For producers of grain-free, keto-friendly and other specialty breads, the slicing process is not always cut-and-dried. In fact, it’s a sticky issue that can get complicated.

Justin Atkins, director of sales, Bettendorf Stanford, said slicing gluten-free baked goods can be done on either a band slicer or an industrial-grade reciprocating slicer, but he suggested doing it on a reciprocating slicer because cleanup is much easier.

“When you run gluten-free items on a band slicer, the slicer should honestly be a full washdown slicer because you end up with buildup streaming out of the blade guides like it’s a pasta maker,” he noted. “You end up needing to spray oil and scrape both the blades and the drums.”

If operators don’t thoroughly clean the slicer after the production run, this buildup will coagulate on the drums, blades and blade guides.

“Once this stuff hardens, it could potentially seize the blades up,” Mr. Atkins explained. “You don’t have this same problem with our RSC slicer because the blades don’t travel all the way around the machine like with a band slicer. The blades only move back-and-forth just enough to cut a clean slice. This keeps buildup to a minimum and allows for a quick cleanup.”

At the end of the run, he added, it takes only about 5 minutes to swap out the blade guides and blade frames for cleaning the RSC slicer. Bakeries can also use a spray oiler system like band slicers frequently use, but it’s often not even needed when producing these breads.

Patrice Painchaud, vice president of sales and marketing for Rexfab, observed that operations must select the proper cutting knives and use the correct natural or vegetable cutting oils, then adequately dose that oil for consistent slicing results.

With its ultrasonic capabilities, FoodTools approaches gluten-free and other alternative ingredients in the same way as conventional baked goods. Matt Wermund, general manager, FoodTools, said the company evaluates the product’s temperature, consistency and makeup, then pairs it all to determine the highest quality and most economical slicing technology.

For gluten-free croutons or stuffing mix, Mike Jacko, vice president of applications and new product innovation at Urschel, recommended evaluating the formulation, moisture and ingredients before determining the slicing process.

“The normal cutting action to make dices or strips can heat or cause friction that’s normally not an issue on regular products to where gluten-free items can get sticky, jam the machine and make poor quality cuts,” he said.

Mr. Jacko added that the system may need special parts, depending on the recipe formulation and stale time for quality cutting of stuffing and croutons. Urschel manufactures a number of heavy-duty parts and options to meet processors’ needs.

Perhaps most importantly is the cutting tool that’s used. Allen Wright, vice president of sales and marketing, Hansaloy, suggested a blade with a premium, parallel-ground edge, and either a 0.375- or 0.250-inch pitch tends to do best in gluten-free applications.

With consumers counting their calories, producers of super-thin sliced breads also have their work cut out for them.

“When you are running these types of products, you want to make sure to use the right combination of scrapers, oilers, blade guides and a blade profile to reduce any potential slicing issues that result in the best-quality slice possible,” Mr. Atkins said. “Each baker’s products are different, so we take a personal approach to what combination of things we recommend. You need to see and touch the product, and it’s even better if you can see it being sliced before you make your recommendations.”

[Related reading: Automating slicing cuts costs in many ways]

Jean-Marc Fauteux, electrical engineering manager, ABI Ltd., said the company uses advanced sensing and analysis to provide repetitive performance scoring and cutting products.

“A precision encoder is used with the conveying system so that product can be accurately measured and tracked,” he said. “After the product has been scanned, the encoder allows each robot to follow every product even while moving through the system.”

In addition, a laser vision system gathers data on the product’s shape and topology. The custom system analyzes the information gathered and determines a cutting or scoring operation to ensure repetition throughout the process.

“In the bakery industry especially, there is variance from one individual product to the next,” Mr. Fauteux said. “We designed our system to be adaptable and to analyze each incoming piece even at high production rates.”

If a problem does occur, often a surgical approach to troubleshooting will identify the root cause of the issue. In general, Mr. Wright said, the final product will tell bakery engineers a great deal about the slicing system.

“Rough or torn bread or an excessive crumb can indicate the wrong blade choice for the product,” Mr. Wright explained. “Improper slice thickness can indicate an issue with a lattice and the spacing of the lattice.”

Mr. Wright also pointed out that a used blade will reveal more potential insights into the operating system.

“Flattened or worn points on the blade can indicate mechanical interference between the blade and lattice or blade guides,” he said. “Dark streaks in the blade indicate heat, and the blade could be over- or under-tensioned.”

When troubleshooting a slicer, Sandra Ryan, vice president of operations, Ryan Technology, focuses on three main points, starting with blade rotation.

“If the blades are turning backward against the product flow, you will not get a good slice,” she said. “This most often happens when setting the machine up for the first time, or after it has been moved.”

Another involves safety sensor alignment. Ryan Technology uses magnetic interlock switches on the blade covers. If they are out of alignment, the machine will not work. Moreover, belt-tracking can become an issue if the rollers and sprockets aren’t regularly maintained. Buildup of debris, Ms. Ryan stressed, can stretch belts, causing tracking issues and may result in belt tears.

“Clean, clean and clean. Clean the blades. Dirty and dull blades don’t cut well. Have spares on hand to switch out. Dull blades can be sent in for sharpening,” she said. “Prevention is the best cure for breakdowns.”

Chris Carter, service technician at Bettendorf Stanford, offered some often-overlooked tips, such as regular lubrication of roller chains.

“Blow them off to be free of crumbs and then spray with a food-grade, dry-silicone lube,” he said. “Chains will last a lot longer if this is done weekly, and it only takes a few minutes. Check and keep your drive chains tensioned properly. You don’t want them banjo tight, but you don’t want them running loose either. You’ll end up breaking the chain or prematurely wearing out your sprockets. And don’t over-grease your bearings. If your preventative maintenance (PM) is just a person going around once a week with a grease gun, more than likely you’re going through bearings faster than you should. Over-greasing a bearing can blow the seals out of it or cause it to run hotter than it normally would.”

Mr. Painchaud pointed out that improper product temperature is often the culprit for inconsistent or poor slicing.

“Baked goods are only ‘baked’ after cooling before they’re ready for slicing,” he said. “Depending on the type of dough and ingredients, there are large differences and possibilities that influence the process, which must be considered very closely.”

In addition to focusing on the basics, Mr. Wright suggested that operators keep a blade log to identify any issues.

“Blades should be replaced when slicing becomes rough and too much crumb is generated,” he said.

Even on ultrasonic slicers, cutting corners when it comes to sanitation and PM can result in more costly downtime.

“Time and time again, we’ve been called to support emergencies where the error or downtime is caused by easily avoidable issues like product buildup or overdue PM,” Mr. Wermund said. “Food safety sanitation is immensely important, but mechanical sanitation is pivotal for long-term operations. Following manufacturer’s PM schedules can help spot problem areas early, and thoroughly training machine operators as well as sanitation staff can help to avoid them altogether.”

Newer technology, such as sensors, may seem like the best thing since sliced bread, but it often takes a little human intervention to help bakeries slash their losses and stay a cut above the rest of the competition in the market.

This article is an excerpt from the November 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Slicing & Cutting, click here.