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.