While automation is the heart of high-speed cracker lines, that doesn’t mean operators are off the hook. Faster production speeds mean if something goes wrong, the problem — and its consequences — will escalate quickly, so operators must remain vigilant. Failure to do so can lead to wasted product and increased downtime.

“The operator has to be attentive to the equipment at all times,” said said Don Smith, director of biscuit, cookie and cracker equipment sales, Reading Bakery Systems. “He or she must be thinking one or two steps ahead of the process so they can be actively watching for problems instead of reacting to them as they arise.”

The live nature of cracker dough makes operators essential to consistent high-speed production, no matter how much automation is incorporated.

“Situations will always arise throughout the course of a production shift that will demand the attention of the operator to make appropriate changes to the set points of the equipment to account for variations in dough consistencies and ambient conditions,” explained said Andy Green, technical development manager, Spooner Vicars Bakery Systems.

Operators should be looking at dough as it comes out of the mixer to confirm that it is the right consistency and flowing correctly. They should be checking variations of weight before crackers go into the oven, every 15 to 30 minutes, Mr. Smith said. This ensures that the dough sheet is balanced, and operators can anticipate issues or address them as soon as they come up.

“They should be walking the machine, watching belt tracking and listening for problems on the machines: bearings going out, rolls clicking,” he continued.

This level of attention and the knowledge required to know when something’s wrong requires training and experience with the equipment.

“It is of the utmost importance that the operators are given a high level of training specific to their area of responsibility to attain a clear understanding of the machinery and processes involved,” Mr. Green said. “This ensures their ability to troubleshoot and resolve issues quickly.”

Giving operators a sense of ownership over the equipment can go a long way in not only increasing operational efficiency, he said, but also heightening vigilance for improving preventive maintenance and sanitation.

Operators should be looking at dough as it comes out of the mixer to confirm that it is the right consistency and flowing correctly. 

Despite enhanced automation and controls, optimal efficiency only happens when all operators are paying attention and communicating.

“Your line efficiency when you’re running 24/7 at high speeds should be within 97% to 99%,” Mr. Smith said. “But that takes coordination among everybody: mixing, sheeting, oven operation, packaging. All those departments have to work together.”

High-capacity equipment typically endures long run times at more elevated speeds, so preventive maintenance is also important to limit downtime.

Technicians should check all sensors — belt-tracking sensors and pressure sensors on gauge rolls, sheeters and rotary cutters — to make sure they are running correctly. If they aren’t, the line will lose efficiency, and product flow can be compromised.

“One of the big things, too, is making sure the pressure rolls under the rotary cutters are changed regularly,” Mr. Smith said. “If you’re a 24/7 operation, your pressure rolls are probably only going to last between 45 and 90 days at the most under the rotary cutter.”

These extended run times have ramifications after the oven when crackers are sprayed with oil and topped with seasonings. Operators must manage more salt and crumbs between sanitation downtime, and GOE provides accessories that allow operators to remove salt and crumbs during production.

Spraying Systems Co. implements Precision Spray Control (PSC) to eliminate filtering cracker particulates and excessive over-spray.

“PSC technology is about getting the right amount of coating where you want it in one pass,” said Josh DeVoll, director of market solutions, Spraying Systems Co.

To minimize overall downtime, GOE constructs a heavy-duty sprayer designed for continuous operation with minimal maintenance. It has fewer moving parts, which means fewer components to maintain during extended runs.

Extended high-speed runs can help cracker producers increase throughput and meet customer demands, but to accomplish this feat, they need equipment that will provide consistent, balanced dough sheets with features that keep dough in line as it flies through production. With an expertly designed and installed line and trained, attentive operators, cracker producers can hit the speeds they need and get the consistent quality products their customers and end consumers expect.

This article is an excerpt from the June 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on cracker technology, click here.