Bakery Depositor

Depositors Hit Target with Baked Goods

Nov. 3, 2022
Hitting a target with dough, batter, icing or other components is a vital aspect of bakery operations.

Many baked goods depend on things being filled, deposited and/or layered precisely. Whether they’re fundamental components, like dough or batter landing in a tray cavity, or ornamental ones, like cinnamon sprinkled on iced buns, several stages of production depend on something hitting a target accurately.

Specifying equipment for these tasks depends in large part on the nature of what is being deposited – whether it’s wet or dry, its viscosity, its fragility, etc. But with some depositing applications, it’s possible to choose from equipment with different operational principles and other aspects.

Probably the most basic choice in filling/depositing equipment is the propulsion principle – how the product or ingredient is going to move into or onto the target. Two of the most common methods are volumetric filling, where the substance is pushed out of a cylinder by a piston, and gravity-feed, where it descends directly from an overhead hopper.

To some extent, that choice will be dictated by product viscosity. Highly viscous products respond better to the push of a piston, although many hoppers come with augers that rotate to push out viscous product. But to a large extent, the choice depends on a dichotomy familiar to many aspects of food processing in general: speed vs. accuracy.

Piston fillers tend to be more accurate, simply because the cylinder provides a small, uniform staging space for the product. Piston fillers also have lower shear than auger-propelled hoppers, making them more suitable for dough or batter with a delicate structure or that has fragile particulates.

“Piston fillers are going to give you the greatest accuracy per cavity or per pocket,” says Mark Young, senior sales executive at Hinds-Bock. “They’re going to operate at the lowest shear and be the most gentle to your products that might include IQF blueberries, delicate chocolate chunks and nuts that you might want to have the largest aspect ratio.

“With gentle porting and pockets in the valves, we can direct the batter into various pan arrays,” he continues, “and with adding servomotors, bring them up to modern technology.”

Hop to it

Hopper-based systems, on the other hand, usually are easier to clean than pistons and can run at higher speeds. They’re often used for the base of the baked product – the dough or batter that forms it – where precision isn’t quite as important as it is for highly visible decorative touches like sprinkles or icing.

Another option for propulsion is having the product pushed through nozzles or injectors by upstream equipment. This could be a continuous mixer or blender, which would be especially suited to aerated products, or a positive-displacement pump for non-aerated products. It’s a common setup to have the mixer or pump feed a manifold comprising a row of nozzles across the conveyor.

A big advantage of pressure-dependent systems is low product loss, compared with gravity- or piston-based systems, says Robert Peck, vice president with E.T. Oakes Corp. 

“The manifold is basically a passive metering device. Whatever gets pumped in gets pumped out,” Peck says. “With hoppers and pistons, you have to rely on keeping a level in the hopper. The hopper gets low, you may get varying weights. This does not rely on that. It relies on the accuracy of the pump to control your weights.”

Solid advice

Liquids, of course, are not the only thing that gets deposited onto baked goods. Solids of all kinds are used to top them off: powdered sugar, nuts, berries, spices like cinnamon, etc.

Putting dry or moist solid ingredients over baked goods requires some sort of dispensing mechanism that can sift the ingredient and, when necessary, make the dispersal periodic or divide it among sections of the belt. For example, when spot coverage is required, Moline Machinery uses a masking system – a polymer bar with little funnels inside that route the flow of a powder into specific spots or lanes as required.

Similarly, Axis Automation offers dispensing shafts tailored for different kinds of dry ingredients. The shafts are servo-driven rollers that go across the feeder, and shafts with different textures and indentations can handle different toppings, like salt, chips and even whole nuts. (The nuts fall into pockets in the shaft; the servo, prompted by a photoelectric sensor, then flips the shaft over, depositing the nuts onto the product.)

Hitting the target as accurately as possible is of course a goal for all depositing applications. But it’s one that can’t be achieved 100% of the time, even by the most sophisticated equipment. When ingredients don’t go where they’re supposed to, they either get wasted or reclaimed.

Many systems have reclamation capabilities. Axis Automation uses a bin set underneath the gap between the depositor’s outfeed conveyor and the beginning of the main conveyor segment flowing downstream. Low-viscosity toppings or other ingredients will land on the outfeed belt and sluice through the gap; the bin catches them and conveys them upward and back to the hopper.

This bin can also be used to recharge the hopper – a more ergonomically friendly method than carrying loads up to the hopper) Moline allows fallen dry toppings to be vacuumed up into the hopper in a similar way.

Auto accuracy

Depositing is an operation that can be greatly improved by automation because it involves a lot of coordination and timing. Many manufacturers use servomotors to dispense ingredients and/or maneuver the targeted products; when combined with photoelectric sensors or vision systems, this can greatly increase accuracy and versatility.

Unifiller offers both pneumatic- and servo-driven options for its piston-based depositors. Models are available with self-diagnostic capacity; the software can tell the owner what part is about to wear out and even present an order form for a replacement part.

For an even greater level of control, Unifiller offers Total Care software. Total Care lets Unifiller equipment be controlled through smartphones or other devices. It also takes in-plant communication to a new level.

Total Care sets up a social-media-style platform that allows personnel within the plant to share information related to Unifiller equipment. For instance, if product is starting to go out of spec, the worker at the end of the line who notices this can post a picture of the problem via Total Care to upstream workers (who can in their turn communicate what they think the problem is, share the steps they’ve taken to fix it, etc.). Total Care can call up machine specs, settings and other information. It can even accept data directly from the machine to show its performance, and potential problems, in real time.

“We’re trying to develop something that people can use instinctively,” says Derek Lanoville, Unifiller’s R&D manager. “The whole thing acts and feels like social media. People are just drawn into it.”

Filling and depositing is a basic but tricky operation in baked goods production. Technologies are available that can help industrial bakers hit the target. 

About the Author

Pan Demetrakakes | Senior Editor

Pan has written about the food and beverage industry for more than 25 years. His areas of coverage have included formulations, processing, packaging, marketing and retailing. Pan worked for Food Processing Magazine for six years in the 1990s, where he was operations editor (his current role), touring dozens of food plants of every description. He has also worked for Packaging and Food & Beverage Packaging magazines, the latter as chief editor, during which he won three ASBPE awards. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in communications.

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