Going from manual to automated depositing is not as difficult as people think. First, it simply requires a change in attitude. If bakers see themselves playing in the big leagues, they need to act like they belong.

“Begin to think more like an industrial baker and produce larger batches of each product less frequently throughout the production week,” suggested Stewart Macpherson, vice-president, sales and marketing, Unifiller Systems.

The initial step, he noted, involves installing larger mixers to feed automatic depositors that should easily double the throughput of the manual operation. Then add freezer capacity to build inventory. Combining automation with increased cold storage creates an environment for better scheduling, longer production runs, fewer changeovers and greater capacity with the same number of employees.

As the business grows, he suggested, double down. Invest in automation a second time to bump up volume again and drive efficiencies even further. That’s the smart move. Then, bakers might even need to consider changes in the depositors they use. “Depending on the daily volume of production required, we would determine whether a single-piston machine or a multiple-piston, more automated system would be needed,” Mr. Macpherson said.

Unifiller’s single-piston system, he added, can deposit more than 4,000 cupcakes per hour. However, its more versatile and higher-volume rotary piston (RP) depositor relies on rotating paddle-type pistons that can be configured into multiple-port depositing by just changing the tooling. “This machine is mounted to a cantilever mobile frame, allowing it to be rolled over any existing conveyor that would be typically found at the oven infeed area,” Mr. Macpherson noted.

Before production ramps up, also hire the proper support staff to ensure the automated system — no matter what the size — keeps on running. “Make sure you have a good mechanic or engineer on staff with extensive mechanical and PLC background before attempting to make the leap from a manual process to automated equipment,” advised Rod Gregg, vice-president of sales, Hinds-Bock Corp.

During the past 30 years, he’s seen too many companies struggle because of a lack of skilled labor, proper training and other issues with the workforce gap in the baking industry. “The result is thousands of dollars spent in multiple installation trips by service techs, lost production time or damaged new equipment,” Mr. Gregg explained. “Competent staff will pay for themselves twice over to have successful start-ups the first time.”

Another helpful tip involves selecting equipment that best replicates handmade cakes, muffins and other sweet goods and avoids compromises in quality or consistency. “Machines do have an impact on products,” said John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, Reiser. “The key is to choose machinery and a company that can help bakers deliver their desired product to the market. It takes both the machine and expertise to automate the process.”

Moreover, don’t forget to order properly sized pans. They’re one of the foundations of depositing. “We work closely with the customer and the pan maker to ensure the pans are designed so they will move smoothly throughout the system,” said Jim Cummings, president, Tromp Group Americas.

Without a hitch

To minimize delays during startup, uncrate and position the equipment prior to the technician’s arrival. “If not, this eats up valuable installation and training days,” Mr. Gregg said.

Bakers should check that utilities work properly. Then, Mr. Gregg added, place a conference call with the equipment vendor at least two weeks prior to installation to verify all utility requirements, especially for pneumatic equipment that fuels a depositor’s operation. “Does the plant have plenty of compressed air to handle all the equipment, which uses a lot of cubic feet a minute when it’s running at the same time?” he recommended asking.

For Mr. Cummings, a smooth ramp-up begins with a comprehensive factory acceptance test (FAT). “Many times, customers look at the FAT as an inconvenience, but if the right people attend the FAT — a line operator and maintenance personnel, for example — the chances of success are higher.

Prior to the FAT, Tromp Group encourages customers to provide both pans and all ingredients to accurately test the production line, he noted.

Likewise, Cesar Zelaya, bakery sales and technology manager at Handtmann, recommended scaling up actual batters and simulating production runs to ensure no surprises during the start-up or commissioning of the equipment. Such pre-production preparation allows both the baker and vendor to learn about the product characteristics prior to shipping the equipment to the bakery. “Each different product or flavor brings different challenges for the equipment,” Mr. Zelaya said.

Maintaining accuracy remains a priority with all depositing technology. “Batters containing large particles or inclusion such as chocolate chips will tend to fluctuate in weight a bit more than plain batters with no inclusions,” Mr. Zelaya said. “Additionally, preserving the integrity of the inclusions and minimizing the smearing into the batter are important to the product’s appearance and consistency.”

Sharing detailed information on product characteristics, line capacity and other specifications provides the road map for a quick, uneventful path to manufacturing saleable sweet goods. 

According to Mr. McIsaac, it also allows vendors to share their expertise with bakers during the trial stage and then provide them training as the equipment comes online. “Our company will work with our customers to ensure that adding speed and efficiency to the process does not result in a different product than what made them successful in the first place,” he noted. “Once our customer has chosen his equipment supplier, he needs to know the company will provide the technical and product support to launch.”