When production lines run 12 double-layer cakes, 300 cupcakes or 600 cookies per minute, you don’t have the time — or the manpower — for manual decorating methods. And with bakery customers wanting more customization, more signature product impact, what you do need are automated decorating systems.

Mechanized decorating lines have been around for a while. Now, new design, layout and engineering approaches are making them more capable, more flexible, more robotic and more holistic than earlier systems.

Two aspects count the most, according to Alex Kuperman, president, ABI Ltd., Concord, ON. “The first is the ability to create customized and more complex designs. The second is to provide a system that can meet high throughput requirements.”

What’s also involved is a new way of looking at dessert decorating as practiced by commercial wholesale bakers. It’s no longer enough to install unit machines. Today demands more. “Customers are looking toward ‘a complete solution’ — a solution to the overall problem,” said Neil Anderson, director of business development, Axis Automation, Hartland, WI. That’s not just a decorator or topper, but a system that can handle the product up to the applicator and after it, one that can correctly position the product and make smooth transitions between stages.

Lance Aasness, vice-president, Hinds-Bock, Bothell, WA, confirmed the holistic trend and added, “Quick changeover of multiple pan configurations and multiple products require thoughtful engineering of both the mechanical components and PLC/HMI controls.

“There is no concrete rule,” he added, “however, with the wages rising, labor issues and the focus on hygiene, food producers are very focused on automation. We work with our customers to help them with their ROI calculations.”

More capability, more speed

Every baking company that supplies cakes and desserts to in-store, c-store, foodservice and contract markets faces rising demand for custom products at a reasonable price. Multi-element, multi-colored, readily personalized styles shove aside the relatively simple designs of yesterday, such as flat sheet cakes with piped scallops along the edges.

 “For years, systems have been available that achieved high throughput of more basic cake designs,” Mr. Kuperman explained. “Similarly, cake decorating artists are not hard to find and are only limited by their own creativity in the complexity of designs. Where decorating [efforts] are limited in how many cakes they can physically decorate in a working day, as well as to how uniform the finished products are that they are able to produce.”

Where Mr. Kuperman and other equipment manufacturers enter the picture is with fully automated systems capable of achieving quality, consistency and high throughput, readily switching between myriad different designs.

“We are seeing customers requiring more variety in decorating and coating needs,” Mr. Anderson said. “Certain bar customers require complete coverage, top, bottom and along the sides. We can engineer complete solutions for such needs, and the lines can manage seeds, chopped nuts, graham cracker crumbs — whatever the baker needs. Often the topping is required to be under the product as well as on top of it. Our challenge is to make the equipment flexible in production rates and style of product.”

Robots on the rise

The newest angle in decorating equipment involves robots. ABI adopted this approach for its new Cake Sculptor, a robotic cake decorating system. It combines robotics, proprietary product recognition technology and a cutting-edge programming interface. “Even the most inexperienced operator can load and execute intricate icing designs, producing professional-quality finished cake decorations,” Mr. Kuperman said. The system outputs consistent finished results, faster and more efficiently than any human, he added.

A few taps on the touch screen allows users to upload, convert and execute hand-drawn patterns and designs. The company is working with experienced cake decorating professionals nationwide to develop a library of designs  available for the Cake Sculptor in the near future.

Type of decoration or style of product is less challenging than the actual automation of the system, Mr. Kuperman observed. Describing development of the Cake Sculptor, the biggest hurdle was to automate the artistry of professional cake decorating. “It is an art form unto itself and has, historically, been a task saved solely for human hands,” he said.

“Dropping toppings, depositing dollops of icing onto cupcakes and applying flat icing layers to cakes are processes that have been automated for years,” he continued. “No one in the past was able to successfully automate the more complex icing designs of the professional cake decorator.” To overcome those roadblocks, the company turned to multi-axis robots and programming innovation.

Also, ABI reported a partnership with Foodjet Printing Systems of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. “We integrate a precise, high-speed machine, specifically for the depositing of intricate chocolate designs onto cookies and bite-sized pastries,” Mr. Kuperman said.

Unifiller, too, has seen an increase in demand for robotic technology to reproduce intricate cake decorations that simulate the handmade look, according to Stewart Macpherson, vice-president, sales and marketing, Unifiller Systems, Inc., Delta, BC. “Further developments we have achieved include writing ‘Happy Birthday’ at high speed onto the surface of cakes while they are moving down a production line.”

For small items like cupcakes, the company improved the targeting programs for its systems. Its newest system applies buttercreme roses onto the top of cakes automatically. “Using the same technology, we can produce multiple colored roses onto the top of cupcakes,” Mr. Macpherson added.

To better automate the decorating process for sheet and layer cakes, the problem of varying height had to be solved. Unifiller turned to 3-D scanning with laser sensors. These monitor and give instant feedback to the robot so it can automatically adjust the height of the decorating tips.

And a better robot was also needed. “Very few robots today can withstand being sprayed with water, thus not allowing thorough cleaning with detergents,” Mr. Macpherson said. “So, we designed our own that will work in wash-down areas.”

Another change was to simplify access. “Most robots need to be surrounded by huge safety cages,” Mr. Macpherson said. “The Unifiller Deco-Bot design overcomes this and does not need to be contained within a cage, dramatically reducing the overall footprint requirements.”

Updating the technology

Targeted depositing is getting a lot of attention these days, not only to cut costs but to meet corporate waste reduction goals. Mr. Aasness noted that targeted methods make the Hinds-Bock systems for spreading moist streusel or dry toppings more efficient with less waste. “These systems enable much more efficient operation, which equates to greater yield and less mess at pan washers, conveyors, floor drains and packing equipment,” he said.

Spot depositing is becoming more fashionable, according to Mr. Anderson. “Putting a precise amount of toppings in a targeted manner is getting a lot of attention from bakers,” he said. Such systems deposit onto each cookie or other item rather than indiscriminately distributing topping across the full width of the belt.

The company’s Axis Topper works with a variety of different materials, from seeds to nuts and chocolate chips to sprinkles and others. “This approach is driven by our customers,” Mr. Anderson said. “They demand more customized applications to differentiate their products in the marketplace.”

Standard decorating systems like enrobers and waterfall toppers handling both hard and soft toppings are being improved, too.

“There are a lot of ways to get sweet stuff on top of desserts,” said Bob Peck, vice-president, engineering, E.T. Oakes Corp., Hauppauge, NY.

For example, the company’s extrusion manifold creates strips of toppings. When producing snowball cupcakes, it extrudes a sheet of marshmallow over the inverted cakes, which are later separated and topped with coconut by a different company’s system. “The extruder can lay down continuous strips and sheets, including jams and jellies for Swiss rolls,” he explained.

Temperature control marks recent improvements in E.T. Oakes equipment. Mr. Peck described use of jacketed piping to help maintain the flowability and texture of icings. This is essential for string icing systems, the ones that lay down squiggles and lines. “If the icing is too warm, it melts into the product on which it is deposited,” he explained. “You want stiff strings that sit on top of the cake icing.

“With clean-label formulas that cut back on traditional stabilizers, you can get thicker viscosities,” Mr. Peck continued. “You may also need specialized strainers to capture crystallized blobs that could clog nozzles.”

Add-on options for the Tromp Unimac Depositor provide high system flexibility, according to Diana Burke, marketing manager, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA, speaking for the Tromp Group, a member of the Markel Bakery Group. This allows the baker to optimize rollers and settings. “The unit can be operated with pistons, rollers or a gearwheel,” she said. “Depositing chambers are split and built according to the latest hygienic standards. By using two different heads, the downtime for changeover is minimized. By replacing seals more often and investing in our servo-drive systems, bakers can best maintain accuracy of their depositing systems.”

Focus on accuracy

At these speeds, accuracy matters. Each bakery equipment manufacturer interviewed is addressing this issue. Sometimes, as Mr. Anderson said, the means for accomplishing higher accuracy are propriety. “To describe it simply, we developed a variety of accessories for our standard range of toppers that increase both their accuracy and versatility,” he said. “We can get within ±1%, based on material weight.”

Mr. Kuperman provided a deeper look. Conventional systems tend to monitor only the presence of a product in the topping or decorating area: no product, no deposit. But for ABI’s newest system, extremely precise product detection and measurement was absolutely necessary. It called for proprietary technology and algorithms.

“The technology gathers and then processes the sensor input,” he said. “From there it distributes the processed information to the robot, which executes the desired decoration with pinpoint accuracy.” The system recognizes the exact position of every millimeter of product that enters the decoration area. The depositing technology was also refined to assure the least waste over a broad range of toppings.

Mr. Aasness confirmed the contribution of servo-motor activation and independent metering drives to greater accuracy. “Synchronized articulated distribution chutes and powered spreading mechanisms improve distribution of toppings for a better looking product,” he said.

Flowmeters govern the delivery of icings to depositing nozzles on E.T. Oakes systems. “With the flowmeters, you can more accurately adjust pump speeds to hold to specific flow rates,” Mr. Peck said.

“Our customers have been using automated icing systems for many years,” he continued. “Accuracy and reliability of nozzles are key. Bakers have to be able to control the weight of the deposit across all rows on the conveyor. Clogging affects that. With heated icings, you want to keep them moving.”

Flow problems caused by clogged nozzles prompted the company to develop its dual filter system. It consists of two filter sections, mounted in parallel and using a three-way valve, with pressure gauges on the inlet and outlet ends. “When the pressure differential rises, indicating increased clumping of icings, it switches to the other strainer,” Mr. Peck explained.

Scaling accuracy is also affected by the quantity and size of inclusions, Ms. Burke noted. “Scaling accuracy has been improved by having a tighter machining process while building the equipment,” she said. Custom equipment design, as practiced by Tromp, handles these very specific customer needs. “Scaling accuracy and improved handling outweighs the cost of product specific equipment,” she added.

Hygienic design merits scrutiny as well, Ms. Burke observed. “Where in the past depositors were cleaned during downtime, now everything is built on a movable frame or special trolley that can be easily wheeled to designated cleaning areas when necessary,” she explained.

Solving problems

In the end, it’s the baked item being decorated that dictates the choice of technology. Large cakes differ from small ones; bars differ from cookies.

“The challenges depend on the end product,” Mr. Anderson said. “This then becomes a matter of system automation, of being sure the line can accept and release products. Challenges are different depending on the variety of products used by the customer.

“Remember, technology doesn’t fix all products,” he cautioned.