In a high-speed operation, every square inch counts. It doesn’t matter if an oven is 120-ft long and 16-ft wide, or if it’s modular in design or even a conveyorized system cranking out 150 loaves or 1,000 buns or more per minute. Making the most of those 15 to 30 minutes in the baking chamber ultimately becomes one of the most critical factors in determining the cost of producing buns, rolls or myriad other baked goods.

Sometimes it comes down to less than a square inch, especially when using fewer, but larger, pans. A quarter inch — or even a few centimeters if you’re inclined to metric — between each pan can maximize linear space and make a big difference in the amount of products flowing through the oven on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

At the finish line, it’s all about yield where profitability boils down to simple math that even a $1 calculator can figure out. “Because each pan holds more products, bakeries require fewer pans to meet production needs,” said Jason Tingley, vice-president at American Pan, a Bundy Baking Solution, which makes extra-large pans up to 45-in. square. “Because there are fewer pans, there are fewer gaps between pans and thus less unused capacity.”

From an operations’ perspective, another advantage involves the potential for greater uptime. “This increase in line efficiency can allow bakeries to slow line speeds while maintaining the same throughput, which means less wear-and-tear on the system,” Mr. Tingley noted. “In addition, having larger pans reduces the pan mass-to-dough ratio. By maximizing the number of dough pieces on a single pan, there is less metal to carry, heat and cool per dough piece.”

And yes, energy savings provide a third cost benefit. “You don’t have to absorb as much heat into the pan, and that reduces the heat you’re using on the oven side,” explained Bob Harrington, vice-president of sales, Capway Automation, which manufactures robotic pan handling systems.

Wide-bodied transportation

In several ways, many large pans are similar to standard ones in that they are formed out of a continuous sheet of metal. As a result, they’re just as durable. “However, depending on the application and the way the pans are handled and stored, we may recommend special features such as structural ribs, gusseting or special rim bands to ensure maximum strength and longevity,” Mr. Tingley suggested.

Extra support might be needed because pans take a beating in some bakeries or could be subject to damage if they get jammed in a proofer or elsewhere on the line. “We build additional reinforcements into extra-large pans for the type of use and abuse that is common in high-volume operations,” noted Traci Rennaker, executive vice-president, Lloyd Pans. “Keeping pans free of buildup between cycles will make depanning easier.”

Handling extra-wide or large pans — sometimes referred to as maxi-pans by equipment manufacturers — often requires adjustments throughout the production line. “We need to make sure the conveyors can handle the additional weight,” said Frank Achterberg, president, CBF Bakery Systems. “We also need to pay closer attention to the belt width and belt placement in relationship to the large pans.”

The often heavier pans require sturdier conveyor construction, including cross supports, drive and tail shaft as well as leg supports, and more powerful and durable motors. “The larger pans also affect the makeup equipment, proofing, oven loading, unloading and depanning equipment,” Mr. Achterberg observed. “All of this equipment has to be heavier equipment due to the increased width.”

Bakers also should pay special attention to how they handle the larger sizes. “In most cases, we recommend that the pans be stored inverted with the moulds facing down,” Mr. Tingley said. American Pan offers a service to simulate stacking conditions and suggest the proper pan stacking height for a specific pan.

From a stacking perspective, one of the nicest aspects of the larger pans is that they tend to come in similar overall physical sizes, which makes them a “gift” for robotic storage-and-retrieval systems, according to Mr. Harrington. It doesn’t matter how many moulds or products are made on each pan. What matters is the pan’s overall footprint. Capway’s robotic grippers can gently pick up or remove from conveyors pans with dimensions that vary within ±3 in.  If the length or width is greater, different sized or additional grippers may be needed.

“When they start developing all pans with the same footprint, it makes our job on the robot systems easier,” he said. “With pans getting larger, our gripper assemblies have to get larger proportionally as well. [This trend] increases the sizes of our robot system footprint. It increases every part of our machines.”

Typically, Capway robotic systems pick up between six and eight large size pans at a time, depending on the size of the pan. Obviously, the bigger the pans, the fewer the system can pick and place at one time. “However, because there are more products being made in each pan, our pick rate is actually lower with the larger pans than with standard-sized ones,” Mr. Harrington noted.

In addition to larger pans, custom-designed ones allow bakeries to not only create new products but also maximize oven space or adjust to specialized depositors and other equipment. “Our engineering team at Lloyd Pans offers expert assistance for operations that are looking to increase return on investment through minimizing waste and maximizing throughput,” Ms. Rennaker said.

Keeping track of everything

In recent years, companies have developed pan tracking systems to allow bakers to better manage the life of their pans and when to send them in for recoating. “By tracking the number of bake cycles on the pan set, [bakers can] re-order new sets at the appropriate time so that they didn’t have issues with product sticking to pans or be in a rush situation to get new pans in,” said Wendi Ebbing, vice-president, marketing and technology, Bundy Baking Solutions. “In essence, this is ensuring ‘just in time’ delivery of their pans.”

There are different types of systems available. With its SMART Pan Tracking system, American Pan laser-etches a permanent two-dimensional matrix code and pan number. The pan number links to a database of information that includes such data as pan dimensions, mould size and coating life expectancy and number of bake cycles on the pan. The system’s sensors and readers are installed on bakery conveyors such as after the oven and feed data to a PLC with an Ethernet port mounted in a convenient location.

Meanwhile, the Kaak Group, represented in the US by Naegele Bakery Systems, uses a computer scanning device in combination with a three-dimensional barcode position on the pans it manufactures. “For every cycle, the computer recognizes the bread pan and stores all of the relevant data in the iBakeware software program,” noted Ashley Morris, Kaak Group sales director. “By using the iBakeware software, the customer has access to data such as total amount of cycles per hour, the most frequently used straps, coating types and more.”

Previously, gauging exactly when to coat a pan was more of a “guestimate” than an exact science. Some pans may run 2,000 cycles through a production line while others, for one reason or another, may take 500 fewer trips. “In the past, the information given from the customer was an estimated figure based on production hours but never an exact figure,” Mr. Morris pointed out. “Nobody was counting the actual number of cycles.”

In addition to helping bakers validate pan and coating life, these systems today can do a lot more, including identifying missing pans or mixed sets of pans, according to Ms. Ebbing. By compiling the data, running analytics, downloading metrics and putting it all into easy-to-read charts or graphs, a tracking system can even indicate ways to improve line efficiency such as monitoring and reducing the number and duration of gaps between pans.

Specifically, the software can compile total gap time on a given day or week — or could even send a notification after a significant gap between pans. She advised that such information is especially useful in identifying “missed opportunities” for maximizing throughput on high-speed baking operations.

“Our system counts the number of pans that are cycled through the bakery every day and with that data, plus the number of moulds in each pan, it provides bakers with the maximum number of pieces that could have been produced that day, or the theoretical yield,”  Ms. Ebbing explained. “That data can be compared with what the bakery shipped out that day — or what its ERP systems said it should have shipped out that day — to determine the efficiency of the production line.”

Such quantitative analysis — specifically comparing the theoretical vs. actual yield — could help identify if, for example, pans are  travelling through the oven empty or partially filled, or that there was a significant amount of product scrapped and uncover areas between the mixer and packaging departments that need to be monitored or corrected, she added.To minimize waste, Mr. Morris said, the Kaak Group connects its iBakeware system to a bread-in-pan sensor (BIPS) to indicate if a loaf remained stuck in a pan. “We have calculated that every time a single piece of bread sticks, it corresponds with the cost of 100 releases,” he noted. “If you are having problems of sticking bread, generally there could be two problems — a damaged strap or bad coating. In combination with the BIPS, you can now sort out the straps causing these problems and achieve a better process control by lowering the amount of waste.”

At a time when bakeries are increasingly relying on data management, pan tracking creates yet another tool to provide continuous improvement to their operations. And it’s only a matter of time until it could be used to make real-time adjustments on the line to accommodate a pan jam in the proofer or another common incident. “Certainly, the technology is there,” Ms. Ebbing said. “It’s just a matter of getting one PLC talking to another and tying it altogether.”

In the future, a more intuitive use of pan tracking information will further improve production flow and process control. “At this moment, the possibilities of collecting data and processing this information are endless,” Mr. Morris said.