Many sandwiches sold in grocery store delis are still assembled by hand. But with labor costs and food safety concerns becoming more top of mind, the decision to switch to automated production makes more and more sense, equipment industry leaders say.  

The 1000i series single piston depositor line is food portioning equipment specialist Unifiller Systems Inc.’s top product when it comes to sandwich production, says Andy Sigrist, senior product manager. Most of Delta, British Columbia-based Unifiller’s sandwich customers are regional or global commissaries providing product to grocery and convenience stores, airports and other end-users, he says.

The 1000i depositors, which can be used alone or over a conveyor system, spread, spray or print accurate portions of condiments and sandwich fillings. Fillings like egg salad, tuna salad, seafood salad and chicken salad and spreads like peanut butter and Nutella are among the common applications, Sigrist says. Of course, “sandwiches” in this context also means burgers, wraps and breakfast sandwiches, and the 1000i line also was designed with those products in mind — depositing dressings, beans, spreadable cheese and other toppings are among its other capabilities.

With the addition of simple spread or spray attachments, the 1000i depositors can apply ketchup, mayonnaise, butter, relish and other condiments to a variety of bread products, Sigrist says. In addition, transfer pumps can be used to fill depositor hoppers for continuous production, if needed, and conveyors can be added to fully automate production, with sensors triggering deposits at any point along the production line.

The majority of the sandwich equipment sold by Columbus, Ohio-based Grote Co. in North America is used by companies that are making sandwiches for c-stores and coffee houses, but sandwich production for grocery stores is on the rise among both private label manufacturers and grocery stores themselves, says Jon Hissrich, a Grote application specialist.

Grote’s sandwich assembly lines typically turn out 30 to 55 sandwiches per minute per lane, Hissrich says. What helps separate Grote from its competitors, he says, is an ability to address the specific needs of sandwich manufacturers. Grote’s modular systems, for example, can include various combinations of conveyors, bread feeders, sandwich and wrap cutters, depositors and slicers. All are designed with flexibility in mind.

“Quick changeovers are required for efficient production of multiple SKU’s throughout the day,” Hissrich says. “Each system is designed for the customer’s particular application and requirements.”

In addition, he says, Grote’s stainless steel construction allows for complete wash down capability, unlike the bakery-oriented equipment that some manufacturers use. And the company’s conveyor systems are designed to work with its Clean in Place (CIP) systems, which provide continuous washing, sanitizing and drying of the production belt.   

Labor, cost savings

The main advantage of Unifiller’s sandwich depositors is the labor savings they offer users, Sigrist says. “Photo sensor modules automate processes where one can easily remove manual operators from the production line and move them to other areas of production if needed,” he says. “One can easily scale up production without hiring on more labor.”

There are other advantages — the cost savings, for instance, that come with portion control and reducing product waste. Product quality also can be improved, through the application of consistent and accurate portions. Higher production yields are another benefit many users find using the 1000i series.

One of the things that differentiates Unifiller’s sandwich production equipment, Sigrist says, is the company’s understanding of its market and the needs of its customers. Food safety, for instance, is a big concern of its clients, so Unifiller puts a lot of effort into the sanitary design of its products. The company’s latest line of depositors features upgraded pneumatic control systems designed to work in the cold environments needed for sandwich production. That substantially reduces the pooling of water and food particles, moisture buildup, damage from caustic cleaning processes and daily wear and tear.

Another hallmark of Unifiller’s sandwich depositors, Sigrist says, is their ease of use. “We understand that it’s getting harder to recruit experienced staff, and baby boomers are retiring, so our equipment is designed to be simple, with an easy-to-use interface that doesn’t require extensive training or reading of manuals.”

In addition, Unifiller equipment has features like one-turn calibrated speed dial, quick connect fittings for attachments and tool-free design — all, Sigrist says, make maintenance, change-over and downtime easier. And some Unifiller depositors are capable of storing up to 100 recipes, so varieties can be built into the equipment and recipes recalled at the push of a button.

Different hopper sizes, heated hoppers, hopper stirrers and agitators allow producers to maintain product integrity better, Sigrist says, and traveling bridges are available for use over form-fill and tray seal systems. In addition, the 1000i depositors fit easily into existing or new sandwich production systems and integrate well with flow wrapping systems.

“Ultimately, our customers keep coming back to us because our equipment is easy to use, our after-sales service is spot-on and they trust the sales experience,” Sigrist says. “We focus on building a long-term relationship by really pinpointing their needs and ensuring the consultation process is focused on them.”

With grab-and-go convenience foods on the rise, demand for sandwich production equipment like the 1000i series is growing, Sigrist says. Sandwiches, burgers and handheld items accounted for more than $205 billion in sales in 2016, according to data from Chicago-based Technomic. And there are a lot of future customers out there waiting to be converted to automation, Sigrist says. “There are still a lot of producers making sandwiches by hand,” he says. “It’s labor intensive and expensive. They may not be aware of all the equipment options available, or their volume and variety requires a lot of changeover, and they’re not sure of how to eliminate that.” 

Sigrist is confident, though, that more and more sandwich producers will be convinced of the advantages of switching from hand- to machine-made. “The grab-and-go market is growing, and companies will see advantages in integrating some automation.”

Looking ahead, Unifiller is gearing up to meet new industry challenges — like growing demand for ethnic flavors and non-conventional formats that could redefine the sandwich category. “We’re always innovating — it’s one of our core values,” Sigrist says. “And we’re planning to evolve with our customers and the emerging trends within the industry. We believe our equipment can offer producers the same advantages, regardless of whether they’re depositing mayo or a Thai chili sauce.”

Wraps…and robots

Trends Grote is keeping its eye on, Hissrich says, include increased demand for wrap assembly equipment, whose uses include halving wraps for retail packs in c-stores or pinwheel and roll-up cutting for appetizer trays in grocery store delis.

Also on the horizon is greater use of robotic assembly and vision-based quality control systems, which Hissrich says are becoming cost-effective for sandwich assembly automation. “Grote Co. is actively pursuing how best to integrate new technologies like these into our product line,” he says. “Robotics has great potential for automatic placing of some sandwich toppings that to this point have been difficult to automate, and vision systems will allow for automated quality control measures, such as ensuring an accurate deposit count.”

But even before the robot age dawns, Hissrich says Grote is helping its customers in the here and now with automated processes that reduce the number of touches demanded by manual handling, and thereby reducing the probability of introducing pathogens into product. And that’s far from the only benefit that comes with automation.

“Our equipment is being purchased not just by manufacturers looking to reduce labor costs, but also by manufacturers that simply cannot find the labor needed to meet production requirements,” he says. “This appears to be an ever-increasing challenge for some of our customers.”