If only a sheeting system could have a gut feeling that senses something amiss before anyone knows it and prevents everything from going terribly wrong.

Wouldn’t it be nice to never hear those blaring buzzers that send operators and maintenance crews scrambling to solve a production problem after it’s too late?

While technology strives to be more intuitive, today’s programmable controls are teaching sheeting and laminating lines how to identify subtle changes to the process, then adjust to them before they set off an untoward chain of reactions in the often-lengthy process.

“When you are running a lot of tonnage — depending on the product, it can be 20,000 or 30,000 lbs of dough an hour — and things fall apart, they fall apart quickly,” said David Moline, vice president of sales and marketing, Moline Machinery. “You need, for a lack of a better term, a smart sheeting system to prevent that.”

During the past few years, sheeting and laminating lines have become more automated than ever, even though many of their fundamental functions such as reduction stations, cross rollers and cutting stations have not changed, noted Hans Besems, executive product manager for AMF Tromp, an AMF Bakery Systems brand. The enhancements, he added, have come from information technology along with better tooling to create superior products.

“Bakery customers want to eliminate operator error, so we’ve incorporated functions like automatic thickness or loop control to ensure the dough runs at the correct speeds across the line,” he observed. “This helps our customers to make fewer mistakes, but more importantly, this improves product consistency.”

Moreover, making the sheeting process a no-brainer requires some thought before starting up the system in the first place.

“To make the system more intelligent, you can input the correct end-thickness of the dough into the HMI, which will result in the rest of the line settings automatically adjusting to the correct speed and reduction steps,” Mr. Besems explained. “AMF Tromp lines will keep a history of data, like run times, with the ability to provide feedback or alerts for when preventative maintenance should occur. This helps customers better plan for downtime to conduct this routine maintenance.”

Franco Fusari, commercial director and co-owner of Minipan, suggested the thought process should harken back to the way baked goods have been made for centuries.

“The Minipan way has always been to design and build lines around recipes, not the opposite,” he said. “Lines are smart when automating the process with no compromise on the original method. Recipes are the real decision-maker. The more the client is sure about the final products, the closer we can get to perfection.”

However, Mr. Moline suggested that an intelligently designed production line can be interpreted a number of ways.

“You have a smart design for sanitation for regular full washdown,” he pointed out. “On the operation that’s smarter and more intuitive, less is more in some ways when it comes to what the operator controls. You want to minimize the number of adjustments the operator has to make up and down the line. Ideally, you would run with one person because a very intelligent operator can’t be in more than one spot at a time.”

While high-speed pizza lines crank out huge volumes per minute, sheeting and laminating can be a long and custom-designed process. It’s not unusual for artisan bread or specialty pastry bakeries to install lines of 150 feet or more or have a mixing-to-baking process that takes several hours.

Nick Magistrelli, vice president of sales, Rademaker USA, noted its production lines come with automatic dough flow controls or an advanced control system that enables the line to make belt speed modifications without the need for operator involvement.

“This design not only acts within independent units but also cascades automatically for the whole system to make synchronized speed adjustments,” he explained. “Process control by means of data handling and communication is becoming more important for industrial processes.”

Rademaker’s newest control platform enables data exchange with third-party equipment.

“This advanced data processing permits online monitoring and optimization of equipment efficiency,” Mr. Magistrelli said. “The use of the combination of process and recipe information allows for easy and faster startups leading to lower flour and ingredient usage.”

Sheeting lines have evolved over the years to include a bounty of belt speed features and gap settings.

“This is a benefit to the customer as this allows the operator the ability to select predetermined recipes, and the line will automatically set up the speed and gap opening of the reduction units and intermediate conveyors that make up the system,” Mr. Magistrelli said.

Matt Zielsdorf, director of sales, Fritsch USA, a Multivac company, described the concept as a “continual cascade” that has become part of the standard installation on all its industrial lines. Fritsch’s Soft Dough Sheeter relies on a front-end sensor control to ensure that the hopper always contains the same amount of dough, eliminating fluctuations in the process.

“The line operator inputs a certain number of pieces, for example, and the machine automatically calculates the speed at which the line must run to produce beautiful, regular products,” Mr. Zielsdorf said. “All parameters are adapted automatically and do not have to be manually adjusted.”

In recent years, Moline modernized its cascade control system to adapt to the constantly changing density of yeast-raised dough in various production environments. Such fluctuations may cause a gassy dough to tear on sheeters or stretch out of a dough former.

“If you are to monitor density changes, you can make the necessary speed adjustments on the fly automatically,” Mr. Moline said. “Any time we speed up a conveyor into a sheeter, we’re able to make the same proportional adjustment all the way upstream and back toward the dough former, so making a change in one place won’t cause a problem someplace else. If there are variations in proofing or baking times, we have the whole system adjust proportionally to that change.”

While many makeup departments are now temperature-controlled, unanticipated fluctuations in mixing and fermentation will impact product consistency on the front-end of the process, noted Coen Nikkels, manager of marketing and business development, Rondo Industrial Solutions. That’s where PLC controls and even the early stages of AI-technology can provide operators with assistance.

“The temperature and consistency of the dough mass may differ from batch to batch and from day to day for whatever reason,” Mr. Nikkels said. “However, the product should still be the same. We are developing supporting functions that will automatically change the settings of different components on the line when dough characteristics like temperature, consistency and weight change.”

Minipan relies on photocells and load cells to adapt to process variations.

“Everything is strictly controlled, including multi-rollers, gauging units, drawing units and blade cuts, according to the dough,” Mr. Fusari said. “In this way, we guarantee that the line always works properly, at its full capability, and with perfect portion control.”

To simplify production, Mr. Magistrelli said, Rademaker increased the standard size of its HMI to make it easier for operators to interact with the screens. Moreover, its most advanced control systems now include energy-efficient drives that provide less variance and additional process stability.

When producing sheeted and laminated products, it’s best for bakers to surround themselves not only with smart people but also with intelligently designed systems to keep everything operating properly at all times.

This article is an excerpt from the  August 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on sheeting and laminating, click here.