Adding automation into a process as delicate and hands-on as artisan bread production can be daunting, with many potential opportunities for the bread to lose that artisan quality along the way. 

“It’s been a struggle, and it was a lot of sleepless nights,” said Chris Miller, director of operations for Bakers Quality Pizza Crusts, Waukesha, Wis., in an episode of Baking & Snack’s podcast Since Sliced Bread on adding automation while maintaining the bakery’s artisan quality. “When you go from one process to the new process, you can test as much as you can, but it’s never going to be 1-to-1 until you have it running in front of you and you have the dough running on the line.”

In addition to ensuring gentle handling of dough, Shawn Hasley, director of food system sales and services, Zeppelin Systems USA, said the main pain point artisan bakers face is developing a solution that still makes every loaf look unique.

“With automation you gain consistency in the quality of the dough; however, this consistency also makes the loaves look similar,” he explained. “Bakers would need additional equipment to help with the aesthetics of the loaves.”

Artisan bakers can maintain this appearance by dividing by weight.  

“When the dough pieces are cut by weight, you can see that the divided dough pieces from the beginning of the batch are smaller than the ones from the end of the batch,” said John Giacoio, vice president of sales Rheon USA. “This is because the cell structure is still growing. As this is happening the dough pieces look larger at the end of a batch than the ones at the beginning of the batch.”

Rheon’s stress-free V4 divider uses load cells beneath the conveyor to instruct the guillotine when to cut the dough. 

“This process will always give you accurate weights, but it preserves the ‘artisan’ appearance because the dough pieces may look to be different sizes,” he said. 

When automating, artisan bakers typically must adopt a process that’s less flexible than their previous manual operation, noted Franck Ellenbogen, North America sales director, Mecatherm.

“This rigor in the production process is necessary to achieve constant product quality,” he said.

While automating may remove some flexibility, Tom Cat Bakery, New York, has kept its process more nimble by investing in smaller pieces of equipment. 

“Over the years, you’ll find that we’re less likely to buy long, inflexible lines that create a single set of products than multiple, small pieces of equipment that do exactly what we need for multiple products and give us the results we need,” said Peter Sonenstein, executive vice president and general manager at Tom Cat Bakery in an interview with Since Sliced Bread. “But they don’t lock us into a nonstop, continuous process.”

Mr. Miller emphasized that artisan bakers should closely partner with suppliers during every step of the process when automating. 

“We really discuss with them ‘Okay, this is important to us, we have to maintain the quality of the product, how we do that?’ ” he said. “We do a lot of testing before we end up buying equipment, and then we’re very careful about the equipment we do buy.”

Technology such as Mecatherm’s M-Plan simulation software makes this planning and testing easier, Mr. Ellenbogen noted. 

“M-Plan plays out different production scenarios on the 3D model of the customer’s production line to help them achieve the best availability rate and the lowest changeover times,” he said. 

Automating will also impact other areas of the bakery that must be accounted for, said Jason Stricker, vice president of sales and marketing, Shick Esteve. 

“If there are height or floor space constraints, it may require some reconfiguring of the space to allow for the automated processes to be installed,” he said. 

Training staff on how to operate the new equipment may take time as well.

“Often those operators are very used to manual interaction with the process and need to become accustomed to allowing the automation to do its job without interruption,” he said. “This can be accomplished through comprehensive training of the staff following commissioning.”

Bakers must also consider how the increased throughput from automation will impact other areas of the floor.

“Indeed, as automating the production will allow more quantities, they need to be able to freeze and/or store the products in suitable conditions,” Mr. Ellenbogen said. 

Artisan bread making leaves little room for compromise, but bakers today can find critical savings with automation that still preserves that artisan integrity.

Editor’s Note: This article was reported before Jason Stricker’s passing. We’ve retained his quotes to honor the expertise he brought to the industry.

This article is an excerpt from the September 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Artisan Bread Processing, click here.