Attendees browse the Innovation Showcase at IBIE 2016.

Apple’s founder Steve Jobs probably said it best, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” At the 2016 International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), held Oct. 8-11 in Las Vegas, the baking industry touted the current leading problem-solving solutions and advances in technology in the Innovation Showcase.

In all, the showcase highlighted 56 cutting-edge developments that hit the market during the past three years, the vast majority of them debuting at the show. Each entry was a product or service that had not been exhibited at a previous IBIE, and attendees had the opportunity to learn more about each innovation during an interactive 15-minute presentation in the Idea LAB on the tradeshow floor.

Certainly, the most dominant theme this year involved food safety and the sanitary design of equipment. And why not? Bakers are faced not only with the rollout of Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations but also with a barrage of audits by customers and local, state and federal regulators. In many cases, being certified under standards recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative, such as the British Retailers Consortium, ISO 22000 and Safe Quality Food, is today’s price of entry to supplying major retailers and foodservice customers.

Certainly, sanitary design was a topic of discussion at IBIE in 2013 following a number of high-profile product recalls, but this year, equipment manufacturers walked the walk. That’s good news for some bakers like 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 in 2015 and participated in Baking & Snack’s Engineering Roundtable earlier this year.

“Bakers have to worry about new operations, how they’re going to manage FSMA and how they’re going to get prepared for it,” Mr. Mulloy attested.

It seems many IBIE exhibitors heard this concern loud and clear. Throughout the show — and highlighted throughout the Innovation Showcase — equipment manufacturers displayed machines and production lines that were easier to clean with sloped designs and eliminated nooks, crannies and other areas where food particles and water may harbor. And they made these lines simpler to maintain with greater access to internal parts and quick-to-remove, tool-less features.

Such developments also provide additional benefits, including faster changeovers that can result in greater uptime and, ultimately, higher throughput over the long haul. Several of this year’s Innovation Showcase participants highlighted how their equipment is now safer to operate with designs that eliminate pinch points and the need for secondary safety guards. To assist bakers in meeting the requirements of the new food safety regulations, many oven manufacturers even addressed documentation of the “kill step” calculators developed by AIB International.

Partners in progress

In several instances, equipment suppliers reported partnering with baking companies to design systems that address everyday issues within their operations. In some cases, bakers are being asked to test ­prototypes on the production floor and actually provide feedback to manufacturers during their development stage. In return, the partnering bakery gets an exclusive ­opportunity — often two years — to use the equipment before it comes to market.

Of course, such innovation comes with a price. During Baking & Snack’s Engineering Roundtable, industry veteran Paul Chan, president, GuyChan Global, stressed that sanitary design and other enhancements to baking technology require mutual investment by all parties involved. “It has to be a combination of both, driven by the baker and also the manufacturer,” he pointed out. “There has to be some sort of middle ground in there.”

Mr. Chan added that easily cleanable equipment dovetails with another “clean” trend — one that affects processing in more ways than one.

“If you are looking at FSMA, you also need to be looking at clean labeling because the two are converging into one,” he said. “The X-factor for food safety and equipment design is cost. I’m not exactly sure how and who should bear that cost, but I don’t think it should be just one side of the equation.”

When it comes to return on investment (ROI) from innovation, there are a lot of ways to define it. “Is it ROI just from a monetary standpoint or from a quality perspective?” asked Larry Marcucci, president and CEO, Alpha Baking Co., Chicago, during the roundtable. “More often than not, I usually start with an ROI where I’m looking to save labor. Today, the front end of the production lines are pretty gosh darn automated, yet packaging and shipping still require a lot of people. After factoring in labor savings, hopefully, you’re improving the consistency and quality. Those are harder to pinpoint when it comes to ROI, so we may also look at increasing the speed of our line or our capacity when automating.”

But automating the process to reduce labor doesn’t necessarily involve reducing headcount, especially in an environment where the workforce skills gap makes it so difficult to find and retain trained and skilled operations and maintenance personnel.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite in many ways, according to Mr. Mulloy. “It’s not so much to reduce labor but to move people elsewhere in the plant,” he explained. “Because of turnover, it’s not easy to find people who 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 filtering it to others because the hiring process is not easy.”

. Throughout the show, equipment manufacturers displayed machines and production lines that were easy to clean, eliminating areas where food particles and water may harbor.

Addressing additional challenges

Overall, the industry has done a good job streamlining production and processing, but for many manufacturers, packaging still remains a vast frontier for improvement — mainly because of the proliferation in packaging formats now requested by an increasingly diverse array of retail and foodservice customers.

As Mr. Mulloy noted, “The entire bakery is straight until you get packaging. Once you get on the other side of the spiral coolers, it looks like Chicago’s interstate because packaging is a ‘Chutes and Ladders’ game. We’ve got bulk-pack, we’ve got six-pack, we’ve got some penny-pack — and a lot of that is just for one type of product.”

Innovation in packaging was one of the many initiatives to broaden in scope at this year’s IBIE. Several Innovation Showcase submissions reflected this change, including systems that can handle a wider amount of products more gently and others that offered a more compact footprint.

“The trend toward packaging flexibility and customization is becoming increasingly important for the baking industry,” noted Joe Turano, president, Turano Baking Co., Berwyn, IL, and vice-chairman of the IBIE committee, prior to the show. “It was a small gap that we analyzed in the planning sessions, and we made an effort to really try to attract further exhibitor coverage with packaging equipment.”

According to Baking & Snack’s 2016 Equipment Trends survey, the top goals for equipment purchases included increasing capacity for new products (28%), increasing production speed/capacity (20%), decreasing labor costs (20%), improving product quality and consistency (18%) and greater capacity for new products (18%). The percentages were greater than 100% because the survey allowed multiple responses.

Many participants in the Innovation Showcase addressed these concerns with energy-efficient equipment, higher-speed production of artisan baked goods and more rapid and greater pre-hydration of doughs during the mixing process. Real-time data management — vital to improving yield, increasing product consistency and monitoring the performance of equipment — took a quantum leap. Such advances in data gathering and analysis provide more effective tools for operators to react — and sometimes anticipate — a problem on a production line.

In the end, as the saying goes, imagination plus innovation results in realization. That’s what bakers saw at IBIE’s Innovation Showcase.