CHICAGO — Automation is one of the hottest topics in the baking industry as bakers look to streamline their production amidst heightened consumer demand and widespread labor shortages.

At the American Society of Baking’s 2022 BakingTech conference, held March 1-3, industry leaders discussed the biggest baking automation trends and shared valuable insights for those looking to automate.

Bakers must target return on investment, employee comfort and retention when automating, said Mark Salman, president of Middleby Food Processing.

“We live in a world where labor is very scarce,” he said. “Our environment in the bakeries is not the best: it’s hot, there’s lots of physical work, it’s loud. So you have to focus on those areas where you can attract people to come for us rather than some other place.”

He emphasized that it’s no longer a question of if bakers should automate — it’s when and how.

“Bakery has been one of the last industries to look at [automation]. Look at our factories: we’re still pushing trucks, racks, and trays,” Mr. Salman explained. “It’s a great area of opportunity.”

Some of the best areas to automate are repetitive motion and heavy lifting and will help bakers retain workers, said Craig Souser, chief executive officer of JLS Automation, who described these jobs as dehumanizing.

“These tasks really shouldn’t have been done by people ever, and finally we’re seeing the baking industry becoming aware of that,” he said.  “It’s amazing to us how many times we’ve displaced someone on a task, and that person seeks us out after we put the robotics in and gives us a hug because they hated that job so much.”

Automating these jobs frees up workers to be in more engaging roles and will help bakers retain them.

“When we’re fighting to hire people, keep people and engage people, those just aren’t very engaging jobs,” said Ken Newsome, chief executive officer of Markel Food Group. “It’s not just about return on investment in terms of how many people are on the line, it’s about how do I keep the people I get.”

There are plenty of new technology advancements bakers can take advantage of as well. A big one is collaborative robots (cobots).

“The more we have of cobots around us in the factory working hand-in-hand with the human without boundaries, efficiency increases a lot there,” said Mr. Salman. “Any application that can bring a cobot into the space would be fantastic.”

While many larger bakeries have jumped headfirst into automation like cobots, some smaller bakeries are just getting their feet wet. Mr. Souser recommends these bakeries start with a 3-to-5-year automation strategy and really consider where automation can fit into their line.

“If you have equipment that’s obsolete or about to be, that should be replaced anyway, does a whole new line make more sense than trying to put a Ferrari engine in a Yugo?,” he asked. “You really have to look at the big picture and be strategic about how you approach automation.”

Every panelist agreed that recent industry challenges have made it clear: the time to automate is now.

“If we take a bit of chances and bring more automation into our bakeries, the opportunity is fantastic,” Mr. Salman said. “We need to embrace it.”

For more information on how baking companies are investing in automation to reduce their reliance on labor, register for Baking & Snack’s “Automating out of the Labor Challenge” webinar.