Advances in technology might provide a solution to the industry’s labor shortage and lack of technical knowledge and keep plants running efficiently. At recent trade shows such as iba in Munich, Germany, and Pack Expo in Chicago, dozens of exhibitors offered the latest in virtual and augmented technology designed to remotely keep bakeries online — and maintain peak performance — as well as train new operators.

Such a transition has vastly changed from a short time ago, said Jim Kline, founder of EnSol Group and contributing editor to Baking & Snack magazine. He said the biggest difference is that bakeries today, thanks to digital interconnection, speak one language instead of the Tower of Babel of the past. That’s made some previous service providers irrelevant.

“It’s becoming commonplace to the point that what you didn’t see at iba are the technology integrators of 10 years ago whose purpose was to provide that information as a third party,” Mr. Kline observed. “That seems to have disappeared.”

He explained that current sensory components are communicating directly with the bakery’s system, and that telemetry often returns directly to the bakery’s host computer. It’s a more seamless process.

“You don’t require separate software to integrate the system,” he pointed out.

Mr. Kline couldn’t stress enough that information is still directly going to the bakery, not the manufacturer.

“There is still concern giving open access to this technology, not because of concerns by the equipment manufacturer, but of concerns that such access opens the computer system to hacking,” he explained. “The security isn’t trusted.”

Rowdy Brixey, president, BEST: Brixey Engineering Strategies & Training, stressed that information needs to be reliable and readily available both within the plant and remotely.

Related Reading“Having product specifications, bill of materials, set-up information and other asset or product data available on the plant floor allows associates to perform at a higher level,” he said. “Industry can no longer expect or accept that employee performance will improve in a linear fashion as the years of service add up. We must use the infrastructure available to build specs and libraries that support the operator. OEMs should embed much of this information like manuals and drawings or collect it as the equipment operates — like rate, time and temperature — into an easier-to-use digital format.”

Bob White, president, Focus Works, emphasized that employee skills remain a real issue.

“Automation can remove the complexity of the operator’s tasks,” he said. “So does removing the tasks of recording process numbers on paper, which we know many times is ‘pencil whipped.’ In essence, a system automatically controlling the data flow to and from the plant floor — and having it monitored and verified — removes errors that can really hurt operations.”

With the workforce skills gap, is technology making the glass half empty or half full? With the most experienced bakers retiring, knowledge transfer provides a critical opportunity at this juncture in time.

“Our goal is to capture and pass on as much of that experience and knowledge before it literally walks out the door,” said Robert Burgh, president of Nexcor Food Safety Technologies. “By using historical data for continued training, the workforce can constantly improve and learn regardless of changing team members. Video training tools are particularly popular with our clients and encourage consistent training for all team members.”

However, new employees need a strong foundation in fundamentals to take advantage of the latest in technology, said Mr. White.

“Our company has software products that prevent and eliminate operator errors, but they need to have basic math skills and be able to read in a known language — even though our systems are multilingual,” he said.

Mr. White recommended spending time educating employees and never refusing requests for outside training.

“Remember, improved employees will deliver improved results, and illiteracy and ignorance in your workforce can have catastrophic consequences,” Mr. White said.

This article is an excerpt from the November issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on digital controls, click here.