Like the desserts themselves, competing in the cake market often involves multiple layers of complexity. Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic emerged, smaller gatherings prompted bakers to shrink the size of special occasion cakes while the search for comfort drove sales of snack cakes, cupcakes and muffins.

While consumer purchases propelled topline sales, pandemic-fueled operational trends became paramount as overhead, food safety and rising ingredient costs emerged as critical factors that threatened to wreak havoc on the bottom line. Budget busters such as labor costs are behind a push for further investments in automation.

“With minimum wages striking $15 an hour in many areas across the country, they can’t afford to pay these wages and add benefits to them, so bakeries have to become more and more automated,” observed Rod Gregg, executive vice president for Hinds-Bock and Auto-Bake Serpentine, Middleby Bakery companies.

Sonia Bal, director of marketing at Unifiller Systems, pointed to other factors, including mergers and acquisitions, allergen control, green operations, food waste reduction and the shortage of a skilled workforce. These forces spurred interest in robotics, artificial intelligence and servo technology.

“Many operators are integrating automation and cloud connectivity to ensure a higher degree of responsiveness, metrics tracking and product customization and standardization,” she explained. “A focus on profits, shareholder growth, brand loyalty and competition has led to the implementation of automation meant to drive better management, stricter processes and safety controls and to minimize the need for human intervention.”

Bolstering capacity has also played a role over the past few years. Bob Peck, vice president, engineering, E.T. Oakes, said wider ovens require upgrades in the front of the production line to keep up with the larger throughput from baking into the packaging side.

“In many cases, the line speed has increased, requiring larger mixing equipment and faster depositing speeds,” Mr. Peck said. “We have also come across the need for increased horsepower in mixing due to product viscosity changes in formulation. As far as technology changes go, servo systems have played a big part in equipment, especially in depositing for both greater speed and deposit accuracy and repeatability.

“A decade ago, if customers were doing 15 pans a minute, they now have the capability to do 20-plus pans a minute,” he continued. “We have had to go faster with our equipment, which means larger equipment, greater horsepower and faster speeds when it comes to depositing cupcakes and other types of snack cake batter.”

Labeling requirements and ingredient cost controls also require enhanced depositing, topping and spraying accuracy and consistency, said Norm Searle, sales and marketing, GOE/Amherst Stainless Fabrication.

“Snack cakes and cakes represent a challenge in that they don’t always present to the spray device a uniform, repeatable target surface,” he said. “They can have irregular surfaces that challenge the spraying metrics for coverage.”

New varieties also prompted significant adaptations to cake technology.

“Over the past decade, snack and cake technology has evolved and advanced to create high-quality, trendy products,” said Hans Besems, product group leader, AMF Tromp, an AMF Bakery Systems brand. “Integrating flexibility has made it possible for producers to change lines and settings to produce many cake variations during the day or during one shift. Building equipment with a market standard hygienic design that is easy to clean and change over allows bakers to produce multiple batters during shifts or production days.”

Mr. Besems added that AMF Tromp depositors come in multiple configurations with flexible programming possibilities to accurately handle various single and duo batters for multiple-shaped cakes or cupcakes.

Mr. Gregg said gluten-free, reduced-sugar and clean label formulas require process adaptations to the machinery.

“They’re much different from traditional products that we’re all used to; therefore, equipment has to handle the new, improved technologies such as servo-motor depositors and different styles of cut-off nozzles,” he explained.

Fat reduction over the years has posed significant challenges on the production floor.

“One customer wanted to increase his product’s shelf life, so he started removing water out of the formulation, resulting in high viscosity,” Mr. Peck said. “Viscosity relates to additional horsepower for us.”

Specifically, the batter’s increased thickness demands higher torque for mixing.

“If the mixer had 15 horsepower before, it now needs 20 horsepower to produce the same amount of the newer products,” Mr. Peck pointed out. “We see a lot of bakeries wanting to upgrade their equipment to get that additional horsepower for these viscosity and formulation changes.”

Any formulation changes that affect flowability and viscosity also may cause depositing difficulties. In addition to greater horsepower, several companies switched to servo-driven motors from pneumatic actuators that use compressed air for depositing.

“Pneumatics are OK, but they do lend themselves to more variations when the line’s air pressure drops and due to frictional losses,” Mr. Peck said. “By going to servo motors, we eliminate all of those variables. Servo motors give us increased deposit accuracy when the valve opens and closes with the same amount of time exactly every time. With pneumatics, it can open more slowly at times due to drag or pressure drops in the air line.”

Hinds-Bock offers a wide range of custom positive cut-off nozzles on depositors that handle viscous batters.

“A traditional muffin, cake or brownie batter contains sugar that’s typically very flowable and really easy to cut off,” Mr. Gregg said. “It doesn’t have a sticky consistency like clean label and vegan batters.”

Specifically, shearing or blow-off style, cut-off spouts work well with gluten-free and other better-for-you (BFY) batters.

“It basically has a nozzle with an internal piece that’s moving in and out and cleanly shearing the batter off each time along with a very low-surface area, so you don’t have room for any product to stick to it and not be able to cut it off,” Mr. Gregg added.

He said traditional nozzles often won’t work because the batter builds up on the bottom of them, causing inaccurate deposits or tailing. Moreover, these nutritional batters may require nozzles on systems that move vertically to assist in the process of a clean cut-off.

“They dive down and lift up because that will also help break the surface tension of the deposit and the batter will release off the nozzle, so it’s more of a positive, cleaner placement of the product in the pan,” Mr. Gregg noted.

In many bakeries, Ms. Bal said, automation reduces repetitive tasks, human error and injuries while providing better food safety protocols. For consistency on BFY products, servo-controlled systems also automatically adjust to each recipe programmed into the PLC, providing quick optimal spread control due to constant speed regardless of pressure with a reduced need for touch-up. Customers can build and recall recipes, while the system also conducts performance monitoring, collecting useful data on production rates, cycles and deposits.

“Understanding the properties of the specific product being processed is crucial to overall production efficiency,” she pointed out. “The best way to ensure a seamless depositing process is to become equipped with proper equipment know-how, and an understanding of your product recipe including viscosity, inclusion size, deposit volumes and more.”

Mr. Gregg noted that batter depositing varies, depending on the formula.

“Formulas have different mixtures, different ratios and one may be stickier than another,” he said. “It’s very important to test the products from bakery to bakery and recipe to recipe prior to determining the correct depositor and cut-off nozzles on these types of machines.”