Predicting the future is much better than any ounce of prevention. Unfortunately, most bakeries don’t have soothsayers or psychic engineers with a sixth sense for identifying a problem before it happens. However, investing in digital technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) for maintenance can be the next best sensible option for preventing an unplanned stoppage before it occurs.

“Imagine a machine with sensors that not only collects thousands of data points, but constantly examines that data to find condition-based changes and anomalies that can predict a problem before it becomes a downtime event,” noted Rowdy Brixey, president, Brixey Engineering. “Today’s modern control systems are well-suited for IoT integration.”

For decades, bakeries and snack producers have relied on preventative maintenance as the best defense to avoid something going terribly wrong, but many operations now have embraced new tools and control systems that are more proactive in nature.

“The problem with preventative maintenance is you’re changing things on a routine schedule whether it’s on hours or by date,” explained Dave Watson, baking and snack subject matter expert, The Austin Co. “Predictive maintenance allows you to anticipate when something is going to fail and perform maintenance activities on that equipment before it fails and do it during a planned downtime event.”

In the most simplified manner, sensors along with PLCs or other controls gather data, then send it through internet or cloud-based technology to a platform to integrate and process it using analytics to generate an action plan. It doesn’t necessarily replace a preventative maintenance program. Rather, it enhances it.

“Leveraging IoT allows you to use sensors and other monitoring techniques to determine when something might fail ahead of time so you’re not changing out a motor in the middle of the night. You’re able to order the parts and do that work on a traditional down day in your plant,” Mr. Watson said. “Too many times with preventative maintenance, we just have a list. We have to grease the oven. We have to change out the belts. We have to change the filter out. Using technologies to monitor the condition of equipment, whether it’s filter pressure or temperature or vibration or the condition of oil in a gearbox, allows you to do maintenance in a planned way.”

Moreover, determining the return on investment isn’t difficult. Just imagine what it cost a bakery the last time a mixer, divider or another key component failed.

“You’re possibly avoiding an unplanned environment where there are operators standing around and sending people home halfway through their shifts,” Mr. Watson said. “If you don’t have a part, you have to air freight parts to the bakery. There’s a way to put an ROI on this because many sensors are not expensive at all.”

Relying on sensors provides an affordable way to monitor the lifeline of every major system in a bakery at any given time.

“The latest advances in wireless sensor technology allow users to begin collecting real-time data without upgrading or modifying their existing control package,” Mr. Brixey said. “Vibration, temperature and cycle counts are just an example of sensor offerings. These sensors combined with the new analysis software offerings can yield a host of useful predictive data.”

On mixers, he noted, sensors track per unique batch, gearbox vibration, amperage voltage and dough temperature — all key indicators about how the system is running. Historical data then teach the system to identify the early-warning signs for the maintenance crew.

“Code can be written to scrub the data and look for signs of a problem,” Mr. Brixey said. “A bearings vibration signature will start to change long before it becomes noticeable to the hand, ear or eye. Properly written code could see this pattern when vibration is trending or spiking higher when loads are normal or lower than expected compared to similar data already collected for similar dough types.”

On large ovens, sensors could compare gas usage to production pounds to indicate leaks or poor system performance. Color meters can provide control of bake temperature or time.

“The list is endless,” Mr. Brixey said.

Perhaps more importantly are the platforms that aggregate the data and provide real-time information to operators and line supervisors in an easy-to-understand format.

“In the early days, there were a lot of challenges with just the enormity of the data available, and it was difficult to understand,” said Jason Stricker, director of sales and marketing, Shick Esteve, during an engineering panel at the recent American Society of Baking’s virtual BakingTech 2021 conference.

“You were kind of paralyzed by how much was available,” he continued. “So, the platform you choose and the way it displays the information, both historical and in real time, can go a long way in helping bakers make decisions.”

Mr. Watson, who moderated the panel, later told Baking & Snack that bakers faced several other barriers until more recently.

“In the old days, if you had a Siemens on one piece of equipment and Allen-Bradley controls on another, it was almost impossible for them to communicate with one another,” he pointed out. “In the early days of ‘automation,’ there were a lot of systems that were custom-built using proprietary technology that didn’t allow them to communicate beyond that platform. Today, it’s a much more open technology that makes possible all communication among multiple platforms and multiple vendors.”

Just like with sensors, the declining cost of adding IoT has made it an attractive option for bakeries.

“As with most technology in the early days, it could be somewhat cost-prohibitive,” Mr. Stricker said. “But where we sit today, both the devices and platforms are very, very affordable, and there should not be a prohibitive cost preventing entry into this technology.”

Overall, 81% of baking executives said they plan to invest further in system improvements such as enterprise resource planning platforms, noted Baking & Snack’s “2021 Capital Spending Survey,” sponsored by BEMA. This compares to 78% of respondents in the 2017 study and 61% in 2013 that reported investing for systems-related improvements.

“Digital transformation continues to be a conversation, and investment has stair-stepped up over the last several years,” said Marjorie Hellmer, president of Cypress Research, which conducted the study.

Bimbo Bakeries USA (BBU), Horsham, Pa., is one of several major baking companies leading the way.

“We are looking to have at least half of our bakeries up to that platform in order to collect all of that data from the floor and display it to a network accessible not only for our line associates and supervisors at the bakery level, but also to upper management to collect that data and be able to track performance in real time,” said Luis Vargas, BBU’s senior director of engineering, during one of ASB BakingTech’s engineering panels. “That is something that we are using recently. We are excited to get that information available and use it to make better decisions and improve performance in our bakeries.”

That said, using IoT for maintenance requires careful consideration on several different levels, especially for older bakeries and smaller ones. For example, does a bakery’s maintenance crew have the necessary mechanical, electrical and other skills to maintain, replace and repair sensors, touch screens and human-machine interface panels when they break down? Do these sensors and processing controls create more maintenance work or complicate a bakery’s operation when they break down?

Another key concern involves legacy equipment. Many bakeries have mixers, dividers, proofers and ovens that are 10, 20 and 30 years or older. How can bakers add the latest in sensors and digital controls to such systems?

“If they’re using analog relays to run their older equipment, it’s virtually impossible,” Mr. Watson said. “If they can collect the data, even from older PLCs, and PLCs have been around for a while, they can probably collect the data for maintenance. A lot of these newer platforms allow the makers of different PLCs to communicate. This data can be put in an ERP platform or some other [manufacturing execution] system that can take that data and create algorithms and analytics for the data to make management decisions.”

While digital technologies have become more affordable, retrofitting legacy equipment must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“Rarely is it cost-effective to replace the entire control system on unit machines just to gain IoT data,” Mr. Brixey said. “Normally modern equipment has advanced in ways that provide additional benefits that legacy equipment won’t possess by just enhancing the data collection. Ovens and batching systems might be the only exception to the rule.”

Any size bakery, even a small one, can explore adding IoT to maintenance.

“Begin small and consider starting where you see most of your ‘unplanned events’ taking place,” Mr. Brixey advised. “It should be of no surprise that by collecting more data you have a better chance of determining the next failure before it happens. Learn from this first introduction to IoT and capture the savings before throwing more capital at additional opportunities.”

When dealing with legacy equipment, he added, the biggest challenge often involves finding the appropriate integrator who understands a particular bakery’s needs and can recommend the best options.

“Look for references and do your homework. Lots of people will claim to have what you need, but verify this first,” Mr. Brixey said. “Ask suppliers how they have integrated the latest sensors and predictive software into their equipment. Ask them specifically what their data showed them and how that led to new improvements in their design. Ask them how many of these latest models they have running in the field and see if you can get references to call to verify.”

In the end, it takes more of a gut feeling or a sixth sense to properly invest in IoT and predictive maintenance.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on IoT and Maintenance, click here.