Bakers who specialize in doing it all take on projects that are never too big or too small. But even in the most versatile of bakeries that cannot say “no” to a new opportunity, too much of a good thing can create havoc. On the production floor, that means everything from bottlenecks to making products by hand as a last resort.

When it comes to automation, sheeting and laminating lines have come a long way, but this technology’s much-touted flexibility has its limits.

“Many times the dough types are not compatible to run on the same line,” noted Nick Magistrelli, vice-president of sales, Rademaker USA. “For example, you would not run a highly hydrated and fermented ciabatta dough down a line designed for a puff pastry dough. The process and sheeting profile are so different as to not be optimal; you would sacrifice efficiency somewhere.”

When laminating, that trade-off often means adding more labor to the line, but doing so strategically might provide a big payoff in adding versatility with minimal investment, said David Moline, vice-president, sales and marketing, Moline Machinery.

“If you can have a sheeting system capable of laminating and making slabs, adding just one person would broaden your product portfolio immensely,” he said. “Doing manual stacking gives you an almost unlimited number of layers in your dough sheet. You can have anything from a croissant with a relatively small number of layers all the way up to puff pastries that have a ton of layers all on the same system.”

Specifically, employing a book laminator provides a plethora of options.

“This allows the baker to laminate a variety of dough types with a variety of fermentation times in a flexible manner,” Mr. Magistrelli said. “Laminated dough books are produced, panned and then taken to a fermentation room. These books can then be brought back out to the sheeting line for final processing and makeup.”

For sheeting, Mr. Moline stressed that developing the proper cell structure determines the final product. While no-stress systems create open-grain bread, heavy rollers and hot or cold presses often are used for tortillas and thin-crust pizzas.

Stress-free sheeting also may prevent laminated dough from splitting or breaking.

“When the layers are not broken, the fat is trapped in the layer and forced to push up — not out — giving you a much larger oven jump,” said John Giacoio, vice-president of sales, Rheon USA.

Minipan bases its sheeting technology on dough hydration. The Raffinatore, for medium-hydrated doughs, relies on punch-and-fold technology to enhance the gluten network and final product texture, said Franco Fusari, co-owner of Minipan. The company’s r_EVOLUTION Line x Artisan Bread handles doughs with up to 85% hydration.

For versatility, the Fritsch Laminator 300 produces 200 and 1,000 kg (440 to 2,200 lb) of dough per hour or as much as 1,500 kg (3,300 lb) an hour for slab or block production, said Stefan Praller, head of marketing for Fritsch. Such systems could create a continuous dough sheet 600-mm wide with a maximum belt speed of 6 meters per minute to meet high-speed production demands.

But it’s complicated

On sheeting and laminating lines, making up isn’t hard to do, although it can get convoluted for mid-sized bakeries with a vast product portfolio.

“The level of automation may not be compatible for a wide range of products without resulting in a mess of a makeup line with bypasses and take over conveyors to other processes,” Mr. Magistrelli said.

Building in too much flexibility could impact the bottom line.

“There becomes a point of diminishing returns where over-flexibility becomes under-efficiency and under-quality,” Mr. Magistrelli explained. “This is the trade-off: You will design the overall process for one product and make that the driver, and then the other products may sacrifice something to run down the same line.”

To properly assess the cost of efficiency, bakeries must determine equipment investments then calculate how long it takes to amortize them compared with the increased production output and savings in time and labor, said Richard Breeswine, president and chief executive officer, Koenig Bakery Systems.

Many times, however, bakers cannot say “yes” when it comes to compromising parts of the process.

“We have customers operating with completely automated bread lines from mixing to cooling but still forming the breads by hand in-between for the special handmade touch and the authentic shape,” Mr. Breeswine observed.

To provide efficiency, Coen Nikkels, manager of marketing and business development for Rondo Industrial Solutions, suggested designing multi-product sheeting and laminating lines around the bakery’s top-sellers.

“This product matrix gives an overview of all relevant product details and how they are produced up to the pattern on the baking tray,” he explained. “It will not be possible to design a line that is ideal for all products. Top 5 is mainly based on production volume and the line will be designed to optimize for these five products.”

Keep in mind that such a strategy also provides a path for lowering overall production expenses in the long run.

“To keep costs down, the larger volume products can be automated, and as other products take up more production time, they can be automated as needed,” Mr. Giacoio pointed out.

Another popular approach involves combining technology to custom design lines based on efficiency as well as a baker’s hard-to-quantify personal preferences, such as product quality.

“First, listen to the customer to clearly understand what products they determine to be the most important out of their portfolio to automate, then calculate which production lines or automated solutions will have the highest return on investment for the customer’s portfolio,” advised Hans Besems, executive product manager, AMF Bakery Systems.

Where to automate often requires determining where a workforce has the greatest impact — and payback — for a bakery.

“The biggest labor savings lie in forming and shaping the product where normally a specific skill is required, so there we will look to automate production,” Mr. Besems said. “In semi-automated production solutions, we can still integrate manual labor based on the customer’s preferred processes.”

In addition to automating simple and repetitive tasks, consider eliminating heavy lifting such as emptying a mixing bowl into a hopper to feed a laminating line, Mr. Nikkels said.

“Downstream, the panning of products can be automated easily and brings more efficiency,” he pointed out.

Running every which way

With a broad portfolio, production often is like a relay race. While the speed of individual product runs remains vital to overall performance, it’s the quickness of the transitions from one item to another that determines how well the operation finishes.

To determine line flexibility, assess production needs by answering a few fundamental questions.

“Are you cutting, crimping or scoring? Are you applying fillings?” Mr. Moline asked. “Makeup is one of the most flexible and easiest areas where you are able to change out systems.”

With a little extra floor space, he added, bakers can install a couple of cutting stations that are permanently affixed to the sheeting line without having to change those machine components when needed. Two rotary cutting stations, for instance, can provide crimping, cutting or scoring on a single product. Likewise, Mr. Moline said, two different cutters can support creating two separate products with quick changeovers.

Moreover, a guillotine will cut swirl bread or cinnamon rolls by length. Installing a guillotine that “walks” with the product — or moves along with the speed of the conveyor — allows production lines to avoid an angled cut on taller products, Mr. Moline explained.

Another tip to streamline changeovers involves integrating a second filling depositor, Mr. Besems said.

“AMF Tromp sheeting lines are incredibly flexible in terms of product variety,” he said.

Minipan offers its Multipurpose Line for Specialty Bread with multiple shaping units such as a blade cutter for regular shapes, a moulding device for hot dog rolls or panned bread, and a rounder for hamburger buns and rolls.

“This way you can achieve many products starting from one single sheet,” Mr. Fusari said.

To ensure versatility, Mr. Breeswine recommended that bakers reserve enough floorspace for multiple makeup systems, such as forming stations or seeding units on frames. However, if footprint remains an issue, take advantage of vertical space with feeding belts that steeply ascend or by installing intermediate proofing or adding resting time above the sheeting line.

“There are hardly any process steps that cannot be automated, whether it is filling pastry or curling dough,” Mr. Breeswine explained. “Some customers even order cutting or curling systems that create products that look hand-made.”

Tools for all trades

Simplifying the physical removal and replacement of cutters and depositors also enhances versatility and efficiency.

“The most important factor in achieving the greatest product variety is reducing product changeover times by eliminating the need for tools,” Mr. Besems said. “Tool-less changeover makes it easy and quick to change from one product to another.”

Rademaker designs its systems with no tools or with its “unique fit tools” for changeovers.

“It is hard to watch an operator stretched across a makeup table with an Allen wrench and tape measure to readjust center lines of a make-up tool when, for a minimal investment, a dedicated tool could have been bought to be simply dropped into place for the next product,” Mr. Magistrelli said. “Not only is the unique and dedicated tool faster for changeovers, but it also ensures that the product’s shape and weight is the same.”

Several companies offer software that guides operators on how to use tools for line adjustments. Rademaker’s Recipe Management and Tooling Assistant system displays the tooling type and exact position of each tool during the changeover process.

Rondo offers a system that reads a special code on the tool to ensure it’s the correct one to use.

“This prevents making mistakes when configurating the line for a new product,” Mr. Nikkels said.

Fritsch features lines that can be retooled section by section, while product changes are done without assembly tools.

“Changeovers can already start at Section 1 while dough is still running on the other sections,” Mr. Praller said.

Armed with multiple cutters and filling stations, a fully loaded sheeting line often just needs proper scheduling to make it work. Mr. Giacoio suggested running similar-sized and -shaped products back-to-back to reduce line changes for new products. Depending on the schedule, hydraulic lifts can then place or remove depositing, forming and shaping devices to alter production runs.

To be the jack of all trades, bakers need to rely on every trick and tool available. It’s the only way to succeed when saying “yes” is the answer to every opportunity.