing powders take a lot of effort to introduce into a pneumatic conveying line, according to Doan Pendleton, vice-president sales, Vac-U-Max, Belleville, NJ. “If the material is in a silo or a bulk bag special equipment, techniques may include flow promotion in the way of aeration or vibration, and, in some cases, mechanical agitation is required. Delicate materials have to be cared for so that the integrity of the product is maintained and does not break while being handled.”

Just look at flaxseed, which emerged from relative obscurity a decade go to become a popular, wholesome component in today’s variety breads and rolls, as well as in the granola, nutrition and snack bar market. “Flaxseed is loaded with oil and slimy as heck, so you have to think through how you are conveying and adding these products,” Mr. Hunter said. “You have to select a method of handling that is appropriate for the ingredient. If you have an ingredient with high-fat content, perhaps chill the air to manage that ingredient’s properties so it doesn’t physically cause problems in the handling system. You have to make sure you don’t go past the melting point for that ingredient, which will potentially cause blockages in your pneumatics.”

Mr. Kartlick pointed to cocoa as another mainstream high-fat ingredient that sometimes requires an almost out-of-the-box solution. “We take an approach where we use a flexible hose that actually expands when you add pressure,” he explained. “Anything that travels through the hose is forced off the sides so it doesn’t build up. Because of the pressure, you are heating up the temperature, so you have to use dry, cold air. The last thing you want to enter into the system is heat because cocoa has such a high fat content. With heat, the cocoa will just melt and then smear throughout the hose or pipe.”

For Mr. Stricker, emulsifiers such as DATEM or sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL) win the most difficult award — hands down. “These emulsifiers are very temperature- and moisture-sensitive,” he said. “When you automate them, you need to first limit the amount of time they spend in the storage bin because often they’ll settle, and the system cannot get them to discharge effectively.”

By their very nature, emulsifiers also tend to smear and stick, which leads to build-up and ultimately requires downtime to clean out the transfer lines. Mr. Stricker recommended combining them in the feed system with lower-moisture “carrier” ingredients. “Salt and sugars work well, as do other dry ingredients such as conditioners,” he suggested. “You’re really trying to create a blend that brings down the moisture and the ratio of the difficult-to-handle materials that you are dispensing.”

Don’t forget the cost of ingredients when calculating whether to automate or not. “Some of the newer, more exotic types of ingredients such as the new generation of emulsifiers can be pretty expensive,” Mr. Kartlick said. “If it’s a high-dollar ingredient — where 50 lb cost $400 — you don’t want someone hand-scaling it because that can be very wasteful in the long run. Sometimes it makes more sense to have an automated system where you can track that ingredient’s usage and make sure you are using it effectively. We’ve come across situations where it wasn’t so much a difficult ingredient, but it was a very expensive ingredient. If you waste a pound of it, you’re throwing away $200.”

Delicate to handle

For many ingredients, avoiding breakage and maintaining their integrity provide the biggest obstacles during the automation process. “Unconventional ingredients that are more fragile or soft need to be conveyed in a delicate way, or they tend to become problematic,” Mr. Hunter said. “You constantly need to think about the properties of the ingredient and how any damage to it might impact the end product.”

That’s especially true with flakes. “If you are a big user of such delicate ingredients, how do you automate while reducing the chances of them breaking up?” Mr. Hunter asked. “Sea salt is another one of those ingredients where you don’t want any breakage. If you have breakage, you lose that uniqueness that people are trying to incorporate in their products.”

Yet another is microencapsulated flavors. “If you handle them roughly and lose the encapsulation, you can affect their functionality or the flavor of a product,” he added. “Many people are using encapsulated garlic these days. If you break the encapsulation, you’ll get garlic everywhere.”

Inclusions such as chocolate chips, raisins, nuts or even confections require different handling options. Overall, an ingredient bit feeder is perhaps the most-used method for adding inclusions, observed Darren Adams, engineering manager, Pfening. Bakers need to calculate variables that require exact synchronization for each ingredient inclusion such as bit feeder RPM, bit feeder vane/auger design and desired inclusion rehydration time, if any.

“For liquid batters, the inclusions are introduced through a slurry that is pumped through the bit feeder,” Mr. Adams explained. “For dryer doughs, a dough extruder can transfer the dough through a bit feeder.”

Another common — and typically less expensive — method involves adding these inclusions directly into a mixing vessel. For this process, the hopper above the mixer uses a gravity-fed rotary airlock to feed the inclusions. “The main concern in automating inclusions is to make sure the inclusion retains its original properties, be it inclusion size, shape or hydration level,” Mr. Adams said. “For instance, if a dehydrated blueberry is left in a dough mix or batter slurry for an extended period of time, it can begin to overhydrate, liquefy and essentially become too liquefied, which drastically changes the outcome such as color characteristics and bit recognition in the final product.”

Many bakers also use a loss-in-weight system fed by bulk containers or supersacks containing the inclusions, according to Mr. Stricker. As the ingredients are dispensed, the scale monitors the loss in the weight to accurately dispense them. Sanitary belts or bucket conveyors then gently carry the ingredients to the mixer without damaging them.

Scouting minor alternatives

To prepare for the long run, bakers need to understand their businesses and build the same flexibility in their automated ingredient systems that they do in their production lines, according to Mr. Palmer.

“Trends that shift production from wheat to whole wheat, for example, have very little impact since the same automation equipment can be used for both,” he explained.

“For the baker who makes a material shift from a bread product to a sweet product, however, automating ingredients like bulk sugars is a step function more complicated using different equipment. Of course, minor and micro ingredient systems are inherently more flexible by design, but they focus more on automation than bulk ingredient savings. It’s a mixed bag and certainly requires an ROI evaluation that includes possible shifts in consumer trends,” Mr. Palmer continued.

To create a halo of health for their products, many specialty bakeries that strive to incorporate ancient grains, organic seeds and other trendy ingredients into their formulas may find themselves in a bind when it comes to automation. In some instances, some high-volume bakeries may employ a combination of multiple supersacks, minor ingredient handling systems and hand-loading stations throughout the facility to turn out a plethora of high-margin baked goods.

Oftentimes, it’s not only the flexibility of a system but also the interchangeability of ingredients that is vital to operate efficiently. “Many of these specialty bakers are producing a fairly high number of SKUs, and they require a lot of different ingredients,” Mr. Stricker said. “As a result, you have a lot less bulk automation but a lot more intermediate bulk systems and supersacks or bags that bakers are dumping into bins. Often a combination of approaches is required because of their ingredient diversity and the volumes that they are producing.”

Most systems today are simply built with the future in mind. Zeppelin offers a seven-bin circular minor ingredient system that’s set up above a single scale. To adapt to potential market shifts, bakers can install a frame with four bins initially, then add bins as new products come online. For minor and micros, the company may install a double-screw configuration on a minor system as ingredients change. “We may initially install a 3-in. screw but have the ability to add a much smaller screw so you can go coarse and then dribble to get the accuracy that you need,” Mr. Kartlick said.

Dealing with fluid situations

When it comes to liquids, molasses and honey tend to top almost everyone’s list of difficult-to-handle ingredients. “You can’t let them get too cool or too hot, or else they tend to solidify or crystallize,” said Mr. Kartlick, who added lecithin to the list, as well.

Some new shortenings on the market provide functional benefits for the products but add challenges in automation because of their higher viscosities and narrower temperature tolerances. “It’s important that the storage-and-delivery system be designed with a very tight control of the temperature so ingredients are delivered to the mixer in the proper condition and properly within the formula,” Mr. Stricker noted.

In addition to agitation in heat-jacketed tanks to keep the liquid’s temperature constant, a loop system keeps shortenings in constant movement so they don’t solidify. To improve flow characteristics of other ingredients, heating the lines — either through water jacketing the pipes or impedance heating with a heat tape around the pipe — provides two options for bakers and snack producers.

“Typically, these ingredients are held and stored in totes with capacities ranging from 100 to 300 gal,” Mr. Adams said. “Using tote heating blankets and pads or immersion heaters, the product can be heated while stored so that it is ready for use on demand. The downstream pump, meters, valves and piping also require heating by use of heat tracing and also insulation to maintain consistent temperatures.”

For batching and weighing of viscous ingredients, he added, scaling is typically the most repeatable method for controlling accuracy, but typically meters are a more inexpensive alternative. “It is key to use a meter, which can simultaneously measure density and flow so that any variation in product density can be accounted for in the control system resulting in consistent batching,” he said.

Excessive heating can scorch a fragile ingredient, damaging its taste quality or causing it to solidify. “The key is to keep the product at a consistent temperature so that it can be predictably transferred and controlled,” Mr. Adams stressed.

As bakers react to ever-changing trends, operations personnel need to figure out how to go with the flow, in more ways than one, to respond to the market in the most efficient way.