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 In recent months we have talked about plugging the profit leaks in your bakery and increasing the customer’s perception of value – the “Wow Factor” in your bakery products. During these discussions we have referred to the role that automation plays in today’s bakery production. This month we are going to discuss the key issues to be considered for developing an automation plan.

History of Automation:
Automation has always played a role in baking. After all every bakery has an oven. In recent times excavations around the pyramids of Egypt revealed a large bakery complex with rows upon rows of stone ovens. Hundreds of bakers worked these ovens daily to feed the work gangs that built the pyramids. In today’s high tech world there are a wide range of bakery products, from Wonder Bread to Twinkies that are produced with fully automated processes. There is growing pressure to automate more bakery products.

The push to automate stems from the general shortage of labour available to work in bakeries, the increasing cost of labour, and the growing cost of injury claims due to repetitive stress injuries. Advances in automation also cut costs and improve sales by providing consistent ingredient portioning, and consistent taste, texture and presentation.

Developing an Automation Plan:
Determine your reasons to automate As mentioned above there are many benefits of automation. Ask yourself what benefits are the most important to you at this particular time. If reducing personal injury claims is your primary concern then determine the processes that are causing the most stress and the highest incidence of claims.

Look for machines and systems that automate these high stress processes. If controlling ingredient portioning is your primary concern, then you should determine the processes that are the most out of control. Look for machines that will automate these portioning steps. Along the way you will likely find that the machine that
solves one problem also provides benefits in another area.

In many cases the main objective of automation is reducing labor costs and increasing production capacity. The question that has to be answered is whether or not the machine will actually achieve the labor saving or productivity gain that is anticipated. For example you may buy a machine that allows a decorator to finish 600 cakes per hour. Without the machine the decorator may only be able to finish 60 cakes in an hour. In this situation the machine gives you the possibility of either saving labor costs or taking on new orders without adding to your labor pool.

Taking on new orders will give you the highest return on your investment. After all, the machine allows you to sell 10 times more cakes with the same labour pool. In our example this is 600- 60 = 540 cakes per hour or 4320 more cakes in an 8 hour day. Say you sell each cake for $2.50 and your ingredient cost is $1.00. When you sell all the extra cakes you will increase your profits by 4320 x $1.50 = $6480 per 8 hour day. Assuming 250 working days per year the increase in profits is $1,620,000.

Capacity Profile:
In the above example we see how one machine allows a single decorator to be 10 times more productive with the added benefit of greatly reduced risk of repetitive stress injury. A 10 times increase in productivity is so large that we have to determine if the rest of the bakery can keep up with the new pace. Can the bakery mix and bake 4320 more cakes per day? Can the bakery freeze or ship out an extra 4320 cakes per day? If some processes do not have the capacity to keep up they will have
to be upgraded with additional staff and/or additional equipment. The important point here is to determine how much overall capacity you need to run all your products and to ensure that each individual process has the sufficient capacity.

It is important to note that you do not want a balanced plant where each process has the same capacity as the other. In most bakeries the mixing capacity will be greater than the oven capacity and the finishing or decorating capacity will also be greater than the oven capacity. The reason for this is that the oven capacity is usually sets the limit of the overall capacity of the bakery. You never want to “starve” the oven of product to be baked so you build in some protective mixing capacity into your automation plan.

Levels of Automation:
There are different levels of automation. The first level of automation involves single purpose machines that require staff to operate. At this level machines will improve the productivity and reduce the physical stress on an individual. At the highest level of automation systems are employed that perform multiple steps in a process and require relatively few staff to operate. These systems greatly reduce manual processes and can usually be programmed to run a variety of recipes within a product category. An advanced automation system will generally employ a conveyor system to move products from one process to another saving time and handling costs.

Choosing a Vendor:
Now that you’ve made the decision to upgrade equipment there are important consideration in choosing the best vendor. Look for a vendor who is a leading innovator, who can provide engineering solutions for your particular requirements and plant parameters. A vendor with a well trained sales force who provides
operator and maintenance training, customer service and preventive maintenance programs will ensure that your equipment performs to its potential. In short you are looking for a vendor to become your partner in growth and innovation.

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