Improved production, from both a quality and quantity standpoint, is a key factor in adding or upgrading an ingredient handling system. Source: Fred D. Pfening Co.

A baker’s decision to automate is never one that’s made lightly, especially in terms of ingredient handling. It’s an investment in a large, complex system that’s designed and built to last. That said, a bakery often eventually turns into a large, complex system. Times change. Technology advances. Business booms, and capacity happens.

All these are factors that can present the opportunity to upgrade or even add to its automated ingredient handling system, and knowing when to take the next steps can lead to smooth operations as well as continued growth. 

The first steps
Sometimes the decision is easy because it’s just a matter of the equipment reaching the end of its life expectancy. Other times, it’s not so simple.

“There are a number of factors that people are bringing up, but it’s very much about weighing the pros and cons,” said John Hunter, sales account manager, bakery and ingredient handling, Bühler, Inc. “Whether you’re putting in a new ingredient handling system or upgrading the one you’ve got, you have to ask yourself, ‘What are the factors that are going to make a difference in my business?’”

Although no “magic formula” exists to determine when it’s time to upgrade a system, savvy bakers who employ tools such as master planning can often see the writing on the wall. In addition to relying on a master plan, bakers can also look to a predictable customer base, suggested Jason Stricker, director of sales and marketing, Shick Esteve.

“Sometimes that customer base is such that the bakery can get great projections,” Mr. Stricker said. “In that case, they can plan ahead a little more.”

But when a baker doesn’t have the luxury of a predictable market, planning is key. The first place to look is at the end of the line — such as packaging — where the bottlenecks occur. For example, an upgrade to the packaging line can signal the need for upgrades further upstream. And while some bakers wait until they’re at full capacity to consider capital expenditures, it truly doesn’t have to take that long. In fact, when looking upstream, the decision to expand ingredient handling likely becomes quite obvious.

“If a customer automates packaging, they wouldn’t wait years to continue,” Mr. Stricker said.

Digital improvements
Upgrading the system could be necessary not only from an equipment standpoint but also in terms of the digital system controls.

“Having data when you automate today is really important,” Mr. Hunter said. 

Considering how many recalls happen on a regular basis, digital upgrades become critical for traceability and essential to complying with many of the Global Food Safety Initiatives required today. As a result, it becomes an obvious opportunity for improving a system.

“When it comes strictly to upgrades as opposed to replacing a system, controls and instrumentation are two of the most common areas,” Mr. Stricker said. “We have the ability today to collect performance via various sensors that we didn’t have 20 — or even 10 — years ago.”

New technology allows bakeries to collect data on ingredients. Source: Shick Esteve

Bakers are more intuitive about data collection than they ever have been, especially as a more tech-savvy workforce enters the ranks. Pushing a button doesn’t simply mean scaling product; that’s so old school. Now, operators use digital controls to track and enhance yield, where pennies add up to big bucks on high-speed lines.

“That’s really important because ingredient expenses are going up, and customers now have more tools to have better control over losing ingredients,” Mr. Stricker said.

Through data acquisition, bakers can validate the correct amounts of the right ingredients and in the proper sequence. And if product falls out of spec, these tools help speed along quality control’s root cause analysis.

But there’s a catch: Digital technology is moving faster than many bakers can keep up with — just think about how quickly the latest smart phones become outdated. Although ingredient handling equipment is built to last for decades, the technology updates on the digital controls change on an almost yearly basis.

“Scaling and metering has drastically improved over the past 10 years, and that helps with product quality,” Mr. Adams noted.

Another factor to consider is the challenge digital upgrades pose for suppliers when bakers maintain outdated software.

“We almost have to keep some relic computers to operate some of the software, even when it’s just five years old,” Mr. Adams said. “As an engineering firm, we really try to help manage and buffer that for our end-users because it can be hard to keep up with.”

Mr. Adams noted that because each Pfening system is custom-designed, the company pays close attention to even the smallest technological details and safety guidelines. 

Helping dollars make sense

Recognizing a need to invest is one thing, but theory can’t go into practice without defining a return on investment (R.O.I.). 

When most bakeries today seek an average of a 24-month R.O.I. on most major projects, such investments will come with high expectations for immediate and tangible improvements.

Oftentimes, it all depends on a bakery’s goals, such as productivity, labor costs or product loss or waste.

“Returns can include improvement in production, both in quantity and quality based on the ability to have a scaled, calibrated and controlled system that can provide a higher volume at a higher quality than what you could do before,” said Darren Adams, vice-president of engineering for the Fred D. Pfening Co. He suggested that automation should increase 10 times the volume currently being produced. 

“If you’re having trouble with something like line efficiency, or if the product is not up to specification, you can look at the scrap rate, and if the investment you make has the potential to reduce the scrap rate, then you have an R.O.I. to evaluate,” Mr. Stricker said. “There’s a balance point. As bakers look to the future and chart growth, they want an initial system design that can easily and cost-effectively increase or add capacity.”

The key is to develop a strategic plan that makes all subsequent phases of construction logical and seamless.