Keeping an operation on track depends on the age of equipment. Some bakeries are like locomotives that chug along while others operate like high-speed bullet trains. Engineers and mechanics are needed to make sure products arrive on schedule or to prevent a trainwreck from happening along the way.

“If a company hasn’t really invested in its bakeries since the 1980s, talking about new technology and the latest in onboard diagnostics and recipe management has no value to them,” explained Rowdy Brixey, founder and president of Brixey Engineering Inc. “It’s different with a company that has a new plant.”

And then there is every other bakery that is in between when it comes to automation. Many of them are investing in new equipment to drive productivity with a smaller workforce.

“To do that, you’re going to have to invest in a lot of technology,” said Mark Luccitti, a veteran executive who currently serves as a consultant to the industry. “Bakers are adding robotics in packaging, for instance, yet they need people capable of maintaining these systems.”

In the old days, it didn’t take as much skill to fix machines. Troubleshooting today is more complicated.

“It’s not just motors, gearboxes and sprockets,” Mr. Luccitti said. “Now you have sophisticated controls with much tighter parameters. Robotic packaging can’t be off by one-quarter inch, or you’re creating a ton of waste. It’s a whole different world.”

Holly Gilbert, vice president of operations at Awakened Foods, a better-for-you snack maker based in Loveland, Colo, made the transition from a small, semi-automated operation to a larger, more sophisticated plant when previously working at Canyon Bakehouse, Johnstown, Colo.

She recalled the amount of work needed to adjust to a much more complex operation.

“It was quite a learning curve,” she said. “We didn’t have conveyors taking products from ovens to packaging. We manually took the bread loaves off racks and fed them to a slicer. The new plant had photo eyes controlling the movement of products on conveyors, and we had to make sure the timing and grouping of those products was right.”

While Ms. Gilbert had started up plants before, the Canyon Bakehouse experience was her first time running a plant while ramping up another one. 

“Resources were tight, being a single plant and privately owned company,” she said. “But the team did it. Still, it took longer to get everything set up the way it needed to be to make sure we were doing preventive maintenance properly by understanding the equipment and learning how long it takes for motors to fail, for example.”

The advantages of automation are numerous, including labor savings, greater output per person and higher capacity for a low-cost producer of snacks and baked goods. On the flipside, however, breakdowns become much more costly on a high-speed line as efficiencies plummet and waste skyrockets with every minute of downtime.

“The pure volume coming at you and the ability to control that loss is much different,” Ms. Gilbert observed. “On the manual line, if a packaging system went down, you could save all of the products. You just need more racks to depan the products. With an automated plant, you have a whole proof box and an oven that’s full of product that you need to put on racks. And then there are longer amounts of downtime because you’re running more products through the entire line. It sometimes takes more time to restart than to get back to full production.”

Fortunately, more automated bakeries now connect equipment to sensors and PLCs to track such data points as system inputs and outputs to voltage and amperage changes to better prevent failures. Many exhibitors at this year’s International Baking Industry Exposition featured their versions of predictive maintenance systems to prevent unscheduled downtime and prioritize maintenance work. 

“That data will signal when preventive maintenance (PM) is needed to predict when a problem is arising by tracking temperature, for example,” Ms. Gilbert said. “You can tell if certain equipment needs a PM on a monthly, bimonthly or weekly basis rather than just pure guesswork based on history and failure rates.”

However, these systems do require financial investment and commitment from leadership to tailor that technology to the bakery’s operation.

“Plugging in a system and not using it to its full ability is a waste of that investment,” Ms. Gilbert observed. “If bakeries are going to be prepared for the future, it’s about systems, technology and how maintenance has to evolve in manufacturing plants.”

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