Baking & Snack editors listen to industry veterans discuss a wide variety of affecting their operations and the industry today.

What are the keys to a smooth startup? How do you define return on investment? How will the latest state-of-the-art technology complement or co-exist with a bakery’s current equipment? What training will be required to make sure the new production line is operating and maintained at its maximum potential?

When it comes to automation, the often painstaking process begins with a blank page and more questions than answers.

During a wide-ranging roundtable at this year’s American Society of Baking (ASB) BakingTech conference, the editors of Baking & Snack sat down with five veteran bakers who discussed everything from clean label, the workforce skills gap and streamlined packaging to food safety, sanitary design of equipment and the pros and cons of building a greenfield vs. brownfield facility. In this installment, they tackled the dynamic issue of automating their bakeries — all subjects of vital interest to IBIE 2016 attendees.

The panel included:

Paul Chan, president, GuyChan Global, Centennial, CO. Mr. Chan has extensive experience building high-speed bakeries across the globe. His most recent project involved the startup of Mile Hi Bakery, Denver.

Jim Kline, president, The EnSol Group, Erwinna, PA. A contributing editor for Baking & Snack magazine, Mr. Kline served as director of engineering of Bestfoods Baking and George Weston Bakeries and currently is involved in a number of new plant startups in the US and internationally.

Larry Marcucci, president and CEO, Alpha Baking Co., Inc., Chicago. A 39-year veteran of the baking industry, Mr. Marcucci has overseen operations at the bread and bun company for decades. His latest projects involve installing a new bun line in the company’s bakery in Chicago.

John Mulloy, vice-president of operations, 151 Foods, Bellmawr, NJ. Mr. Mulloy was integral in starting up the company’s 390,000-sq-ft specialty bread, roll and bun bakery last year.

Mario Somoza, president and CEO, Pan Pepin, Bayamon, PR. Mr. Somoza currently serves as ASB chairman. Pan Pepin recently installed a tortilla line and plans to add a high-speed bread line in the near future.

Baking & Snack: How do you balance the need for increased capacity and greater versatility when you’re walking the show at IBIE 2016?

Mario Somoza: That’s one of the largest challenges I see moving forward. We’re in the process of planning for a new bakery with a new bread production line in Puerto Rico. How do you make sure you’re prepared for the products you don’t even know you will be producing in the future? How do you make it flexible enough? You want to automate and achieve the greatest efficiency, but you also need that flexibility. It’s difficult to balance everything.

Paul Chan: With the variety of products that consumers demand from us, how do you build in that flexibility and plan ahead? I don’t have the crystal ball, so how do you make sure you’re ready for future unknowns? The problem is, it’s also an unknown cost to us.

John Mulloy: Look at the past 10 years and how many hurdles have been thrown at us. You need flexibility because we know there’s always change coming. It’s now a completely different ballgame for us. We need flexibility and to handle changeovers. Trying to lock your bakery into producing one item is a pretty risky task.

Larry Marcucci: It’s very tough to build an automated line today. With IBIE coming up, we’re going to see lot of bells and whistles, and my eyes will be going everywhere. But when we really get down to looking at automation or a particular piece of equipment, we need to have flexibility because we make so many products and will produce more in the future. As a result, we try to create a baseline where we decide ahead of time what automation we’d like to explore or take a pass on. Many of these systems are so complicated that either I’ll kill myself in changeovers, even with robotics, which are getting quicker and faster, or I can’t afford to buy it because I can’t foresee spending that kind of money and then being limited to using it only on a handful of items on the line.

Mr. Somoza: You may need automation for a new product that took off in the market recently. However, are you making a big investment for an item that may not be around in five years? If so, your investment may just sit there. So at IBIE, you have to ask: Will you recoup that investment, or have you just created more complexity in your operation for something that doesn’t have any staying power?

What do you see as some of the biggest advances in technology? What are you looking for at IBIE?

Mr. Marcucci: We don’t go to the show and say, “We want to buy a such-and-such.” We use IBIE to get ideas for what we may need today and, especially, over the next few years. We see what equipment is out there and take ideas back to our plants, where we can discuss them in more detail. We’re always asking, ‘Hey, I saw this item, and does this have application?’ We also take a fairly large group to IBIE because not only is it important for me to be there but also the plant managers, production managers and engineers who make the decisions on the production floor and, more importantly, who have to live with our decisions. I want them to be involved in the decision and be aware of what equipment is out there. That’s because if they can see the equipment, they know the problems in our bakeries a lot better than I do and maybe how to solve them.

(From left) Larry Marcucci, Paul Chan and Mario Somoza share a laugh about their bakery operations during the Engineering Roundtable.

John, you just opened up a big bakery outside Philadelphia. Now, what’s on your wish list?

Mr. Mulloy: From a food safety aspect, minor ingredient technology is better. Before, the systems were so big and complicated, especially for a multi-line plant where you’re running a lot of different items. It’s hard to keep track of all those ingredients, and now the need is for traceability and to make sure you’re following the new food safety requirements. We’re going to take a good, hard look making ingredient handling more manageable.

Are you looking at robotics for areas besides the packaging department? We’ve recently seen personal robotics emerge as a way to replace small, intricate menial tasks in a bakery. Are you looking at such technology?

Mr. Mulloy: In one of our bakeries, we have a line that demands a lot of manual manipulation; 18 people just on a packaging line. That’s one area we’re going to focus on. It’s not so much to reduce labor but to move people elsewhere in the plant. Because of turnover, it’s not easy to find people that want to work in a bakery. We’re still a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week business. So we’re trying to shuffle the deck by taking the labor from one area and filter it to others because the hiring process is not easy.

Mr. Marcucci: We’ve actually tried to experiment with what is called a ‘collaborative robot.’ They’re not meant to completely eliminate people, but they’re meant to work alongside them. They’re not very big. In fact, they’re designed so that you don’t need the massive guarding around them. If they move and sense they’re going to hit something or someone, they’ll just stop. They’re able to be used in a much tighter area with people than what we’re familiar with as the big one-armed robot used in palletizing.

That’s exactly what we’re talking about. The personal robot does the intricate tasks and the person moves the product to a different place. It’s more collaborative.

Mr. Marcucci: We tried that technology in a couple of applications, but again, it always sounds great talking to a vendor about robotics. They’re not a lot of money, but if you are producing 10 different items on a production line, you need 10 end effectors to do the various tasks. Suddenly the base unit, which initially doesn’t sound very expensive and everybody would love to have, has then become so complicated. With robotics, changeovers can be so complex that the ROI just isn’t there any longer.

So, you want to keep it basic so that you’re not turning your line into a Frankenstein.

Mr. Marcucci: Exactly. But you may need multiples of these collaborative units, one for producing one product on the line or one for making another product. I don’t know that the cost of such robotics has gotten down to the level where it’s worth trying to add them to our bakeries.

Mr. Mulloy: The technology is there, but the flexibility in the technology isn’t there yet.

Mr. Chan: With robotics and other new equipment, bakers truly need to understand all of the costs. Can we add on this optional feature to the robot at a reasonable cost when we need it at a future date as opposed to discarding the entire robot because it’s no longer applicable to our production line? How do we build on to this robotic system without spending $1 million more than what we really need to spend at this point and time?

Mr. Kline: You really need to develop the right ­functional specifications for what you need today and build in your capabilities for the future. When you do that, you’ll find those integrators can do what the vendors claim. They can build it into the system in a modular manner. Today, personal robotics can do non-value-added tasks. It’s a step up from when we used those handheld vacuum assists where you pick up the 50-lb bag of ingredients to move it to the mixer instead of lifting it. Still, keep in mind these robots are entry level systems. Right now, they can get rid of some of repetitive tasks and other non-value-added labor that hurt us all.

Mario, what technology are you looking for to bring your operation — even your new tortilla line that your installed this year — to the next level?

Mr. Somoza: I’m not the operations guy who is in the bakery every single day, every single shift, but I’m seeing advances with touch screen displays. When I walk into the bakery, our operators immediately go to the touch screen displays where they can show me all this information about how the shift has been running — both pros and cons. It’s all very intuitive especially for the younger generation, which is used to those types of displays at home. In the case of the tortilla line, the information is available from the divider to the packaging area. Compared with five years ago, the equipment may look the same, but the way it operates is much more intuitive than with all these buttons and levers they used several years ago.

Mr. Chan: Having built a relatively new plant a couple of years ago, we now have more touch screens and HMIs, but you also might run into some difficulties. For many people, touch screens are second nature to them because they’re used to using an iPhone. However, the 30-year veteran in a senior position at the bakery doesn’t want to get near those touch screens. We need to make sure our middle and supervisory management are comfortable with the technology so there’s no tug-and-pull or reluctance hindering the opportunity to use that intuitiveness that really drives our business. We need to bridge the gap between dinosaurs like myself in the business and the young managers, supervisors and employees on the floor. Making that connection is something we’re going to struggle with over the next few years, but it’s going to happen.

Mr. Somoza: We’re also seeing information that’s available in real time. If you see loaves of bread that don’t look right, you can check the temperature, speed or humidity in the proof box or oven during the last an hour or so. You can act immediately on the data or pull up reports to discover what’s happening and who’s involved. It’s literally at the fingertips of any operator. It’s just amazing.

Mr. Kline: With touch screens, keep in mind that 6% of the population is color-blind, and they can’t see touch screens that go from green to red. It’s better to have touch screens that use symbols.

Many people now want data in real time. While such information is valuable for a high-speed operation, how applicable is it for a flexible production line?

Mr. Marcucci: We have both ultra-flexible and high-speed lines. We look at our waste every week at all of our plants, which is a pretty short time period. We also look at changes over a 13-week timeframe. If the longer trend is heading in the wrong direction — and if we haven’t already discussed the issue or taken action on it — we’ll sit down and go, ‘Wait a minute. This is not heading where we want it to go. What’s really going on?’ If you take a snapshot — let’s say about waste in a week — there may be a lot of reasons to explain why it happened. You don’t want to do ‘student body left’ to try to mitigate it and then discover it was just a bad week or one-shot deal. As a result, in our bakeries, we try to look at longer trends and not jump on the real time information because sometimes the problem solves itself, or it was an aberration that has gone away.

Mr. Kline: We need to look at how those working on the floor and those in management look at data. The person on the front line ought to know whether they’re making or losing money on an ongoing basis, but you also need the perspective from someone with a longer term view.

Mr. Chan: I’ve never walked the floor with Larry, never been in his shop, but I will tell you that he’s looking at that information almost minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour and day-by-day. You’re not in business for 39 years without looking at all that feed of information that’s coming to him. With that weekly feed, he’s looking at a little bit longer string that suggests a tell-tale sign of where the trend is going.

Jim Kline, The EnSol Group, weighs in on the value of today's robotic technologies.

So, what’s the solution? Do we fix a problem immediately with the real-time data, or do we ride it out and see if it was blip on radar?

Mr. Marcucci: With statistical process controls, there’s the macro level, the two-week picture, and the micro level, the hour-to-hour level — and you have to balance both. It’s all about establishing the upper and lower control limits of your operation to determine if production is running smoothly. I get flooded with information all day long — whether it’s emails or reports or outside information — and a lot of that is that white noise. You need to decide if it’s beyond the upper/lower control limits. I don’t want to react necessarily as long as my system is within my parameters. Too often, the challenge involves deciding what is relevant and what needs to be acted on or if it’s just white noise.

Mr. Chan: If you making the wide range of products like John, Mario and Larry do, that white noise is far greater and more intense than the way it’s coming to me. In the bakeries I built, we make only five or six products for foodservice or retail customers. As a result, I can weed out a lot of that white noise. However, for most bakers, how do you filter out a broader array of white noise? How do you determine what moves to make and execute those moves?

What’s the key to a smooth startup?

Mr. Somoza: In any quote we request, we make sure we build in enough tech support from the vendor/supplier. We want to make sure that our team is prepared by working hand-in-hand with their team. It sounds basic, but planning and communication are the secrets to an effective startup.

Mr. Marcucci: When a new piece of equipment comes in, we record the tech person as they demonstrate how the machine is supposed to operate. The nice thing about a video recording is that digital storage is relatively cheap, and the millennials love to watch that stuff. Once you record it, you can use it to later train a second shift. The tech person doesn’t need to return. You don’t have multiple training sessions and ‘training the trainer’ where you might have degeneration of information over time.

Mr. Somoza: With our new tortilla line, we videoed the FAT (factory acceptance test).

Mr. Marcucci: Before it even came in the plant? That’s a great idea.

Mr. Somoza: Our operations people brought their iPads to video everything, and they told the vendor, ‘We want to make sure this is what we see once we install it.’ When installing new equipment, we also use FaceTime and Skype. Because we’re in Puerto Rico, we can’t get a tech guy to our bakeries easily. Our maintenance and engineering people use their iPads or iPhones to show the vendor’s tech people what is happening with a piece of equipment. Once on a routine call for a new mixer, the tech guy in Ohio detected something that wasn’t right just through seeing it on a FaceTime call. With training, we’re also recording everything and keeping it on the file.

Mr. Chan: That’s very smart. I’ve seen the same thing happen during some international projects. We couldn’t get someone on a plane or to our bakery because it’s wintertime and the technician is stuck because of 10 in. of snow.

Mr. Mulloy: We built an entire network for every piece of equipment to be able to be contacted from the outside. If we’re having a problem, we don’t have to worry about the technician coming to us. You just call the manufacturer, go online, and they know what’s going on with the piece of equipment because of all the HMIs. However, this technology costs money. There’s a separate secure network that only vendors can access for their respective piece of equipment from makeup lines to mixers to proof boxes to ovens to loaders and unloaders — all the way down to spirals and packaging.

Mr. Marcucci: We’ve done a lot of wireless communication.

Mr. Mulloy: We’ve experienced an inference issue with wireless. With the number of inverters and different controls in a bakery, the wireless signals don’t always transmit well. They’re picking up numbers and other inaccurate data. That’s why we went with a complete hard-wired network.

What advice would you give people ramping up a new line or bakery?

Mr. Mulloy: For us, it goes back to senior management doing more homework on all the changes and advances with new equipment. You come out of an existing bakery where you’ve had equipment that’s been operating the same way for so many years. The older equipment lasted so long. Some equipment like mixers or dividers may be 20 years old or more. With newer lines, the technology has changed so much over the years. We go to shows to keep up on technology, but a lot of times you’re ordering equipment but not taking enough time to ask the right questions or develop the correct specifications. You may order an Allen-Bradley controller, but when it’s delivered, it’s a completely different type of Allen-Bradley controller than what you already have. As a result, the new piece of equipment doesn’t talk to the older ones because technology has evolved. You need to take the time to learn about technology before it gets into your plant because then it’s too late.

Mr. Marcucci: And unfortunately, the life span of those Allen-Bradleys is so short. You used to go decades without changes in electrical equipment in the plant. Now, every two or three years, they’re coming out with the next generation. And every five or six years, you need to buy their next generation because they don’t support the old one.

Mr. Kline: And you can’t use the spare part that you bought for the first generation. It just sits in your stockroom because you need another.

When you are shopping at IBIE, how will you define return on investment (ROI)? And how does ROI today compare with the way you defined it in the past?

Mr. Marcucci: There are a lot of ways to look at ROI. Is it ROI just from a monetary standpoint or from a quality perspective? More often than not, I usually start with an ROI where I’m looking to save labor. But today, the front end of the production lines are pretty gosh darn automated, but packaging and shipping still require a lot of people. After labor, hopefully, you’re improving the consistency and quality. Those are harder to pinpoint when it comes to ROI, so we may also look at the increasing the speed of our line or our capacity when automating.

Mr. Chan: I look at ROI in two different ways. The first way is probably most traditional. If we’re going to spend X amount of capital, I want it returned to me within 24 months. I put in a formula that determines the cash payback. If I’m able to reduce labor by two people, what does that mean as far as cash flow? Cash is king, right? But I also look at ROI as how it enhances the culture of a company. Culture can involve training or even improving work ethics. Culture is important because happy, productive people make a company more profitable in the long run.

Mr. Somoza: We look at man-hours and how much time people are spending on the line to operate a piece of equipment and to produce a certain amount of product. We also look at improving quality and reducing waste. If we’re buying a seeder, is it saving 20% more of my seeds than an old seeder? Or can I eliminate dusting flour stations throughout the line by using a rounder that doesn’t use dusting flour?

Mr. Mulloy: I agree with everyone. The first factor is always how to reduce labor hours and get your cost back. However, we also consider what it costs to run an existing piece of equipment. How many maintenance hours are coming from changeovers, mechanical breakdown or electrical issues? You take that into consideration, too.

Thanks for your great insights. We look forward to seeing you all at IBIE.

Editor’s note: Check out future issues of Baking & Snack, as well as our e-newsletters, for more excerpts from our Engineering Roundtable.