Robots, which first earned their place in bakeries 20 years ago, may now take on new roles, thanks to advances in size, mobility, adaptability, vision, controls and end-of-arm tooling. These improvements are so significant that robots installed just five years ago are being replaced today.

Emerging in importance are collaborative robots well-suited to address labor shortages and repetitive motion tasks at medium to smaller wholesale bakeries. Quality control methods, approaching that of artificial intelligence and machine learning, are being incorporated into large and small robots alike. These developments enable flexibility not previously available.

“Bakers don’t just make one product,” said Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji, “and their product line can vary day to day and season to season. In the past, robots were not quite so adaptable, but we are able to overcome this today.”

Because all robotic systems change the workforce skills required to run and maintain such machinery, training and pre-installation prep is essential and now supported by the test facilities operated by many equipment manufacturers.

“Much of what drives the increasing use of robotics is the inability to find enough skilled people to staff bakery lines,” observed Craig Souser, president, JLS Automation.

The current pandemic makes this situation even worse.

“For the most part, upstream applications have been ignored,” Mr. Souser observed, “but the challenge is that with today’s staffing shortages, upstream usages must be considered.”

As Mark Finneran, sales business development manager, Niverplast, explained, bakers are finding it hard to expand from one shift to two or even three shifts as demand for their products expands.

“The rising expense of recruiting reliable people and training them makes it cost-effective to bring in automation,” he said.

Robots are tireless workers. They run at a steady pace, don’t require downtime for breaks as human operators do and are not prone to repetitive stress injuries.

“Robotics are being interpreted in different ways than before,” Mr. Gunnell said. “Robotics can do those repetitive tasks that are difficult to staff these days.”

Converting to robots enables a bakery to provide a better working environment for their employees, to make their jobs better and retain their existing base of skills and knowledge.

Collaborative work

Robots capable of handling heavy loads like pans and trays have been around bakeries for a long time, but in the past decade, a new type — the collaborative robot, or cobot — has gained attention and increasing use. A cobot does not require the extensive guarding required for the safe use of industrial-scale robots. Instead, it can work safely alongside human operators.

Cobots continuously monitor their area of action or workspace and stop immediately should an incursion occur. Such capability comes at a price, however. These robots typically run 10 to 15 movements per minute, slower than their larger industrial cousins, because they must be able to stop when they sense any interference, according to Bill Kehrli, vice president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging.

Martin Riis, director of sales and marketing, Apex Motion Control, said sensors measure the force exerted by the arm as it moves from point A to point B.

“If that force is interrupted, the robot will stop immediately on its own,” he said.

This opens applications such as loading and unloading of rack ovens, handling of raw dough pieces, manual packaging of delicate baked items, stacking bagels or decorating cakes — answering the needs of small- to medium-sized bakeries, including those making artisan items. Most are designed as mobile units and can be readily reprogrammed.

Robots of this sort are good for day-in, day-out tasks, such as cake decorating, and they adapt readily to special orders, Mr. Riis said.

“These tasks normally require skilled labor,” he added. “Our cobot has an easy-to-use interface that employs a stylus and a tablet and can import art files to be created on cake tops.”

Pre-oven applications will be the next major development. Mike Rebollo, southwest sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA), predicted this is because bakery products, especially artisan goods, involve handling techniques that previously could not be done by a robot.

“Often, these products are unique and cannot be handled by a mechanical solution,” he said. “A robot, with special tooling, can handle these products like a human hand would but often with more precision and higher rates.”

Mr. Rebollo noted such uses as aligning dough balls prior to the proofer and placing specialty products onto the infeed of band ovens.

Mr. Gunnell mentioned that integration of cobots into processing and packaging lines make such operations more holistic.

Industrial grade

Bakers running line speeds of 200 to 2,000 pieces per minute over the course of multiple shifts will find industrial large-scale robots more to their liking, Mr. Rebollo said.

Several vendors cited the handling of unwrapped products as the biggest leap forward in industrial-scale robots today. This capability is the direct benefit of advances in end-of-arm tooling and the ability to handle multiple products.

“Handling of unwrapped products can include creating stacks of pancakes, waffles, flatbreads, pizza crusts, tortillas and so forth, and then loading them onto the infeed of wrappers or onto conveyors,” Mr. Rebollo said.

Vision-assisted search capabilities also enable picking and placing unwrapped muffins, cookies, crackers, bars and even assembled sandwiches to load them into flow wrappers and clamshell packages. The next stages — carton loading and case packing — can also be managed by industrial robotics.

Advances in arms and end effectors play a significant role in the systems, too.

“Letting go of a product is as difficult as picking it up,” Mr. Gunnell said. “The machine has to be able to pick up, move and release the product yet keep it under control. Control is just as important as speed to a successful line.”

Among key developments is the ability to handle delicate or odd shapes such as croissants.

“The challenge is to pick up different shapes, brittle pieces and/or delicate surfaces,” Mr. Gunnell said. “Creativity in end-of-arm tooling is phenomenal. Also, the advent of 3-D printing has allowed easier R&D of arm and hand design, which reduces the cost of the finished machine.”

This leads to more capability from a single machine.

“We have articulated arms for robots with sufficient dexterity, strength and intelligence to do both picking and inspection tasks,” Mr. Finneran reported. “Theyalso work well in harsh conditions, including low- and high-temperature environments.”

Mr. Rebollo described another area where robots can be put to work: handling heavy bags of bakery ingredients. “A robot can easily and accurately lift and manipulate these bags,” he said.

Stacking and unstacking the large, heavy pans now common to wholesale bakeries has been a robotics specialty of Stewart Systems for nearly a decade, said Mike Scouten, vice president, sales and customer experience, Stewart Systems and Baker Thermal Solutions. The company recently added laser-guided automated vehicles to such systems.

“While the concept is not new, past installations were ahead of their time for the cost involved,” Mr. Scouten said. “Now with the cost of labor and the desire to reduce the number of employees in a bakery, this idea has firmly taken hold.  Another application of robotic technologies is to pick up and deliver troughs in sponge-and-dough mixing systems.”

Various control strategies

Compared with cobots, industrial systems usually involve more complex, often bespoke, programming. This rigid, lack of flexibility is changing.

“You don’t want the robot to sit idle,” Mr. Finneran said. “Therefore, robots should be adaptable to handle multiple lanes and multiple tasks. Vision systems are required to respond to changes in what’s coming down the line, inspecting products as they are supplied to multiple cases. Robots need the ability to handle wide ranges of products. When machine learning can be applied, it’s possible for the speed of the robot to increase as time goes forward.”

Machine learning — a form of artificial intelligence — has great potential for bakery robotics. For example, Mr. Finneran noted that inspection and packaging functions are already being integrated into one device.

Vision systems represent a big boost for robots. By giving a robot “eyes,” inspection tasks can be integrated with packaging operations.

“Humans are good at quality inspection and complex tasks,” Mr. Riis explained, “but robots are good at the repetition that is part of such tasks.”

The machine’s cameras will scan for required parameters, accept or reject products, count them, and then move these products into cartons and cases. Search operations can take place at the rate of 10,000 baguettes per hour or 20,000 ciabatta rolls per hour, for example.

Mr. Finneran noted that Niverplast is also looking at color vision and 3-D technologies to give its robots the ability to analyze their activities in real time at high speeds.

Affecting both industrial robots and cobots, advances in machine vision and learning allow greater utility for these systems.

“In the past, robots had a hard time adapting from one use to another,” Mr. Riis said. “Advances in programming make it much easier to use robots and much easier for the baking industry to apply them in their operations. Such programming lets bakers do things with robots that were not possible before.”

The big thing is not to limit your thinking, according to Mr. Gunnell.

“Look at other industries and how they use robotics,” he noted “For example, today, robots enable produce to be harvested and packaged directly in the field. Robots are already capable of a wider range of applications than ever before. So, don’t get too hung up on what you have already done. Figure out how you can apply robotics in your bakery now.”