For proactive bakeries, the fallout from coronavirus (COVID-19) on essential businesses forced them to reimagine their operations and explore how to reduce labor, ensure worker safety and enhance productivity in a physically distanced environment.

Specifically, manufacturers are giving robotics a first, second — and sometimes third — look.

Jason Hogue, southeast regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation, suggested that robotics provide a myriad of alternatives, including a long-term answer to bottlenecks by offering higher speeds and greater efficiencies without the risks involved with increased labor during a pandemic.

In the short run, Steve McConnell, regional sales manager for Matrix Packaging Machinery, a ProMach brand, noted that strategically combining its packaging systems with cobots, or collaborative robots, allow human operators and robots to work together in close proximity and minimize the amount of labor-intensive work such as hand packing.

“The production room would go from requiring four operators to a single person and a COVID-free robot,” Mr. McConnell noted.

Cobots are especially effective in reducing repetitive motion that often occurs when loading the infeed to a wrapper or placing products in a carton or case in smaller bakeries. However, they’re often more of an entry-level solution. More advanced systems, however, can take a snack operation up to the next level.

“Robotics give us a lot more flexibility that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” said Bill Kehrli, vice president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging. “If you preplan them, they are very adaptable.”

Creating a versatile packaging department — one that can respond to the new marketing dynamics — requires careful planning and even potential tradeoffs, especially in the bread plant or snack operation with dozens of SKUs.

Connecting virtually works effectively for the time being, but it’s not as collaborative as interactive, face-to-face meetings, especially on extensive packaging installations with multiple suppliers, according to Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji.

As chairman of the 2022 International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), Mr. Gunnell predicted pent-up demand for live trade shows

“IBIE is going to be perfectly timed when everything is opened up and things are back to the new normal,” Mr. Gunnell said. “Even next year, it’s going to be a crazy year for trade shows. People will need to get back in-person and see equipment on the show floor and talk to engineers and other customers and learn best practices in the education program.

Mr. Gunnell projected the industry will see a lot of new exhibitors and new bakers attend the upcoming IBIE event, scheduled for Sept. 17-21, 2022, in Las Vegas.

This article is an excerpt from the September 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature, click here.