Artificial Intelligence and Other Advances in Industrial Baking

Advanced machine control is rapidly evolving to give bakers better control over outcomes and operating costs.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Advances in machine intelligence and a sharper focus on controllable costs are front and center at many food companies, none more so than industrial bakeries.

Whether the output is bread and rolls or snacks, sweet or salty, companies long have relied on the creativity and skill of bakers to fill production orders and produce saleable product with a minimum of waste. Recruitment of the next generation of bakers has loomed as a major challenge for years, however, increasing the need for controls systems that can supplant some of the artistry of baking and enable new workers to step into the shoes of the old guard.

At the same time, a competitive market is forcing baking companies to look to cost reductions to bolster profit margins. One of the biggest opportunities is energy use, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE).

“It’s always a struggle to get good people at the right rate,” allows Greg Carr, senior director-project planning, baking and snack plants at the design and build firm Austin Co. (www.theaustin.com), Cleveland. Higher wages in other manufacturing sectors and work schedules that include weekend and night shifts make recruitment a challenge. Add to that the perception that industrial baking is an occupation better suited to the past century than the current one, and the need for greater machine intelligence is apparent.

To get a glimpse of the future, Carr advises, bakers should look to the East, where both high labor and energy costs have forced suppliers to devise new solutions. Among them is the incorporation of artificial intelligence in controls software.

October’s International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas served as the coming-out venue for PreciBake GmbH, a Munich, Germany-based software developer that recently established North American operations in New York. The company’s technology has been applied since 2012 in the automotive sector, according to chief technology officer Ingo Stork-Wersborg, primarily for precision welding for unibody construction. PreciBake has assigned 50 computer engineers to refine the application of sensors and software for bakery equipment and allow “the machine to program itself,” he told IBIE attendees.

Controls programs typically monitor “the biophysics of materials” during the process; if 375° F is determined to be the proper bake temperature, more or less heat is added if an oven drifts too far from that setpoint. PreciBake’s program has no preconceived notions: If bread baked at 359° produces the best outcome, 359° becomes the setpoint. The more data acquired, the more informed the program’s decisions become. Data from laser scanners, temperature probes and other sensors are stored and analyzed in a historian in a cloud-based server.

Marysville, Wash.-based LBC Bakery Equipment Inc. (www.lbcbakery.com) worked with PreciBake to incorporate the system in its Android control, a remote-access device enabled by cellphone technology, for rack ovens. Those ovens are used primarily in in-store bakeries, says Ed Dahl, director of eastern sales. Inexperienced supermarket bakers are more the rule than the exception, and artificial intelligence can reduce over-baking and other waste produced by novices, Dahl points out. If the outcome is ideal — the elusive golden loaf — the mass, weight and height recorded by the scanner becomes a reference point for future batches.

Bag boys don’t operate ovens in industrial bakeries. For those manufacturers, PreciBake created Virtual Quality Officer, a program that helps optimize and monitor industrial production with sensors that capture data on variables such as humidity, weight, volume, color and temperature. Similar quality-control systems for proofing and mixing are under development.

Less groundbreaking but equally ambitious is a suite of sensor-driven software and hardware packages from Mecatherm SAS (www.mecatherm.fr), a Paris-based fabricator of integrated baking lines. A vertical proofer and a hybrid oven that combines cyclothermic and impingement heating were front and center at IBIE, but the company also quietly debuted advanced controls under the “e-connect pack” umbrella. The first two installations in North America are planned for the second quarter of 2017.

Three packages have been created, the most interesting of which is the maintenance pack. Vibration sensors and motor amperage draw and temperature provide condition-monitoring data that enable a predictive approach to machine maintenance. Besides PM alerts, the maintenance pack generates alarms when machine faults are detected.

Other packages are a traceability pack, which captures electronic signatures for every human input, and an energy and exhaust monitoring system to benchmark consumption of gas, electricity, compressed air and steam. An on-board data historian is part of all three packages.

“We want to make the lives of our customers simpler,” explains Olivier Sergent, president. “That’s guiding our innovations.” Real-time kill step validation of oven performance is expected to be added to the energy package in late 2017.

The energy squeeze

Energy represents 8-15 percent of a baker’s operating costs, DOE estimates. It is even higher in Europe, points out Austin Co.’s Carr, and OEMs there have devoted engineering time for decades to energy efficiency when designing machinery. The fruits of those efforts now are arriving on American shores.

That’s good news for companies building new bakeries, but most manufacturers operate plants that are 10-plus years old. For them, declining prices for systems that can be retrofitted are an option for lowering energy costs.

“Heat recovery in the past has not been economical, but technologies that have been used in Europe for some time are changing that,” says Carr. “Oven-stack heat recovery is becoming more common, and off-the-shelf equipment is readily available.”

Thermal-oil ovens come with more up-front costs, but the payback over time can be significant. Superior heat transfer and precise heat control through a liquid medium compared to air makes thermal-oil ovens from Heuft OEL 20-30 percent more energy efficient than a conventional oven, according to the company.

Similar savings are achieved by coating the inside of ovens with a thin film that reflects heat back toward the product. Nanoscale particles in solution provide the insulating effect. AMF Bakery Systems is applying a NASA-developed film to ovens and marketing it as Emisshield nano-emissive technology.

But most equipment suppliers are energy-efficiency laggards, bakers say. In an IBIE presentation by three large bakers participating in DOE’s Energy Star program, the consensus was that most vendors have failed to improve on designs that are decades old.

Anthony Turano, director-administration at Turano Baking Co. in Berwyn, Ill., suggests some are actually moving in the opposite direction, engineering ovens that consume more energy. “They give you more burners,” he said, “but how does that help me?”

Turano and Northeast Foods were among five baking companies at IBIE that received Energy Star awards after documenting 10 percent energy reductions. At both companies, the reductions were realized at older facilities, where replacing inherently inefficient machinery, lighting and other equipment provide easy targets for improvement. Northeast achieved the goal at a legacy plant in Baltimore, but a five-year-old facility in Clayton, N.C., isn’t an Energy Star contender, despite lower energy use per unit of production. Efficiency was part of the design, making an additional 10 percent reduction difficult to attain.

Clayton can operate off the grid with three 1,000 KVA diesel generators that received a 50 percent subsidiary from the local utility. The back-up power, along with beefed up insulation that helps the refrigeration system to function while drawing 28 percent less electricity than a conventional freezer, is viewed favorably by McDonald’s, the plant’s primary customer.

“The modern customer wants their suppliers to be sustainable and do the right thing,” Dennis Colliton, Northeast’s vice president-engineering, maintains. He cited two benefits of sustainable practices: “It saves you money and makes your customer base happier.”

Back-up generators are becoming a common feature of large bakeries, Carr notes. Bypass connections for incoming water is another new wrinkle: A break in a water main miles away can create contamination issues and shut down a plant. By installing a bypass, water tankers can be trucked in to serve as a source of potable water.

Monitoring water use as well as energy consumption tipped Northeast Foods to a problem at one of its 12 bakeries. After an investigation, a broken underground pipe was pinpointed as the source of the problem, resulting in repairs before serious structural damage occurred.

Direct store delivery puts industrial bakers into the transportation business. Colliton, Turano and Jim McKeown, Bimbo Bakeries USA’s director-environmental/energy affairs, described their organizations’ experiments with compressed natural gas, propane and other alternatives to diesel fuel. Northeast has 25 CNG tractors. Performance isn’t an issue: “Our drivers tell us they have the same power as diesel,” Colliton says.

Efficiency programs can’t yield the dramatic improvements in uptime and throughput that advanced controls can deliver. On the other hand, they typically involve continuous improvement initiatives that require little or no capital. Regardless if managers invest in artificial intelligence or energy-reduction drives, the likely outcome is a more profitable plant.

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