After a shaky couple of years during the pandemic, foodservice is going strong again, with Future Market Insights (FMI) projecting the industry to expand at a CAGR of 5.3% over the next 10 years. According to FMI, foodservice will grow to be a $5.87 trillion industry by 2033, a 68% jump from its current value of $3.5 trillion. This is driven by the rising popularity of cafes and restaurants, price increases and growing demand for innovative food menu items. 

While foodservice businesses are enjoying this boom, many bakeries providing buns, rolls and more to these establishments are struggling to find enough labor to keep pace with demand. This is especially true when it comes to their packaging department. 

“For commercial bakeries, the packaging room is the most labor-intensive area,” said Martin Dalbec, product group leader, AMF PackTech, an AMF Bakery Systems brand. “In the context of labor shortages and high turnover with a less experienced workforce, there is an increasing urgency to transition to automated slicing, bagging, wrapping and bulk packaging with automated recipe-management systems.”

Packaging continues to lead equipment investments for commercial bakeries, with Baking & Snack’s 2022-23 Industrial Baking Capital Spending Study, conducted by Cypress Research, finding 75% of surveyed bakers plan to buy this equipment in 2023. 

In addition to providing critical labor savings, investments in packaging automation can maximize throughput, minimize changeover times, improve package consistency and more. These efficiencies provide foodservice bakers with the necessary boost to keep their production going just as strong as the category itself. 

Reduce labor, produce more 

Automation can simplify foodservice packaging at all stages, from bagging to case packing to palletizing. 

“Automation and robotics are there every day, 24/7 if need be and don’t call in sick, take a vacation or quit,” said Craig Souser, president and chief executive officer of JLS Automation. “They also can make line efficiencies higher. They don’t take breaks, can often work faster than humans and are highly repeatable and predictable.”

Through these investments, foodservice bakers can bolster production by bulk packing products faster and quickly moving from one product to the next, all while eliminating much of the labor needed to do so. 

Mr. Dalbec noted that AMF PackTech’s Saber 75S Bread Slicer and Mark 75S Bread Bagger, for example, deliver shorter changeover times for bakers. 

“The HMI user interfaces allow for recipe-driven product changeovers so operators can quickly and accurately switch from one product or configuration to the next,” he said.

For bulk packaging needs, Mr. Dalbec added that AMF’s HS40 Bulk Packer provides high-speed packaging with easy changeover for buns, rolls, English muffins and more. 

The labor savings extend to secondary packaging roles including box and case packing, which robots perform quickly and accurately. 

Nicholas Taraborelli, vice president, Paxiom Automation, noted that the company’s vision-guided delta robots can receive, pick and place pouches into cases, allowing employees that would be doing this by hand to move to other roles on the floor. 

Mr. Souser added that some of JLS Automation’s high-speed delta robots are now available with a longer reach as well, allowing them to place product into deeper cases like foodservice bulk boxes. 

Robotic advancements are also providing foodservice producers the needed flexibility to easily package a variety of products.

AMF Workhorse’s ABL Basket and Case Loader, for example, uses a four-axis robotic arm to pick and place a range of products and load them into trays, baskets or corrugated cases, said Wes Bryant, product group leader, AMF Workhorse, an AMF Bakery Systems brand. 

“The ABL ensures a tight package-to-container ratio as well as the option for U-board insertion between layers to protect against product compression,” he added. 

Mr. Taraborelli emphasized that a turnkey packaging system allows bakers to move employees into more fulfilling roles, as opposed to the repetitive, mundane nature of many packaging jobs. 

Paxiom Automation offers automatic bulk bag inserting, weigh filling and uncuffing systems that eliminate many tedious, manual tasks.

“This system will accurately weigh and fill product into cases as well as insert a poly liner, un-cuff after fill, tape seal and robotically palletize,” he explained.

By reducing bakers’ labor dependency, automation additionally eliminates much of the human error that sometimes crops up in the packaging department.  

“When bag-in-box bulk packaging is done manually, you are often relying on the operators to stay focused on keeping count of those products,” explained Josh Becker, product manager, bakery/confection, Harpak-Ulma. “Error could come into play and either too many or too few products could be manually packed. Technologies exist to check weigh cases after packing, but depending on the piece weight of your products, you might not catch a missing product or one too many.”

To avoid this, bakeries can implement automated counting systems to ensure cases have the right number of product, Mr. Becker said. Vision quality inspection systems and laning systems also increase machine efficiency and reduce waste.

Mr. Souser echoed this, pointing out that 3D vision capabilities allow robots to pick items based on shape instead of color or basic size, ensuring they’re more accurately picked and placed. 

Another big benefit of automation is reducing the risk of contamination, said John Williams, international sales manager, CV-Tek, Middleby Packaging Solutions.

“Automation helps reduce labor but also reduces multiple handlings [of product],” he said. “The less people that are putting their hands on the product, the less chance there is of product degradation and contamination.”

Mr. Becker observed that more cake and frozen dough bakers are individually wrapping their foodservice products prior to bulk packing.

“This helps with product protection from a food safety perspective but may also allow for future automation in the packing process,” he said. 

Foodservice bakers can also monitor their lines in real time and find areas where efficiencies can be improved. 

Mr. Dalbec said that AMF PackTech’s slicer and bagger models, coupled with AMFConnect technology, help operators track run rate, waste and downtime and help them plan for upcoming maintenance. 

“With access to real-time data and machine trends, operations can make faster, more informed decisions to fix issues and keep production lines running,” he said.

Perfect the implementation   

Automation can be a game changer for foodservice bakers with a labor-intensive packaging department. But removing people from the process and incorporating more sophisticated equipment comes with its own learning curve — and new opportunities for error. 

“Anytime labor is removed from the line, you have to ask yourself as a baker what other duties were those employees doing on the line besides loading product into a box, bag or case?” Mr. Becker said. “Oftentimes those employees are the last line of defense for quality inspection of finished product.  Full automation will require an increase in automated vision quality inspection systems.”

Bakers may find space to be at a premium as well when adding new equipment. The end of the production line — packaging — tends to be a place where space gets tight.  

“The bakers might have to make some tradeoffs with their supplier; things are going to need to change or be adjusted in the plant,” he continued. “At times automation means building expansions, mezzanines or other work just to make room for the equipment.”  

This equipment also typically requires more skilled labor to operate and maintain it due to its added complexity.

“[Bakers] need to make sure that they get the appropriate resources trained to support the equipment if this is new to them,” Mr. Souser said. 

Automation is a substantial capital investment, especially for small- to mid-size operations that may be hesitant to take the leap. Despite the cost they may pose, Mr. Becker emphasized that bakers shouldn’t be afraid of automation and understand they can start as small or large as they want. 

“Automation doesn’t have to be all about robots and fancy equipment,” he said.  “Automation can be as simple as modifying a small part of the process to free up labor to multi-task. … Not all bakery products in the foodservice space can be packaged automatically, but what unit operations around the product can be? Start small and go step by step.”

Automating the end of the line and working upstream is a solid strategy for foodservice producers new to automation, Mr. Souser said, as it poses less risk to production if problems arise. 

Mr. Taraborelli emphasized that these packaging systems quickly pay for themselves through the labor reductions they provide.   

“In most cases our customers are cash flow positive within the first month of a finance purchase solely based on labor savings,” he said. “Add in efficiency, material savings and higher output, and the investment easily justifies itself many times over and will help grow your business faster.”

To maximize this growth, bakers need equipment they can use for the long haul. Mr. Becker said bakers should determine the maximum throughput of the packaging system they’re purchasing, as well as its ability to handle different packing formats. 

“The market is constantly changing and evolving, and flexibility in the packaging system’s ability to adapt to those changes is important,” he said. “Flexibility is going to come with a cost, but that cost today may outweigh the cost of replacing the system a few years down the road if it is not flexible enough.” 

Other flexible equipment attributes producers should prioritize include ease of sanitation and access to critical components when maintenance issues arise. 

“If your pick-and-place robot isn’t washdown, you’re going to have a really tough time as far as contamination,” he warned. “You want the machine to be easy access; you also have to have the machine be user-friendly.”

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