Innovation centers allow bakery operators to test automated equipment at near- or full-scale capacity.

Navigating a product from the lab bench to the store shelf often requires a trip to the pilot plant to smooth out scale-up projects. The principles and execution are the same whether you work with an internal facility or an innovation center run by a supplier of machinery or ingredients. Baking & Snack consulted with several such facilities to learn more about the bench-to-oven process.

In figuring out how to run a new bakery item on high-volume equipment, you’ll find out about economic feasibility and return on investment as well as process and formula alterations.

“The world is changing, and bakery products made tomorrow may not be the same ones currently produced,” said Dennis Kauffman, director of thermal systems, AMF/BakeTech. “Flexibility is a must.” Most products can be automated, he added, but the baker must decide on the appropriate degree of automation. That’s what the innovation center can help decide.

You’ll also learn about new developments. “The rules we learned in school may not be in play now with all the new technology and new ingredients,” said Susan Kay, manager, product applications, The Rothwell GrainEssentials Center, Bay State Milling Co. “We see many different products and formulations, and we learn from other industry segments. It’s our job to bring in knowledge from other areas and to share cross-­knowledge in turn.”

And it’s a learning process on both sides. “The technical part is easy; getting to understand what the customer wants in a product is not always so easy,” observed John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, Reiser. “So, working with them side-by-side is the best way to ensure we give them the solution they need.”

Bumpy weather

Why use an innovation center or pilot plant? For the results. In today’s fast-moving market, the stakes have never been higher. We’ve all heard tales of a company betting the farm on a new product only to go bust when trying to get it out of the plant. Smoothing out the bench-to-oven process is essential.

“Never underestimate the complexity of the product and the process,” Ms. Kay cautioned.

Laboratory work can support development and consumer testing, but when moving to large-scale production, many things change. “Major ingredients will typically go from bag to bulk,” noted Doug Hale, vice-president, Dunbar, Inc. “Controls change as well, and with automation, timing becomes more consistent. And it could change what you consider to be normal in how the finished product looks or performs.”

Production at the bench is influenced by the baker’s skills, by the way the dough feels and by how long it sits there. “On a fully automated line, that’s not so easy anymore,” said Patrick Nagel, technical department, sales, customer service, Fritsch USA. He also cited ingredient quality, dough floor time and temperature as differing on the bench compared with a production line.

Patricia Kennedy, president, WP Bakery Group USA, observed, “Time, temperature and absorption are the obvious factors, but lab equipment versus production equipment differences is a strong factor, especially mixing.”

Getting the dough right is critical to the bench-to-oven mission. “Dough development time will be different based on the size of the dough and the mixer used,” said Jerome Davis, technical solutions analyst, Innovative Bakery Resources. In the lab, the batch may be two to 20 lb, but the bakery will work with doughs of 500 to 1,200 lb. Dough temperature will be impacted by dough size and specific equipment used — planetary mixers vs. horizontal mixers and manual portioning vs. extrusion dividing.

“Different ingredient lots of things like flour, cracked wheat and gluten could potentially change absorption rates because there could be slight variations among lots,” Mr. Davis added. “Dough strengtheners may need to be added or increased so the dough can handle the extra abuse through the tougher dividing and processing of bigger batches of dough.”

Conditions within the bakery itself — its temperature, humidity and airflow — can also differ from that of the lab. “The climate situation in every bakery is different,” noted Manuel Hobacher, head, customer demonstration center and master baker, Koenig Bakery Systems. “This has consequences on the dough temperature and resting time. Some customers might underestimate the effect of these surroundings on the dough quality.”

The transition from prototype to store-ready product can hit the skids at several points. Consider line speed. Will the pilot line run at the same speed as the production line? Ken Zvoncheck, director, Science & Innovation Center, Reading Bakery Systems, explained how faster speeds affect the time a dough sits on the line. “This can produce a hydration challenge,” he noted. “Another involves pressure. Slower lines put less pressure on the dough. At scale-up, the pressures become greater.”

It’s important that the development process take into account the difference between the lab and the production facility, especially noting the bakery or snack plant’s unique aspects. “The lab setting isn’t as challenging as the commercial setting,” said Jay Freedman, product applications specialist, The Rothwell GrainEssentials Center, Bay State Milling Co. “In production, you’re tied to the machinery and the process flow. When a product moves from the lab to production, you should be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of your facilities.”

Only a few bakeries, he noted, have lab setups with equipment that duplicates the production line. “That may work for cookies, but not so much with bread, where there’s no good lab equivalent of a bun or bread divider,” Mr. Freedman observed.

Learning from a successful pilot plant run will help set the stage for full-scale production.

Pilot training

What does the baker need to bring to an innovation center or pilot plant? Everything. “Bring the ingredients being used in the bakery or have your suppliers ship them to us,” Mr. Freedman said. “Bring the formula. Bring process times and temperatures, too. Be prepared to provide a detailed description of the bakery process flow.”

Mr. Davis expanded the list, noting pan size, dough and finished product weights, slice count, approximate mixing and baking times, formula limitations (organic, kosher, health claims) and specific characterizing ingredients such as raisins, nuts and other inclusions.

Sometimes this includes shipping in the baker’s local water supply, according to John Giacoio, national sales director, Rheon USA.

Bring the pans, too. “Actual baking pans are important for proper heat penetration and product performance,” said Eric Spelger, senior scientist, Corbion Caravan.

With equipment testing, complete specifications for the baked product in question should include factors such as quality, flavor, look and weight. “A very precise and detailed ingredient list is of great importance as well: which ingredients can be used and which not, as with clean-label foods, for example,” Mr. Nagel said. “It is important to implement the actual ingredients at the testing to get the best results.”

Another tip for success was offered by Mr. Kauffman. “When a baker comes to the test center, not only should they bring the actual ingredients they currently use but also a production person who can verify that the product is the same or is what they were looking to make,” he said.

Of necessity, work at the pilot plant or innovation center level is all about the baked food or snack being considered for commercialization. “We like to understand first-hand what a successful product looks like,” Mr. McIsaac said, “from not only a scaling perspective but also the desired look, feel and taste.” Once the center gains an understanding of the product, then rates, speeds and technical specs can be determined.

Product descriptions and ingredient lists are also common to equipment evaluation projects, according to Jerry Murphy, president, Rondo, Inc. “It all starts with a detailed description of the current, small-scale process and clear specifications of the product,” he said. Additional factors include water temperature, ice use, production numbers and similar specs.

Like the centers specializing in formulating, equipment centers take a comprehensive approach. “We have a detailed checklist that we use to gather data,” Ms. Kennedy said, noting mixing, floor and proof times, product dough weights, dimensions before final proofing and ingredient details such as flour type and protein level. “We also ask for product samples, photos and how the product is currently processed in the lab or bakery, along with facility information such as climate control,” she added.

How the innovation center is equipped will make a difference. Ancillary equipment to complement that of the supplier’s will help complete the process. “If a customer has a piece of equipment that is critical to the test, we can even ship it in,” said Dennis Everaers, senior technologist, Rademaker USA. With ingredients in place and an understanding of the process parameters and critical control points, the innovation center can establish test dates and travel plans. “Many clients also ship back to their facility the finished frozen product so that others can evaluate it,” he added.

There’s a vital human factor involved as well. When testing equipment to make a new application, Mr. Giacoio strongly urged bringing along the people who actually developed the product. “That’s so we can reproduce what they have been doing on the bench,” he said.

Data capture and analysis help ease the transfer of new products and technology from the pilot plant or innovation center to the commercial bakery facility.

Guidance system

What will the innovation center or pilot plant teach you? Plenty.

“From my perspective as a production development baker, I see people learning more about the commercial process and seeing that every bakery is a little different,” said Mike Lengacher, commercialization leader, sales, Innovative Bakery Resources. “And a lot of adjusting goes on — adjust, adjust, adjust. You hear that a lot in our projects.”

The learning process takes on mutual aspects. “Customers can expect to learn side-by-side with us about whether the innovation center can make their product to their satisfaction,” Mr. McIsaac said. Successful outcomes can result from the shared process.

There’s also the matter of getting a product to run on the equipment being tested, equipment that is likely to be far higher in capacity and automation than the bakery’s current systems. “A baker can expect to learn what the real world of controlled production is and what adjustments are necessary to make the product run on that equipment,” Mr. Zvoncheck observed.

Mr. Spelger reported using experimental design to create a matrix of testing to better understand and begin the development process. “A baker can expect to learn that, through partnering and open communication, a supplier will better understand and focus on the issue, and will provide the best solution in the fastest time frame, at the best cost,” he explained.

Systems at an innovation center or pilot plant are specifically configured to capture data. Work done in such facilities will give information regarding the possibilities to scale up a specific production method, according to Mr. Murphy. “The controlled conditions and evaluation of the individual steps in the simulated process will give much more information than the trial and error method on existing lines,” he said. “A baker can learn about processes, automation, tips and tricks from our experienced bakers and machine operators.”

Documentation will accompany testing and scale-up activities. Consider, for example, what happens in the oven. Mr. Zvoncheck described ovens as big opaque boxes. “After we optimize the product, we profile the oven using a Scorpion data logger so we can understand the oven’s heat flux, air circulation and core temperatures of the product,” he said. “The customer takes that home to his bakery or to his co-manufacturer. They leave here with all that information, and we keep it on-hand for troubleshooting later.”

Just as pilot plant and innovation center tests lend themselves to learning, so does taking the product into the plant where it will be made.

“Introducing a test into a [working] facility requires due diligence,” Mr. Spelger explained. Line operators play a big role in this step. “The line operators are the experts in their area,” he added, “and they can best explain differences and offer suggestions to improve performance.”

Expect changes, Mr. Everaers counseled. “In the lab or pilot plant, there is a controlled environment with highly skilled workers,” he explained. “On the production floor, the environment can become less controlled and the workforce less skilled.

“The challenge therein lies in gaining control of the production process and educating the workforce in the attention to detail of the process,” Mr. Everaers continued. “Small deviations in formula and small deviations in process can have a major impact on the product quality and the process efficiency.”

Mr. Davis described another valuable lesson that pilot plant users take home. “Bakers also learn that scaling up isn’t just about volume alone; it’s also about the capabilities of the bakery in terms of mixers, extruders, dividers and other facility considerations,” he said.

And occasionally, there’s another factor involved. “In general, going from lab bench to full-scale production is not 1:1,” Ms. Kay said. “However, sometimes you may get lucky.”