All bakeries are impacted by labor and supply chain issues, but small to medium-sized companies have fewer resources to make big-time investments.

“Fortunately, for these small bakeries, there is a solution to help make existing labor more efficient, and that can eliminate the problems associated with manual batching and handling,” said Don Goshert, general manager, Sterling Systems & Controls. “Semiautomatic batching control systems use existing labor to feed ingredients into batch containers. However, the system controls the process by weighing the material and requiring correct ingredients, accurate scaling and lot tracking of all ingredients. They can even provide batch validation with operator interfaces at the mixer to record batch consumption as each one is emptied into the mixer.”

Jerry Murphy, vice president of sales and marketing, Gemini Bakery Equipment/KB Systems, concurred that targeted investing in PLC-controlled batching systems, traceability documentation and inventory management lay the foundation for streamlining more manual ingredient handling operations.

“Many opportunities exist for allowing bakery operations of any scale to automate some aspects of their handling of major and minor bulk ingredients,” he said. “Some can be as simple as eliminating the labor needed to open and handle paper bags by switching to super-sack quantities. Many of the solutions that Gemini can assist with are modular and expandable as space and budgets allow.”

Jason Stricker, vice president of sales and marketing, Shick Esteve, pointed out that many bakeries still rely on handwritten tracking sheets for raw ingredient lots that must be transcribed into their manufacturing software.

“The duplication of effort increases labor and allows the potential for simple data entry mistakes,” he said. “Automating lot tracking using barcode and RFID-type scanners allows a single point collection of the data that can then be electronically transferred upstream.”

Bakeries then need to vet software to ensure that it’s the best fit for their distinctive operations.

“When bakers are investigating these types of software, bakers need to validate the supplier’s experience,” Mr. Stricker advised. “How often are they updating and providing enhancements to the software? How easily expandable is the system in the event of plant additions?  Can it be integrated with upfront ERP systems, and can they access the data remotely?”

John Hunter, sales account manager, bakery and ingredient handling, Bühler Group, said small bakeries could explore low-level bag-tip stations with a sieve and magnet for metal detection to alleviate lifting. Adding a simple weighing station with a large display screen that indicates when to dispatch the ingredients to the mixer provides control.

With careful planning, taking the initial steps with automatic ingredient handling can provide greater savings as the bakery’s volume expands, noted Nathan Davis, sales engineer, The Fred D. Pfening Co.

“Bag flour is expensive,” he said. “The next step is using your bulk bags, or 2,000-lb bags, and from there, going to bulk flour and trucks, where there’s a savings per pound of flour that translates to dollars in bakers’ pockets at the end of the day.”

Beyond automating dry ingredients, don’t forget liquid ones.

“Other than flour, the ingredient that’s most automated is the water system, whether that’s being directly metered in via a paddle-type or Coriolis flow meter where you actually deliver the water to the mixer without the operator having to do the actual physical scaling or moving a hose from point A to point B,” Mr. Davis said.

While mid-sized bakeries face similar challenges as small ones do, Mr. Goshert said, their larger asset base allows them to leverage a greater level of investment for automation. That doesn’t mean that resolving the skilled labor conundrum is any easier for them. It just means they have more options.

“While automating the bakery process lines can minimize labor requirements, it doesn’t eliminate it,” he said. “Much of the labor requirements in automated, larger facilities is also felt by mid-sized bakeries as they move from manual to semiautomatic and then automatic bakery ingredient batching and handling equipment. Highly skilled labor is needed, and it’s often in short supply.”

Specifically, installing automation often requires hiring trained PLC control engineers and experienced maintenance technicians, but there are options to alleviate growing pains for mid-sized and large operations.

“Adding software tools that provide preventative maintenance for process and automation equipment — as well as software applications that make access to controls simply a matter of using your browser from your office PC or smartphone — will further reduce labor and time demands, making highly skilled personnel as efficient as possible,” Mr. Goshert explained.

With steel prices so high and in such high demand, bakeries making the move to flour or sugar silos should design the systems way in advance. Mr. Hunter said project management is more important than ever.

“Delivering equipment in the past could be done in four to six months from initial planning,” he observed. “If you want a silo today, it could take up to a year to deliver it to you. Bakers can’t afford to wait until the last minute to determine their ingredient handling solutions.”

That said, there are ways to accommodate increasing capacity in the meantime.

“If a bakery is going to immediately move into bulk silo storage, you can design a system around a single silo storage,” Mr. Davis noted. “However, some bakers may not be ready for that investment in a silo because they’re in a bakery where they’re leasing a facility and can’t put in a silo. If that’s the case, they can look at a bulk bag unloading system with a transfer system that delivers ingredients directly to the mixers. Eventually, that system could then be expanded and integrated with a silo rather than a bulk bagger.”

Mr. Murphy pointed to several other factors that bakeries must explore prior to installing bulk handing operations to avoid unnecessary delays.

“Many mid-sized bakeries have space or ceiling height limitations,” he said. “Additionally, some of them experience local restrictions against outside storage.”

Before investing in automation, a good rule of thumb is to examine every ingredient and how much is being used. That’s especially true when exploring micro and minor ingredients.

“Take a look at all of the SKUs that you have to offer and take a deep dive into the recipes and pick out the top few ingredients that are used across the board and set up a system to automate those ingredients only,” Mr. Davis said. “If you are looking at six or eight ingredients, it will pay for itself in the long run.”

Often the toughest investments made in the most difficult of times end up being the best decisions from a budgetary perspective for companies in the long run.

“Down the line, when these supply chain and labor issues lessen, and when everything returns to normal, bakers won’t have to worry about finding employees because they invested in automation,” Mr. Davis explained. “Maybe it is a really good time to invest now so they get the system going to work for them today, and it will grow with them tomorrow.”

This article is an excerpt from the May 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Ingredient Handling, click here.