As baking companies struggle to staff their production room floors, the committee for the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), held in Las Vegas, Sept. 17-21, expects baker attendees to be turning to equipment and automation as one way to resolve their workforce issues. Everything from robotics and vision technology to artificial intelligence (AI) is fair game if it reduces the reliance on labor. 

“Bakers are more willing to look at technology that’s been around awhile,” said DJ LeCrone, IBIE committee member and chief executive officer of LeMatic, Inc. “Robotics and vision technology has been around a long time, but I think now where we’re at, it’s going to be more accepted in that these might be a baker’s only solution.” 

While Dave Watson, IBIE committee member and bakery and snack subject matter expert for The Austin Co., said larger bakers have already adopted robotics over time, he’s now seeing smaller bakeries take the plunge. 

“A lot of companies I work with don’t have a lot of automation in their plants, and they’re being forced to because of labor,” he said. “And it comes down to maintenance because they also don’t have the people in their plants to maintain and keep this equipment operating, so the more user-friendly it is, the better.”

It's helped that robotic technology has advanced now to be easier to program and operate. And cost has come more inline with baking company margins. 

“The automotive industry uses a lot of vision and robotics, but there is a greater market price and margin in the automotive industry than there was in the baking industry,” said Jason Frye, committee member and senior vice president of supply chain and purchasing for Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga. “It just wasn’t affordable. The technology has come a long way, and there are a lot more suppliers in the market so now robotics can fit within our capex budgets.”

Artificial intelligence, Industry 4.0 and predictive maintenance will also be of interest to bakers as they look to streamline operations and increase capacity while reducing labor.  

“When bakers increase capacity, they are looking for equipment that cleans easier, is easier to maintain and can use an AI for predictive maintenance,” said Jorge Zarate, IBIE vice chairman and senior vice president of global operations and engineering, Grupo Bimbo, Mexico City.

And the benefit of predictive maintenance is far-reaching when it comes to investing. 

“Adding technology to your equipment where you have predictive and data analytics shows us exactly what piece of equipment is contributing to downtime,” Mr. Frye said. “With long lead times, we can focus on those specific pieces of equipment rather than a section or a functional piece of equipment. We can evaluate the equipment failure to determine is it the human or is it the equipment? Is it our training or is it mechanical? Now when I evaluate my capital spending and where I want to spend my money next year, I can hone in on a specific piece of equipment or functional area and focus my investment.”

This is possible because of the advances in Industry 4.0, which encompasses the ability for equipment to communicate through the Industrial Internet of Things and algorithms that evaluate the health of equipment. 

“We see devices that we’re incorporating into the equipment to make them smarter so they can communicate,” Mr. LeCrone explained. “There are algorithms running in the background for predictive maintenance. We’ll see the start of some broad technology about what’s available as far as making the equipment easier to run, more reliable and more predictive. This situation has accelerated innovation, so going into IBIE you’re going to see some pretty amazing things.”