Automation may seem like the antithesis to artisan. Can a bread even be artisan if it’s produced on a piece of equipment? With today’s technology, the answer just might be “Yes,” and with consumer demand for artisan, the answer might sound more like, “It has to be.”

“Automation can take many forms,” said John Giacoio, vice-president of sales, Rheon USA. “And it means something different to everyone. It is important to understand the bakers’ needs and to show them what can be automated and what should have the personal touch.”

These qualities could be the open cell structure, long fermentation times or a hand-made appearance. It’s critical that, despite automation, the product still maintains what the baker deems essential to its artisan designation.

“Automating an artisan process and scaling it up to an industrial size is never an easy task, and bakers too often are ready to accept compromises,” said Franco Fusari, co-owner of Minipan. “We strongly believe they should not because quality is essential. It is always difficult to replace the 10 fingers of a master baker, but we get as close as we can to what a baker would shape by hand.”

When it’s time

While automation might not be an obvious choice for an artisan baker, there can come a point in business growth where it just becomes necessary. There are some key signs to look for to know when it’s time to take the risk and bring automation into the process.

“When a bakery starts producing more than 2,000 to 3,000 loaves of bread per day, it’s a good time to start looking for an automated solution,” said Patricia Kennedy, president, WP Bakery Group.

As growth requires bakeries to reach higher throughputs, labor can become a challenge — automation can provide a solution.

“Growth, competitiveness and production costs are the driving factors,” said Ken Johnson, president, Gemini Bakery Equipment. “The limited labor market is a major problem for most specialty bakeries.”

Bringing in automation obviously can increase throughput, but it also can fill the gap of skilled workers by improving shape and weight accuracy and providing consistent quality products.

“When too many operators are required to make the product and bakers are looking to achieve more consistent product quality, then the control over product quality and consistency will outweigh the investment in automated production,” said Hans Besems, executive product manager, AMF Bakery Systems.

Testing, testing

While testing equipment before purchasing is always a good idea, it’s especially important for artisan bakers looking to automate. Artisan breads get their signature cell structure and flavor from extremely hydrated doughs. These hydration levels have historically been difficult to process at scale, and it’s important the equipment doesn’t damage that delicate cell structure more than a human hand. Bakers can only be assured of this if they test their formulations on the equipment itself.

“The best way to address concerns the baker may have is to show them what the machines can do using their dough, making their product,” Mr. Giacoio said.

Rheon requires bakers to test its equipment at any of its test facilities in California or New Jersey before purchasing. At IBIE, Rheon’s technicians will be running 10 to 12 demonstrations daily in the company’s booth.

Most equipment suppliers have facilities where bakers can test their products on the equipment they are eyeing.

“The ideal and best way to move toward automation is with thorough testing with the bakery’s products to come to the correct line configuration first,” Ms. Kennedy said. “When our technical staff and master bakers come together with bakers, it is always a win-win, and the transition runs really smoothly.”

For Minipan, testing is the first step in building a custom line.

“Bakers are involved in every step of the project,” Mr. Fusari said. “First, they come to our test lab to try their recipes on our technologies. Then we design and realize the perfect solution for their needs, and once the line is approved and installed, we train the staff.”

AMF employs a team of master bakers to work alongside its customers to align the recipe with the production process. This ensures the desired end products achieve optimal dough quality. The AMF Tromp Innovation Center in Gorinchem, The Netherlands, gives bakers the opportunity to test product before a line is installed.

Bakers can also visit Fritsch’s Technology Center, which is a fully equipped, 49,500-square-foot baking facility. Here, bakers can develop new products, modify a production process, test a new production line or adapt an artisan process to industrial production.

Artisan to industrial

Maintaining an artisan bread’s quality is the No. 1 priority when introducing automated equipment. The key to this is minimizing the amount of damage being done to the dough, which is true whether it’s done by human hands or a stainless-steel machine.

“Our philosophy when designing machines and lines is quite simple: They must adapt to the dough and not the dough to the machine,” said Anna-Maria Fritsch, president, Fritsch USA. “Dough inherently responds very sensitively to ambient conditions or rough mechanical handling.”

To do that, Fritsch has focused on designing equipment that processes the dough as gently as possible to maintain its open cell structures. The company’s SoftProcessing technology enables a high degree of automation and throughput while minimizing stress on the dough throughout production.

The divider is an especially critical area where the dough can take a beating.

IBIE Interactions

During IBIE, companies mentioned in this article can be found at the following show floor locations:
  • Fritsch, No. 5480
  • Gemini Bakery Equipment/KB Systems, No. 5849
  • Koenig Bakery Systems, No. 5889
  • Minipan, No. 5881
  • Rheon USA, No. 6237
  • Rondo, No. 5837
  • WP Bakery Group USA, No. 6481

“When it comes to bread, we have solved the issue of ‘abuse of the dough’ with our dividing techniques such as our Voluminator that is available on our V series bread dividers from our factory, WP Haton,” Ms. Kennedy said of WP Bakery Group’s offerings.

The Voluminator eliminates extrusion and pressure on the dough while providing accurate portioning of +/-2%. The company will feature this equipment at its booth at IBIE and holding workshops on gentle dividing.

Rheon’s VX212 twin divider is a stress-free dividing that can scale and divide up to 1,800 lbs per hour.

“In some cases, we are able to handle dough with as much as 85% water and up to three hours of floor time better than by hand,” Mr. Giacoio said. “Our customers are amazed that they can actually improve the product quality by using our stress-free divider, and the added benefit is people who were hand-dividing can now be shape and form the bread, preserving the artisan look while our machine maintains the quality.”

At IBIE, Rheon will demonstrate two redesigned VX212 Stress Free Twin Dividers as well as a redesigned VX122 Stress Free Divider. The VX212 dividers are a compact floorspace solution that accurately and gently divides up to 1,800 lbs of dough per hour. The VX122 divider is designed for a midsize flatbread and moulded bread line. The company also will exhibit a complete 2-ton capacity Stress Free Artisan Bread Line for moulded loaves, rounded breads and flatbreads.

Koenig’s Industry Rex series can process long-fermented doughs with volumetric dough dividing. The equipment does this with an intermediate belt between dough dividing and rounding, providing a moment of relaxation for dough pieces.

The divider may be the most obvious place for dough to withstand damage, but rollers and even transfer points can hurt these wet doughs’ cell structure. As a part of its gentle handling principles, Koenig uses gravity to process dough on its Ceres 2.1 bread line. As it’s transferred through the line, the dough sheet is set on the transfer disc by its own weight.

“This enables very gentle dough handling,” said Richard Breeswine, president and chief executive officer, Koenig.

Sheeting lines can also be a gentle way to process artisan doughs, he said. Koenig’s Menes-H high-performance dough sheeting line features the Twin Sat double satellite head, which imparts minimal force on the dough sheet during reduction.

“The twin satellite head reduces high mechanical loads due to two satellite roller heads positioned one above the other,” Mr. Breeswine explained.

AMF Tromp’s Sheeting & Laminating Lines treat the dough gently as it is sheeted, and the AMF Den Boer Stone Oven optimizes the baking profile for oven spring and product appearance.

If an artisan bakery is new to automation, going straight to a full line might not be the best solution.

“There are several levels of automation,” Mr. Breeswine said. “A bakery can start with semi-automation such as automated dough makeup with dividing and rounding and setting on baking trays. Another level could be automated oven loading and unloading. Full automation ranges from mixing to makeup, proofing and baking up to cooling and packaging with conveying systems combining all of these production steps.”

Rheon offers equipment in a variety of sizes to accommodate bakeries with different levels of throughput and automation needs.

“For the smaller bakery bench dividing with scales and scrapers then hand-forming breads, we can automatically and accurately divide any dough gently and without damage,” Mr. Giacoio said.

Gemini also offers low-stress bread and roll equipment in both semi- and fully automated configurations to meet any baker’s requirements or budget.

Every artisan product is different, and that’s part of this category’s appeal. It’s key that as this segment of the baking industry evolves that automated baked foods don’t lose their charm. To prevent that from happening, Minipan tailors its equipment to each baker’s needs, process and product.

“Every baker has his or her own baking culture; no one should compromise on that,” Mr. Fusari said. “Sometimes it may sound easier to force a recipe through a machine, moving away from authenticity. A custom-made solution guarantees the complete respect of the artisan method while scaling it up to an industrial level.”

With the help of stress-free equipment, custom solutions and knowledgeable suppliers, artisan bakers won’t have to let go of what makes them special.