Gluten-Free Baker Takes First Steps On The Automation Journey

After a quarter century in business, Gillian’s Foods redefines its production capabilities in new facility.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Over a recent dinner, a New York food processor discussed his quandary concerning an order he’d received from Costco.

The order was for a product manufactured on the least automated line in his plant. On one hand, investing in new machinery would keep production costs down and pricing sharp. On the other hand, if sales weren’t brisk enough to meet the club store’s turnover expectations, the order would not be renewed and ROI on the equipment investment might never be realized.

Uncertainty of future demand is one of many factors food and beverage processors wrestle with when deciding if and when to invest in automation. Will a fickle marketplace decide it no longer wants the product the machinery produces? Will a lower-cost producer begin making the same product and take over shelf space? Is gradual transition or total immersion the best approach? The questions are almost as numerous as there are production sites.

A blank canvas is the best place to paint a new picture. The same is true when it comes to automating production. In December, Gillian’s Foods Inc. (gilliansfoodsglutenfree.com) painted its second portrait when production commenced in warehouse space that was built out to Gillian’s specifications.  The facility provides a clear roadmap to new and anticipated automation.

After 24 years as a pioneer in gluten-free baking, e-commerce selling and origins-story marketing, Gillian's relocated to a 20,000-sq.-ft. space in Salem, Mass. It was a major upgrade for the family firm, which previously occupied a warren of rooms that were added piecemeal over time as production grew. Coincidently, both buildings housed bakeries prior to Gillian’s: the former Lynn, Mass., plant was a Fluffer Nut plant, while the new Salem space was a home to Bake’n Joy operations.

A depositor was the only automated machinery in Gillian’s former facility, where nary a conveyor could be found. Operations still depend mostly on manual work, though the outlines of an automated bakery are emerging. “I’m trying to think three moves ahead” in phasing-in more machine motion, confides Nick Sideri, operations manager and husband of the bakery’s namesake, who was diagnosed with celiac disease as a child. Open space and continuous flow are the obvious improvements to date, with automation beginning to replace manual operations at the end of the line and in packaging.

Brand building has been a company priority since the earliest days, but the new bakery is opening up opportunities in private label. Hand frosting of cupcakes has given way to finishing with a depositor, with a second depositor adding sprinkles to some items. A handcrafted look is not what store buyers are particularly interested in, and cupcake consistency has been well received.

A high-resolution inkjet printer removed tedium and cost from labeling. Preprinted labels cost Gillian’s 6 cents each; the printer outputs labels for less than 1 cent. It also prints a sell-by date, a labeling function that used to require two workers spending eight hours a day to accomplish.

An automatic depanning system for those consistent cupcakes is a candidate for the next automation project, according to Sideri, with a small spiral cooler or racetrack conveyor possibilities to replace the in-rack cooling currently used. In the makeup area, the batter filling machine from Lynn was outfitted with an indexing conveyor, increasing fill speed and eliminating the tedium of hand-feeding the filler.

The staging area for bulk and micro ingredients is another automation target. Vacuum conveyance of rice flour to inside silos is one possibility; another option is supersack deliveries to a bulk bag unloader tied to a bulk weighing station. Regardless of which approach is taken, the bakery already enjoys better ingredient segregation, less manual input and a safer, cleaner work environment. “Dust was a huge problem for us at the old bakery,” Sideri says. An upgraded air handling system helped address that issue.

Automation has helped reduce head count on production lines to four, down from 10. A bigger benefit, though, is improved product consistency. Flexibility and capacity also have improved dramatically, thanks in part to straight-line production that accommodates both large and specialty runs. Make-up lines feed into a walk-through proofer, then to rack ovens that could be complemented with or replaced by tunnel ovens.

More space also translates to better working conditions and new business opportunities. Employee welfare areas were upgraded significantly and now exceed the square footage allotted to office activities at the former plant. A test kitchen provides an opportunity to invite product development specialists from supermarkets and foodservice operations to fine-tune private label recipes and conduct trial runs.

Gillian’s new facility commands a picturesque view of Salem Harbor’s Pickering Wharf, but it’s the view inside that is appealing to customers. “When everything was manual, potential customers wondered, ‘How are they ever going to handle my business?’ ” Sideri relates. “Now they see the operation, they see the flow, and they trust us.”

No food company undertakes automation for automation’s sake. Instead, it is part of a growth strategy and a way to redefine the firm’s capabilities and strengths. The costs are up front, the returns are long term.

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