Talk to any bakery operator, and the sentiment will likely be the same: You can invest in the most state-of-the-art equipment, but without the right people in place, you could be destined for failure … as in run to failure (RTF). It’s a state that’s hard to recover from, so line operators must be skilled in the art of proactive maintenance to ensure equipment achieves its intended usable lifespan.

That may be easier said than done, considering the workforce crisis the industry is currently facing, as well as the overall economic uncertainty that seems to be looming over manufacturing in general.

Bakers must be prudent with their investments while understanding that every minute of downtime is money out the window.

“Everything with bread and buns, for the most part, is going to be about how it impacts the price of the product,” said Rowdy Brixey, president, BEST: Brixey Engineering Strategies & Training.

As more unskilled workers get placed on the production line, digital tools such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming increasingly viable options for training and maintenance strategies that keep equipment out of RTF. If, that is, they’re willing to look at R.O.I. in a different way.

“Virtual reality training means building effective routines that allow frequently rehearsed repetition without downtime,” said Matthew Wallace, president and chief executive officer, VRSim, a provider of VR and AR training tools in various manufacturing-related industries. “It requires someone who’s ahead of the curve to say, ‘How can I use this and have it make a difference?’”

Ones to watch

Keeping equipment out of RTF can feel a bit like missing the forest for the trees. This is an area of production and maintenance that requires attention to the little things that can often be taken for granted. Workers must be cognizant that smaller components are just as important as the overall equipment and can, to an extent, be more so.

“If you think about run to failure, there’s a series of components that will become unreliable; they’re worn out or haven’t been maintained or adjusted correctly,” Mr. Brixey said. “Not all things are created equal in terms of mean time between failure or how many cycles before something fails.”

How many times a bearing or a chain needs to be greased, for example, isn’t templated. It requires a strong understanding of each component, something the old-school bakers just instinctively know — what Mr. Brixey refers to as muscle memory.

“Walk into any plant that is in run to failure, and you’ll likely see a common list of pain points, or things they wish they’d done differently to prevent it,” he suggested. “It’s all the interaction with the components and tightening, lubing, alignment, taking out the slack.”

Just look at a standard conveyor. At first glance, there’s not much to improve — a conveyor is a conveyor — right? Not so fast, Mr. Brixey said.

“Even in that simple setting, if you had a direct-mounted gearbox versus one that has a chain or belt drive, you’ve just eliminated no less than four components — the guard, the belt or chain, and two pulleys,” he said.

In other words, simplified design of the equipment will ultimately lighten the load on what operators and maintenance workers need to monitor.

“Reducing the complexity by removing more components is step one in avoiding run to failure,” Mr. Brixey advised.

For the components that remain — bearings, for instance — it’s important to understand the variations in quality that affect their longevity.

“They can range from the cheapest you would find on a residential component and not meant to run more than an hour a day all the way up to heavy-duty, greaseable ones,” Mr. Brixey said.

That said, Mr. Brixey pointed out that some bakers would rather spend the money on premium bearing with a better seal to get more usable life specifically because of the lack of labor available to make sure they’re being greased or changed often.

“It wouldn’t matter how few touch points on the machine there are. If you don’t have anybody to make the touches, you’re almost destined to get into run to failure at an accelerated rate,” he cautioned.

Sometimes, the lack of warm bodies is the issue, but in many cases, the problem is a shortage of workers who are properly trained to maintain the equipment.

Simulating failure

The industry — and the workers it’s trying to attract — are changing at a dizzying rate. Training is no longer about just providing a PDF of the equipment or its manual. New line workers don’t necessarily have bakery experience, and they might not be interested in learning about the equipment through textbooks or even demonstrations.

In this new environment, many workers are baptized by fire, and in certain respects, that can be a dangerous thing, especially in terms of recognizing those hints and knowing what a failure state really means. This is where VR and other digital tools come into play. They can give workers the ability to visualize equipment in a state of failure or an improved state, allowing them to directly experience best- and worst-case scenarios.

After all, it’s difficult — if not unrealistic — to deliberately put a piece of equipment into failure in order to see the impact of a lack of maintenance.

“What we want to achieve is make that connection between what a person is doing and the effect,” Mr. Wallace said.

It’s not always that simple.

“I’m fundamentally trying to teach on a semantic level that by looking at specific things to identify fatigue or maladjustment, a worker can impact the bottom-line profit of what the machine produces.”

By using VR, workers can experience RTF, often without taking the equipment offline. They can feel almost first-hand the positive and negative results of their everyday decisions, as well as the best steps to fix a problem.

“The better the first response to a failure state, the greater reduction of the damage and the more reduced risk of injury,” Mr. Wallace noted. “A little bit of exposure does a lot in terms of steps to keep it from getting worse.”

Simulation helps workers who might not yet have the instinct or muscle memory learn by doing in a safe space that comes with very few real-time consequences.

Training tools and a new R.O.I.

Getting away from depending on that muscle memory often begins with becoming comfortable in the bakery environment in the first place.

“It’s about shortening the time it takes to develop an expert,” Mr. Brixey said. “VR could be leveraged to potentially speed up that timeline, maybe not so much to make them the expert but to make them less dependent on someone else’s muscle memory. It would be very easy to deliver the knowledge they need to know how to tear the machine down and put it back together.”

Although bakeries are filling the workforce gap with unskilled workers, that doesn’t mean those people aren’t willing to learn.

“Some people are coming in with no skills or industry knowledge, and they’re the ones who tend to learn on the job,” Mr. Wallace said. “No one wants anyone to learn by failure, but you want them to see what happens if they screw up in a simulation so they know how to avoid those mistakes in a real situation.”

With VR, training is often done in real-time, short increments right on the line, Mr. Wallace said. Some training can be done in as little as 10 to 20 minutes at the beginning of a shift with little to no disruption.

“You don’t have to put everyone in a classroom or fly them somewhere,” he said. “Microlearning is trending, particularly in maintenance and repair. If you can get workers to a point where they can say, ‘I need to keep these things right — keep the chain oiled or the burners at a certain temperature range — and catch things early,’ it will benefit the entire company, and those become the employees you want to keep.”

Several years ago, VRSim conducted research with some of its welding customers and discovered benefits to partnered learning through simulation. It wasn’t just that the workers became better welders; that’s a direct result of the training.

“What was really interesting was that we filmed their interaction and found their appreciation for teamwork and shared development was off-the-charts better,” Mr. Wallace explained. “We found that even their level of vocabulary and ability to relate to details in a more ­systematic and scientific way vastly improved as well.”

While cost is the most immediate barrier to adoption, Mr. Wallace indicated that VR doesn’t have to break the bank.

“Cost shouldn’t be the barrier if you pick the right project,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a $10,000 piece of equipment. It may be something very different.”

This type of training creates a cognitive link between performance and long-term effect, Mr. Wallace said. Creating better-skilled workers with long-term potential and the skills to ensure the longest useable life for equipment is an indirect and often overlooked R.O.I.

“This equation is much more complex than just dollars,” Mr. Wallace said.

Mr. Brixey compared preparation, whether through virtual tools or other training, to Noah and the 40-day flood.

“You’re either prepared in advance, or you’re a non-believer,” he said. “And the ones who aren’t focused on it will see the difference in those who are prepared. You have to make sure the equipment you buy and plan to support for the next 20 years is going to give you a return.”