Under the overarching theme of doing more with less in the baking industry, robotics have played an integral role. As reported in the March issue of Baking & Snack, the number of bakeries is on the rise, while the number of employees has, in many cases, dropped.

For the goal of high productivity, automation and sustained savings, investing in robotics is a natural conversation.

“[This technology] will be able to remove a person from the line,” said Brandon Woods, director of sales for LeMatic, Inc., Jackson, MI. “You want to take the hands out of it. Obviously, there’s a savings associated with that. If you get a robot that will be able to do the job it was sold to do, it can work wonders.”

But many in the industry would like to take any momentum they have and push the throttle forward. The promise of savings and increased profit flow is nice, but what is the best way to get the biggest return on investment (ROI) quickly?


Finding the right fit

In might sound simple, but the biggest key in maximizing ROI is to ensure that the robot correctly fits the need of the baker. There are times, Mr. Woods pointed out, when the decision to go with robotics is made that the application isn’t a good match.

“We want to make sure it’s the right fit for the customer,” he said. “We don’t necessarily want a customer to ask for a robot when a robot doesn’t make sense. We’ll use a robot only when it’s the right thing per the application.”

That begins with identifying the specific elements of the production process that need to improve and focusing research on achieving those selective goals.

“For example, adding automation to the front-end processes of your production workflow like product forming or dividing is going to allow you to redistribute human resources to the quality assurance end of your process and dramatically increase output,” said Alex Kuperman, president of ABI Ltd., Concord, ON. “If your goal is to replace staff with machines without negatively impacting the output, a different set of equipment will help accomplish this goal.”

Also key is knowing exactly what to expect from the robot and not overestimating its ability to perform. Mr. Kuperman mentioned that many companies make this mistake and do not adequately plan for what happens in the event of machine failure. Despite the added upfront cost, creating redundancy in a robotic operation is instrumental in ensuring uptime and certainty that the operation will continue if a machine goes offline for any reason.

“If an unexpected breakdown brings your operation to a halt for even a short period of time, your savings will be compromised if you lack the appropriate redundancy” Mr. Kuperman said. “In this case, it’s better to be over-equipped than under-equipped because the latter will cost you significantly more in the long-term.”


Maximizing ROI

Robots are used to create ease, accuracy and dependability, but above all, they’re installed to improve the bottom line. As with any piece of machinery, bakers and snack food manufacturers must look for the best ways to create timely and sustained ROI.

The majority of labor savings comes from a reduction of the work force, said Rick Hoskins, director of sales and marketing for Colborne Foodbotics, Lake Forest, IL. And that pressure, many times, comes from the outside.

“The big-box stores are tightening their budgets and looking for better products at lower prices,” he said. “Robotic integrators need to be able to support the baker with strong evidence of the savings. If the savings fall short, the integrator should look to offset a part of the project costs. Our labor calculations never split a person who is on the line and can’t be fully removed with our system. There is no room for error.”

Simply put, the best way for bakers to see the most ROI in the shortest period of time is to focus on what aspects of the baking process consume the most human resources.

“People are the most costly and limited of resources that any baker has, so finding the steps in their processes that require the most physical intervention and take the most time to complete manually will help a baker focus in on what area of production they should address first,” Mr. Kuperman said.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other areas that can be focused on to maximize ROI. Mr. Woods again stressed the importance of finding a good fit and a simple robotic solution that will provide a less costly installation process. Then it is critical to have a system that runs without constant need of reprogramming. Basically, the ideal situation enables the bakery operator to push the “go” button and let the robot do the work it was made to do.

“If it’s an application that just works and you don’t have to keep babying or programming the robot, then it’s going to pay back quickly,” Mr. Woods said. “However, if the robot requires multiple moves and you’re constantly programming it to do what it’s supposed to do, the application can be expensive. Your ROI is going to take a while. Yes, you took a guy off the line who was doing the manual labor, but now you’ve got somebody constantly working on the robot.”

That said, there will always be a need for employees who are trained to operate the system. A good knowledge of personnel and a solid training program can also go a long way toward a successful implementation of robotics.

“A good installation and careful up-front analysis of the plant personnel and robotic factors are key to a successful project,” Mr. Hoskins said. “The better you analyze the personnel and train the key people who will operate the system, the sooner profits flow to the bottom line.”

And from a purely robotic standpoint, bakeries can invest in end-of-arm tooling for the machines they integrate. The robotics themselves can be very durable, but Mr. Kuperman said end effector tooling and attachments are the most common single point of failure, which means many times they end up having the most impact on cost effectiveness and long-term ROI.

“End-of-arm tools that are built using high quality materials and are well designed from the perspective of both form and function will provide the best value over the long term,” he said. “Again this is a case of doing the right research and making the right investment up front in order to save time, money and challenges in the future.”