Dominick Fortuna’s fascination with baking goes all the way back to making ciabatta bread with his grandmother and pizzelles, a traditional Italian cookie, with his aunt. But it wasn’t the bread or cookies that caught his attention.

“I remember being much more interested in sifting the flour and figuring out how the oven worked,” Mr. Fortuna said. “They never used a recipe; they just knew how to mix the ingredients and knead the dough just right, and everything we baked came out perfectly every time. I’m not sure how they’d feel about baking almost anything automatically at the press of a button today, but looking back at these early experiences with my family, it’s clear that I was meant to be involved in engineering.”

Mr. Fortuna attended New York-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, taking a position at a small bulk material handling company soon after. He then served as project engineer and project manager with a global machinery manufacturer. Mr. Fortuna’s role in the company eventually expanded, and he moved from his engineering position in the United States to a managerial role in Singapore and then Shanghai, where he received a master’s degree in international business strategy from Rutgers University.

“As much as I naturally enjoyed designing and building machinery, I found taking on exceptionally large projects and putting together just the right team of experts to get them done especially rewarding,” Mr. Fortuna said. “We would design and build entire plants from scratch, for example, from feasibility studies to engineering, machinery specification, manufacturing, installation, commissioning and maintenance services.”

Mr. Fortuna continued to serve in engineering management over the next decade until he was recruited to serve as president of Volkmann’s North America division. He jumped at the opportunity.

“I was already familiar with their pneumatic vacuum conveying systems and knew their technology was as good or better than any conveying system in the market,” Mr. Fortuna explained.

As president, Mr. Fortuna gets to combine his passion for engineering and his managerial expertise.

“As an engineer, I enjoy when a well-designed concept becomes a reality in the plant. Seeing the equipment we discussed, designed, manufactured and installed out in the field operating as planned, and helping our customers gives me a great feeling of satisfaction. As a manager, I enjoy seeing our people grow in their positions as they take on new and bigger challenges.”

How can you avoid combustible dust explosions? What are some of the most common combustible dust hazards?

For an explosion to occur, an ignitable fuel source, oxygen and an ignition source must all be present. In a bakery, grain dust, milk powder or sugar in the air, on surfaces and/or on the floor may provide the fuel source. The most common ignition source is an electrostatic charge. These charges can develop any time a worker manually empties a powder from a bag or bin into a mixer or hopper. Sparks and hot surfaces like ovens or other equipment can also ignite a dust cloud.

Keeping powders from escaping into the plant environment and keeping the plant clean at all times are key practices for avoiding explosions. Specific to conveying ingredients, open conveyors like belt conveyors and bucket elevators allow powders and other dust particles to collect on equipment and cloud the air. Besides the potential for contamination, this creates a constant combustible dust hazard that needs constant attention to cleaning.

Our conveying systems are fully contained so materials cannot spill out or enter the plant environment, which removes the fuel source from the equation. It also eliminates the ignition source so that an explosion or deflagration simply cannot happen.

What are the benefits of using a pneumatic
vacuum conveying system?

Pneumatic vacuum conveying systems automatically and gently transfer powders, seeds, nuts, mixtures and other products and ingredients from one point in the process to another in a sealed, contained system. This safeguards the ingredients from contamination, safeguards workers from exposure to dust and promotes a hygienic workplace.

As an automated system, it eliminates manual bag handling along with its ergonomic issues and its explosive issues already covered.

Instead of a worker carrying heavy sacks up to a mixer inlet and emptying it in a cloud of dust, or using a lift truck to haul bulk bags through the bakery to the mixer (or other equipment), the bags can be automatically emptied from a bulk bag unloader directly into the conveying system and transferred into the mixer at the press of a button without exposing the ingredients to the plant environment and without anyone lifting anything.

Production moves faster with consistent product quality, workers are safer from dust and ergonomic hazards, and management gets some protection against staffing issues.

How do certain ingredients affect the
conveyor needed?

Whether we’re transferring wheat flour, confectioners’ sugar, dried cherries, chocolate chips or a mixture like trail mix, we’d typically specify our Volkmann VS Series hygienic conveying system and adjust the size based on the requirements of the process. It’s versatile and flexible and the same system can be used to transfer very fine ingredients to large chunks of chocolate breakup. Food processors commonly switch our conveyors from one ingredient to another between batches multiple times per day. The vacuum receiver, filter and other components disassemble without tools in minutes for cleaning.

How much does it cost for a wholesale bakery to begin automating production?

Automating an entire manual production line all at once can cost millions of dollars, depending on the scale of the production line. For a wholesale bakery working to increase production without relying on additional staff, it may make more sense to begin automating one step in the process at a time.

Starting with the mixer can instantly speed the process but at a cost of $300,000 or more. Starting with a pneumatic vacuum conveying system also speeds the process instantly but at an initial cost of only $30,000 for an entry-level system — more bang for the buck. Then other steps in the process may be automated as the budget allows.

But be careful. Eliminating a bottleneck in one area via automation, such as loading ingredients into a mixer, can create bottlenecks upstream or downstream as other equipment or workers try to keep pace with the automated system.

How does Volkmann equipment help bakers deal with current industry challenges?

When our food industry customers recognize it’s time to look at automation, they’re usually already experiencing problems with throughput, staffing, product quality or something else that needs immediate attention. So we need to be able to specify the right solution and deliver it fast. Then we need to stay in touch with strong support. By design, our conveying systems assemble fast and are easy to install.