With the scarcity of skilled labor across the industry, fewer bakers and snack makers are willing to pay workers for manually moving pans from one area to another or aligning muffins, bagels or buns by hand when it can be done automatically.

 Rather, they are assessing their operations to maximize capacity. They’re then training employees so they can produce more finished baked goods, increase production capacity and contribute to the bottom line.

That’s where strategic investments in new belting and conveyors pay off.

“Conveying solutions can be much more than moving products from point A to B,” observed Clint Adams, vice president of sales and marketing, CBF Bakery Systems. “A properly designed conveyor can be used as a buffer to collate or to stage, reducing the need for operators while allowing for safer worker situations.”

When bakers strive to boost capacity, they normally look at increasing the size of existing equipment or installing additional systems.

Connecting all that equipment requires planning to ensure that every system is running at maximum throughput, noted Bob Harrington, vice president of sales and marketing, Capway Automation.

Relying on switching conveyors enhances production versatility and the ability to control the flow of products or packages to multiple operations.

Tom Trost, sales manager, Quantum Technical Services, called these systems “smart conveyors” because they can be programmed to intelligently diverge and converge products from multiple lanes or from wider to narrower lanes without operator assistance. Using variable-frequency drives (VFDs) enables bakers to manipulate the speeds of products traveling on the conveyors. 

John Miller, service manager at Quantum, added that most standard VFDs have a PLC connected to them. 

“We can also add photo eyes and other sensors for starting and stopping products and reduce the need for labor by making the conveyor smarter,” he explained. “Integrating the complete line into a PLC allows bakers to better control the flow of production and packaging as opposed to running each conveyor independently.”

Bakers still need to be careful and weigh the pros and cons when tweaking conveyor and belting speeds to boost throughput.

“One option would be to increase the line speeds, but this can create additional problems,” noted Rick Milner, product line support leader, Wire Belt Co. of America. “The faster the conveyor belts run, a shorter belt life will occur. Another option would be to widen the belt widths. The downside would be investing in new conveyors to accept the wider belts. In most cases, it may be more expensive to modify an existing conveyor than it would be to purchase a new one.”

He added that transfers from one conveyor to the next are determined by the pitch of the belt. The smaller the pitch, the smaller the transfer diameter. However, the smaller pitch will result in a lighter product load capacity. 

When investing, bakeries need careful planning to avoid creating traffic jams that unintentionally lead to higher waste and lower efficiency because the solution to one problem actually created another.

“Buying high-throughput equipment isn’t very effective unless you are clear on your packaging line layout,” said Jeremy Shall, bakery/snack North America team leader, Intralox. “Sometimes a slight change in your layout can surprise you. We always recommend our customers reach out to us first when they need a full automation packaging line. We can run simulations and tests to determine the best solution.”

Moreover, pushing the speed limit on conveyors can create bottlenecks, suggested Bernardo Zermeno, customer development director, Rexfab.

“Make sure you can really operate on the rates you designed for the line,” he said.

Mr. Zermeno recommended that bakers explore the numerous possibilities to streamline production, such as relying on automated tray and box feeds into packaging equipment or magnets that orient pans properly.

“A well-integrated conveyor system ensures that equipment is used at maximum capacity without waste,” he said. “Conveyors are the veins of the body. Pieces of equipment are the organs.

Certainly, it’s not always easy working in bakeries or finding people to fill every job, especially on the second and third shifts. By strategically using belting and conveyor technology, bakers and snack makers can solve both problems by eliminating unnecessary manual work and providing operators with more rewarding jobs.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Conveyors, click here.