Technology talks. It’s been doing so for years. The challenge has been understanding what it’s saying.

But what if — that all-too-persistent question that’s often the impetus behind innovation — today’s equipment could tell line operators that they needed to adjust the speed of a mixer, lower the humidity in the proofer or shut off a burner at the end of the oven to produce a better loaf of bread? What if technology could pinpoint production irregularities, drive out waste and heighten yield by a notch or two by slashing downtime and improving the quality and consistency of the final product?

Since the last International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) three years ago, perhaps one of the biggest leaps has been not only in gathering data but also in harnessing the information, interpreting it and transforming it into an actionable plan that provides continuous improvement one step at a time. It’s something that bakers will be expecting to find at IBIE 2016, which runs Oct. 8-11 in Las Vegas.

“The reporting of data and putting it into user-friendly terms have advanced so that we can troubleshoot or really understand why the products are performing well in the production and packaging systems,” said Joe Turano, president of Turano Baking, Berwyn, IL, and member of the IBIE 2016 Committee.

“Automation of equipment is great, but even more important is data collection about the finished product to determine quality controls and to be able to interpret that data into understandable reports,” he added. “They’re really helping us identify where the areas of weakness might be within our industry.”

Such advances are not just happening at bakeries and snack manufacturers. Mr. Turano compared how the automotive industry has incorporated diagnostics to take some of the guesswork out of repairing a vehicle. “If you think of cars and their evolution over the years, we always had the engine light in the past,” he noted “And now the computer in the car will tell you, ‘The engine light is on, but here is exactly where the issue is in the vehicle’ on the screen. That’s the kind of technology that the baking industry needs to involve into.”

Connecting the dots

The initial transition to real-time problem-solving involves moving to a paperless recording system where data, such as product weight, shape and size, are collected, according to Dave Watson, vice-president of engineering, global biscuits and snacks, Campbell Soup Co. The Camden, NJ-based company then relies on its management execution system such as SAP — or similar platforms that create easy-to-read charts and graphs to track actual product performance against the bakery’s set standards. Essentially, it integrates everything from recipe management through packaging.

“It’s the middle-level software that connects the devices on the plant floor to your enterprise resource planning (ERP) setup or whatever your business planning system is,” he explained. “A lot of what was recently done by hand or tweaked by hand is automated. We have high hopes for improving quality and driving continuous improvement on the plant floor by using these systems.”

While the baking industry has made strides, there’s still plenty of room for improvement for speeding up the process. “The next advance in our industry will involve having the equipment actually giving operators recommendations as to which areas they need to focus on immediately,” Mr. Turano said. “Right now, the decision-making is very manager- or operator-oriented — where we see the reports, then have to make the decisions on what to address. It would be great if, in the future, we have a product that can run consistently all of the time, and the systems can highlight areas and say, ‘Go look at this area because you are off base here.’ That would be exciting if we could get to that level.”

Aspiring to new heights

During the past three years, Mr. Watson, also a key baker member of the IBIE 2016 Committee, has seen an increased emphasis on reliability and greater expectations for how equipment performs over time. This has put a heightened focus on the factory acceptance testing (FAT) stage. “In the past, we might have sent an engineer or maintenance mechanic out for a FAT,” he said. “Now, we have a standardized protocol where we use the FAT as an opportunity for training both operators and maintenance personnel as well as enhancing our ability to prove out the equipment before it hits the floor.”

When installing new equipment, many companies now strive for a vertical startup, which means meeting key objectives for any project during the first days of starting up production — or roughly translated, doing it right the first time. For Campbell Soup, parent of Pepperidge Farm, that means hitting 80% of overall equipment effectiveness on Day One. “For a vertical startup, you have to have high confidence when that equipment hits the floor that you can achieve a very quick ramp-up,” Mr. Watson said.

For training during a vertical startup, Campbell employs a three-part process called CQV, or commissioning, qualification and verification. “In each one of those phases, there’s a certain amount of training that the hourly workforce is responsible for versus the vendor,” Mr. Watson explained. “By the time you get to the qualification phase and the sign off on the equipment, the vendors are standing back and watching the operators run the equipment. They’re only there to answer a question. When the final phase — verification — is implemented, the operators are running the line with no intervention from the vendors.”

“Too many times in the past, the vendors would come in, and they’d be running the equipment [throughout commissioning],” he continued. “Then you sign off on the equipment, and now the workforce is stumbling as they try to operate the equipment on their own. Then you have to bring the vendors back two or three times. Now we’re trying to get to the place where when the vendors leave, they don’t come back. The training is done. Everything is signed off. Unless there is a major failure during the warranty period, we don’t expect them back.”

Talking tech and training

Training has emerged as a critical issue as bakeries incorporate sophisticated process controls as well as more complex technologies. (See “ABA to tackle the workforce gap” on Page xxx.) For instance, many bakers and snack producers have integrated the latest generation of robotics into packaging, warehousing and other areas throughout the process. In fact, 44% of those bakers who plan to attend IBIE 2016 are exploring the possibility of purchasing robotics this year, according to Baking & Snack’s exclusive survey on capital spending and equipment trends. Nearly one-third (31%) are specifically looking at robotic automation for packaging. (See “Survey shows bakers in a shopping mood” on Page xxx.)

Although bakeries have been using robotics since the 1980s, such systems have made quantum leaps in their dexterity, their vision systems and the user’s ability to program them more easily. “There are a lot of 3D vision systems out there that not only locate the product but also measure the depth of that product to be better able to improve the tray-packing or cookie-cupping processes,” Mr. Watson noted. “Robotics today are more user-friendly and have higher speeds, and the cost has come down dramatically over the past few years. We are also able to get them up and running in a matter of weeks with very high efficiency where the systems in the late 1980s and early 1990s sometimes took months — literally months — until we got them where our expectations were.”

In recent years, the baking industry has significantly relied on vision systems to provide quality assurance data. Turano Baking initially placed them on its high-speed production lines. “Now, we’re just beginning to look at installing those systems on our standard [or artisan-style bakery] production lines because we have seen the value of the reports they provide,” Mr. Turano said. “It’s probably the biggest area where we have gained the definitive level of reporting per item that allows us to troubleshoot or make quick adjustments as production is in progress.”

For the first time, the company also installed robotic equipment — initially to streamline packaging operations — in its Orlando, FL, bakery. However, the specialty bakery is more strategic on how it uses such technology in other parts of its operations. “In certain applications, especially in the packaging areas, we feel that robotics can enhance our operations. We are pleased with the experience so far,” Mr. Turano noted.

“For our company, we are looking for robotic opportunities where applicable,” he continued. “It’s not everywhere in the company. We still prefer that handmade European touch to our product line. Yet, we are keeping our eyes open for opportunities in this area. I do think the industry has improved its robotic segment very well in the past five years.”

At IBIE 2016, expect a heightened awareness in sanitary design in an effort to reduce downtime, according to Mr. Watson. That’s because many companies have incorporated the whole issue of sanitation and food safety into their standards and specifications to calculate the return on investment (ROI) for future equipment purchases. Cleanability is also an issue for compliance with the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules come September.

 “A full allergen cleanup on a production line can take 4, 6 or 8 hours, depending on the complexity of the process,” Mr. Watson pointed out. “Fortunately, there have been several advances in the ability to clean equipment in an efficient manner.”

When it comes to automation, many bakeries see it from different perspectives. “For certain companies, the ultimate goal is to get to that lights-out factory,” Mr. Watson said. “That’s where many of us want to get eventually.”

For Mr. Turano, evaluating ROI varies on a case-by-case basis. “Our largest goal — whenever we look at projects — is what it brings to the table,” he observed. “Is it going to improve our product line? Is it going to expand our horizons with different product segments? Is it bringing us to a different side or different segment of the industry?”

Those are some of the good questions that bakers look to answer at IBIE 2016.