That light at the end of the tunnel is definitely a train when it comes to maintenance. Competition for skilled mechanics is intense, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time as bakeries seek to further automate to boost capacity while adapting to a shrinking labor pool.

And if the situation is challenging today, how are bakeries going to maintain their equipment as they invest in new technology for tomorrow?

“If I said that no bakery is prepared for the future in the fashion that they need to be, I’m pretty sure some maintenance leaders would be offended because there are likely some flagship bakeries out there that have excellent maintenance systems,” said Holly Gilbert, vice president of operations at Awakened Foods, a better-for-you snack maker based in Loveland, Colo. “Then, there are others that are working toward achieving a certain status, but overall, bakeries are not well enough prepared for the future.”

The inability to properly maintain equipment eventually results in breakdowns and repairs that can directly impact profitability.

“If a bakery can’t run efficiently and has high downtimes, what typically gives is the output of the volume, which cuts into sales,” Ms. Gilbert observed. “The pressure to operate a plant efficiently is probably at an all-time high these days because of rising costs. If a bakery has capacity, maybe it can get away with some downtime. In other bakeries, it comes down to sales because they can only make so much in a seven-day work week.”

Rowdy Brixey, founder and president of Brixey Engineering Inc., pointed out that maintenance is considered overhead that’s charged to the cost of goods sold.

“A company can lose its competitive advantage if the maintenance department fails to keep the lines running properly and at a cost comparable to its competitors,” he explained. “Cutting orders, inconsistent quality, high waste and high maintenance costs can all be death to the bottom line.”

He added that the average maintenance tech is aging, and demographic shifts often correlate to a department’s performance.

“I remember plants that had 25 to 30 years of aggregate average experience in their maintenance teams, and now some of those same plants are down to three years of experience,” Mr. Brixey said. “If you look at their waste and downtime, these plants went from being one of the best bakeries in an entire company down to the bottom 20%. It just comes down to knowing what to do.”

Hiring and retaining are two parts of the equation, but bakeries often don’t have control over the uncertain labor pool in various markets.

“Capacity constraints and labor shortages have made the job more difficult, but the bakery’s equipment is unaware of such events and still require the same service,” Mr. Brixey said. “Let’s face the facts: It’s a tough job even when a bakery is fully staffed with experienced associates, but if it starts falling behind, it can become almost impossible to catch up without help.”

Bakeries can establish the systems to manage a lean maintenance department if they provide the tools that allow their technicians to troubleshoot problems.

“It starts with leadership, not only at the plant level, but at the company level in understanding what’s important to keep these bakeries running efficiently,” Ms. Gilbert said. “It begins with having a solid foundation and understanding the vision of what needs to be done to cover all bases in a maintenance department. It requires an open-mindedness to technology to stay ahead of breakdowns and thinking outside the box in hiring techs that can adapt to automation and systems.”

That’s a tall order for any baking and snack operation.

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