With the labor shortage, bakeries are struggling to make and deliver products to keep up with their supply chain obligations. This has become especially true with direct-store-delivery (DSD) operations where some companies have reportedly put off plans to expand into new markets or are reducing their geographic footprint.

Simply put, it’s become a numbers game. Bakeries and snack producers just don’t have enough people to staff the back of the house. While the industry has streamlined the processing part of operations, there are just too many workers picking, placing and moving products in packaging, warehousing and distribution areas. 

“The ingredients systems are all automated as are the mixers, the proofers and ovens,” noted Ken Mentch, automation sales manager for VEMAC and Stewart Systems, which are Middleby companies. “You have maybe five people working on a production line from the mixer all the way to the products being put into the basket stack. Then when you get to the basket stacker, that’s where all of the people are in your bakery. That’s where you find the biggest return on investment — the tail end of the bakery.”

John Keane, product group leader, AMF Bakery Systems, further breaks down labor issues from a coronavirus (COVID-19) and an ergonomic perspective.

“There are too many teammates working too closely together, as is usually the case where the weight of baskets full of products exceed what a single person can handle,” he said. “This is especially true where the products’ end-of-the-line exit point is one fixed location.”

He added that maximizing truck loading requires moving stacks of baskets that are often taller than a person can safely and reliably stack.

“Automating the manual operations is the answer,” Mr. Keane said. “In some cases, only a partially automated solution may be needed to alleviate some of the problems. Just be sure to leave space for a future, completely automated solution.”

What makes the issue more troublesome is that packaging and warehouse issues eventually have a direct impact on customer service.

“In the bakery and food industry, DSD is one of the most important factors in keeping prices in check and helping maintain some control over the supply chain,” observed Martin Riis, business development manager, Apex Motion Control. “With what’s happening around the world right now, the pace at which these direct-store deliveries must keep up is staggering. Demands are always high during the best of times, but throw in a severely depleted workforce and labor shortages — it’s been a tough go, to say the least.”

Glenn Rindfleisch, vice president, sales and marketing, SPF Groups, pointed out that the baking industry has taken significant steps to automate basket and tray handling.

“As a result, efficiency gains depend on repeatability, and tray, basket and dolly designs are front and center,” he said. “Bakers are demanding that market tray solutions are 100% interchangeable. Handle positions, rib structure and stack heights are essential considerations as bakers look for ways to eliminate touch points via automation for warehousing and retail distribution. Dollies used in retail distribution are also effective DSD delivery tools.”

When automating post-packaging operations, bakeries must ensure a system’s performance matches project goals.

“Many solutions are available from basic manual tray loading, stacking and transport to fully automated redundant systems, including conveying and palletizing,” said Alain Lemieux, product group leader for packaging, AMF Bakery Systems. “Similar ranges of options exist on the basket return system, including de-palletizing units, dry trash removal equipment, and continuous basket washing and drying systems.”

Mr. Mentch pointed out that Middleby is testing laser-guided vehicles (LGVs) for basket and tray handling. Right now, they’re already used in pan stacking and unstacking operations. LGVs would tie into warehouse automation systems to streamline that part of the operation and free up the workforce to handle other duties in the bakery.

“If I can move those baskets automatically, I know what’s being produced, I know what’s stacked, I know where it’s being shipped, and I just have to collect that data and create a mission for the LGV to move the stack,” he explained.

Even something as fundamental as basket and tray design has advanced in recent years. Mr. Rindfleisch said plastic manufacturers have enhanced the performance of reusable assets such as trays, dollies and pallets through continuous improvement efforts. Design, material composition and recycled content all factor in the mix.

“Process technicians are experimenting with new material blends and nucleating agents to improve the physical properties of particular resins,” he said. “A typical evaluation or trade-off would be stiffness versus impact resistance. In the end, however, most — if not all — material changes revert back to the question of cost.”

Over the years, Mr. Keane said, basket design has gone from flat trays that are shipped on metal racks to the multi-position baskets on four-wheeled dollies used today. These baskets have answered the demands of increased truck loading and reduced the amount of empty space in trucks.

Moreover, he added, four-wheeled dollies have replaced the need for hand trucks and eliminated safety concerns about maneuvering a 200-lb or heavier stack of baskets.

Apex Motion Control provides a system that stacks up to 12 trays a minute with 500-lb stack capacity. It also offers easy-tool changeover of less than 1 minute and safety light curtains.

“This system was specifically designed for bakeries that deliver daily products to chain restaurants or c-stores where order and product quantity varies,” Mr. Riis said. “With the integrated barcode scanner, drivers no longer need to sort through the baskets once they are set up for delivery.”

Rexfab seeks labor reduction with its system that can run various baskets of different sizes with the flip of a button.

“Our solution is forming a pattern, then positively driving those products into a basket that has been previously lifted,” explained Patrice Painchaud, vice president of sales and marketing, Rexfab. “You have a drop gate with compression from all four sides that will drive one or two layers of packaged products with cardboard in the middle to the basket beneath.”

Typically, DSD baskets feature a merchandising window so that route drivers and consumers can see the product in the basket. Rexfab’s servo-driven de-nester comes with lasers to position the merchandising windows in the same direction.

Mr. Keane pointed out that more robust basket designs such as thicker side walls, greater clearances between baskets and eliminating weak elements allow for greater automation. Problems occur when baskets get damaged, causing jams and safety issues during the stacking process.

“As I have been known to say: ‘A basket is not a bad basket until it causes a problem,’ which is normally when it is on the bottom third of a stack,” Mr. Keane noted. “It may go through hundreds or thousands of cycles and never be on the bottom third of a stack. But when it does — that stack can be significantly unstable and be a hazard to teammates nearby. So, designing robust baskets that are less liable to have protruding elements goes a long way to having a reliable basket system.”

Mr. Painchaud said Rexfab uses lasers and other sensors to identify broken baskets during the de-nesting process.

“We built up intelligence in that system so that you don’t end up with a stack that’s like the Tower of Pisa in Italy, and then hurt someone,” he said. “We developed solutions to look at basket configurations downstream.”

This article is an excerpt from the October 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Trays & Baskets, click here.