SAN DIEGO — While the demand for baked foods has remained strong since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the supply of workers needed to meet this demand hasn’t. As such, many bakeries are turning to automation to help with the big pinch, and robotics can be an effective tool for operations.  

During BEMA Convention 2022, Rick Gessler, vice president of engineering for Delkor, noted that one of the best places to implement this technology is the packaging department, an area that is often the last to automate for bakers and requires lots of labor.

The presentation, “Automation: Robots in the Workforce,” was part of the virtual Workforce Edition of the convention, which is being held June 22-25 in San Diego. 

A big challenge in attracting workers to the baking industry is the long hours and labor-intensive nature of many of these jobs, and this is where robotics can be especially useful, Mr. Gessler said. 

“Robots are happy to put in 24-hour shifts; they’re happy to do the non-ergonomic jobs, the high speed, high repetition, heavy lifting. Robots will do that all day every day,” he said. “They’re also very easy replicated, as opposed to your great employees that are tough to replicate.”

Robotics are typically divided into two families. Articulating robots mimic the motion of the human arm and can lift several hundred pounds. Delta robots are widely applied in baking and are used for gripping and placing products. 

Mr. Gessler added that robotic vision systems can automatically clear or reject bad products, accept skewed or misaligned products, and eliminate the need for older, more complex “hard automation.”

One common entry point into this technology is in case packing, Mr. Gessler said. Robots can pick products off the line, using vision systems to account for differences in product orientation, and properly place them into cases. Robots can also prepare cases by molding flattened containers shape.

Robotic palletizing provides another solution for bakers, especially when dealing with heavier products.

“It’s pretty easy to get a robot set up to pick up even a few hundred pounds per pick, whereas when you have an employee doing that sort of packing, you’re at risk of injury and ergonomic issues,” Mr. Gessler explained.

With many robotic solutions available to bakers today, it’s critical they know the details of each one before investing, he added. For packaging, this includes the maximum rate constraint of a robotic system, how large or small of products can be packed, how large or small of a case can be produced, minimum and maximum case count, and whether these limits can be upgraded in the future. 

Bakers should also consider the future goals of their operation and how robotic investments today will play into them.

“It’s not uncommon for us to build a new system, and within just a few months after installation, they introduce a new package format, new products for that system, right out of the gate,” he said. “Always be thinking about what could be the next step, what potential customers are we looking to engage in the coming years, and what type of packaging is common on their shelves? Make sure it's compatible.”

While robots provide many benefits, they can also be a costly investment. However, Mr. Gessler emphasized that typical payback on a robotic system is less than 18 months For many multi-shift operations, he added, the payback is less than 12 months, most of which comes from labor savings. 

While it varies based on application, Mr. Gessler said that, in general, each robot can displace five employees per shift on a bakery production line. While robotics may help bakers struggling to find workers, a common concern bakers face from their current staff is that they may be replaced, Mr. Gessler noted. However, these robots can instead provide an opportunity for these workers, he said.

“We rarely, if ever, see jobs being eliminated to robotics,” he said. “Oftentimes the jobs that are automated are the least desirable roles in the plant.” 

Employees should be involved in the selection process of robots, he added, and then be properly trained and promoted to operate these solutions. 

“If you’re putting in a two- or three-robot line, you might be displacing a dozen or more people per shift, but some of your best operators in charge of running that line, they often turn into some of the greatest employees you ever have, and it’s a great opportunity for them to grow their careers,” he said.