Sometimes it’s fine to leave well enough alone. Other times, a little something extra can go a long way. The cherry on top — proverbial or otherwise — can make all the difference in the world.

That’s the case when it comes to seeding and topping systems. Sure, a donut is good. Muffins are great. Hamburger buns are mighty tasty when they’re taken straight from the oven and slipped into a package shipped to the consumer. But seeds and toppings can elevate those products — and many more like them — into new realms of desirability and profitability.

Of course, nothing is quite as easy as it sounds, and some of the best toppings can be the most difficult to handle and apply. Larger particulates and those that carry higher moisture content can cause headaches and hand-wringing for bakers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions.

“There are a lot of examples of toppings that can cause problems,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery LLC, Duluth, MN. “But like most problems, there are things you can do to get past them. They’re not necessarily new problems. It’s just stuff we always have and always will have to work with.”

And knowing that those road blocks exist could be half the battle, according to Mitch Lindsey, technical sales, Burford Corp., Maysville, OK. Once the challenge is identified, the supplier and baker can begin what Mr. Lindsey referred to as the development stage.

“The challenges are there,” he said. “We have to have the knowledge of what [the bakers] need, and they have to understand that we may need a little time to get to the place where we’ve got a result acceptable to them.”

With that understanding in place, those pesky particulates are well on their way to a new, smooth transition from the machinery to their rightful home on top of the product.

Taking charge of large

Arguably, some of the toppings that present the bigger challenges are those that are, well, bigger. Dispensing pieces of chocolate or cereal clusters can present problems that fine seasonings, dusts or smaller seeds don’t carry.

“The hardest to dispense toppings are the largest toppings,” Mr. Moline said. “Crushed cookie pieces, large nut chunks, whole almonds — the bigger toppings come in a lot of forms, and they’re not always easy to deal with.”

Bakers find that controlling dispersion rates becomes more difficult when trying to top their products with these larger particulates. Trouble rears its head when toppings are making their way out of the topper itself. The right mix of dispersion shaft, dispersion gate and speed can help move the big bits along at the appropriate rate.

“We have special techniques of regulating the flow out of the topper,” Mr. Moline said. “There is a shaft, and then we have different things we can do with our dispersion gates. That opens up a number of ways in which we can control the flow. It’s a fine balance between the shaft combined with your RMP and the dispersion gate you’re using.”

In June, Moline acquired Tiefenthaler Machinery. Before the acquisition, Mo-line specialized in flour dusters, and, as Mr. Moline said, the company had a void in its lineup when it came to specialty toppings. With Tiefenthaler’s T-Topper, Moline filled that void. The T-Topper can also help the more difficult toppings on their way, especially when large pieces begin to stick together like they’re prone to do.

“There are a few things we can do in our topper to solve the problems we see,” Mr. Moline said. “We offer agitation systems for products that tend to clump together. We have agitators within the topping dispenser itself. They ensure distribution and that the toppings won’t adhere to each other.”

Mr. Lindsey pointed out nuts, confectionery bits and sprinkles as sizeable toppings that can be a pain. And while sprinkles may seem out of place in this topic of discussion, he’s not talking about the small, cylindrical pieces of which one would normally think. Decorative stars and shapes that top sweet treats like cupcakes and snack cakes are what tend to be more troublesome because they can carry a level of delicacy along with their heft.

“Any damage to them is a big deal,” Mr. Lindsey said. “It’s not so much that they’re large; it’s the damage you can cause to them trying to run them through something smaller.”

That same scenario wreaks havoc when handling seeds large enough to sustain considerable harm during the dispensing process. Minimizing that damage and the shearing of product is key, especially if the baker is using a mixture of substantially sized seeds.

“One of the more challenging aspects of seeding is the mixture of multiple varieties of seeds,” said Ty Sarajian, president, Axis Automation, Hartland, WI. “Unless specifically designed to handle these blends, the equipment can actually cause separation of the lighter and heavier seeds, which shows up as an uneven coverage of the product.”

Mr. Sarajian said the equipment Axis designs has to address all of those issues at once, being able to gently separate, accurately meter and then uniformly dispense the difficult-to-handle ingredients. And then the equipment must do it again and again over a long period of time.

“Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all ­approach to the variety of particulates in the baking and snack works,” he said. “But we have managed to refine our approach to a narrow range of highly effective solutions.”

Managing moisture

Toppings with higher moisture content can present their own string of problems, the biggest of which is fairly obvious. Wetter particulates tend to stick and clump together, making their dispersion significantly trickier.

“The target portioning of wetter toppings like moist, high-fat streusel onto muffins, cakes or pies is difficult due to the tendency of the toppings to pack and bridge,” said Lance Aasness, executive vice-president, Hinds-Bock, Bothell, WA. It is those wet, sticky materials, not necessarily larger ones, that give Hinds-Bock its biggest challenges, he said.

To deal with those issues, Hinds-Bock developed its Moist Streusel Machine, which uses a servo drive auger with cutting wheels. Product coverage chutes portion and target the difficult-to-handle products. “Rotating distribution blades and servo-driven masking chutes are used for the target application and to spread ­[streusel] onto larger cakes such as ring cakes,” Mr. Aassness said. “The same machine can be equipped with quick-change parts for topping muffins.”

The same things said about streusel can be said for moist ingredients like raisins, raw coconut or other fruits, according to Mr. Sarajian. Those types of particulates are not free-flowing and can be hard to dispense in the right quantities and in the right place. “When it comes to high moisture content, different products require different equipment,” he said. “But in all cases, it is about proper separation of the particulates, followed by accurate metering and then a means of positively displacing the right amount of product where you want it.”

With its topping machine, Axis reported it can provide accurate depositing of semi-moist toppings thanks to precise control of the application rate. Variable-frequency drive controls allow increased flexibility in setting the dispensing rate.

Christy Machine Co., Fremont, OH, also has a specific system to deal with these problems. With its Recipro-Grater Dispensing Machine, Christy claims it can automatically provide a continuous, controlled flow of moist materials. Internal agitation helps keep the wet toppings from sticking together while infinite speed controls offer a wide range of deposits. As material drops into a V-shaped dispenser, it is sheared by the reciprocating action of two counter-opposed ­stainless-steel mesh grates or grid dies. That ensures constant feed and prevents hang-up of the sticky material in the hopper.

Addressing smaller problems

While larger and wetter toppings are some of the toughest to deal with, suppliers were also quick to point out the other end of the spectrum. “You can have trouble on the large end and, equally, on the small end,” Mr. Moline said.

A prime example, as noted by Mr. Lindsey, is bran, with its defined particulates as well as high flour and fines content. These tend to separate in the conveying process but not so much in the topping process. When bran is drawn from a bulk tank to a primary feed hopper, its flour and fines can separate out.

“You need to have awareness of the challenge, knowing there is going to be the possibility of separation,” Mr. Lindsey said. “For instance, we worked on a project a few years ago, and when we were transferring product from one hopper to another, the fine dust would separate, but the baker needed the fines back in the product because the claim on the package was that it was 100% wheat.”

The solution was to return the separated materials back into the tank to be blended back into the dispensed bran topping.

Combatting waste accurately

Any discussion of topping systems inevitably makes its way to the topic of waste. The loss of ingredients is a point of emphasis even with materials that are relatively easy to use, so the more challenging toppings can make the topic even more important.

The best way to avoid too much waste, of course, is accurately controlling the amount of topping being metered. Axis Automation uses load cells to gravimetrically meter particulates. Even then, Mr. Sarajian said, there is no guarantee of even or uniform coverage. It still comes down to the accuracy of the equipment to positively displace the particulates in the desired pattern.

Reclamation is also an option. If the belt is covered with toppings, these materials can be reclaimed and put back through the topper. That, too, has its downside. “This is not only wasteful, but the reclaimed product degrades over time,” Mr. Sarajian said. “The result is a finished item that looks less appealing and can wreak havoc with equipment downstream over time. Sometimes reclaim is the only option, and if it is, you have to have a strategy for minimizing damage to the reclaimed product.”

So it comes back to accuracy being the key. Precision can save money for everyone involved, from the supplier to the customer. “We have reclaim solutions, but the biggest thing is to cut down on the waste by being accurate,” Mr. Moline said. “What it really does is allow the customer to dial-in their package weights. The closer they can be to target, the fewer products they give away. That saves them money.”