Automatic Decorating Takes the Cake

Aug. 28, 2020
Decoration systems for cakes and other baked goods can speed up one of the most time-consuming tasks in baking.

When it comes to optimizing efficiency on a bakery line, automatic decorating can be, literally, the icing on the cake.

Advances in robotics, vision systems, servomotors and other aspects of industrial digital technology have made automatic frosting, icing, filling and other enhancements possible for cakes, muffins and other baked goods. Using them can bring speed and consistency to one of the trickiest tasks in baking.

“Skilled decorators are getting harder to find as we see career decorators retiring, and the newer workforce is not as interested in hand decorating as a career,” says Martin Riis, director of sales and marketing at Apex Motion Control. “Robots will do the job forever… without ever taking a break.”

Automated systems deposit scalloped edges and other fancy touches with a consistency that sometimes is lacking in hand decorating.
Photo: Unifiller

Processors who are interested in automatic decorating have many options, depending on what they’re decorating, what they’re using to decorate and the speed and flexibility required.

The nature of the material used for frosting and/or decorating is a good place to start, says Steve Smith, managing partner of Apple Food Systems, a UK-based manufacturer of automated bakery equipment. Apple is distributed in the U.S. by Naegele Bakery Systems.

“The most common variations in the physical setup for decoration systems is always the product. This is the most important thing with regards to variation,” Smith says. “As there are so many different types of products used in decoration -- as in consistency, viscosity, temperatures, flowability and so on -- this is the biggest governing factor in any system provided.”

A sheet of buttercream frosting is laid, evenly and precisely, by equipment from Unifiller.

The attributes of the product determine what kind of nozzles should be used, the type of pump or depositor needed, and the speed with which it should operate.

Consistency is needed too, Smith says. “The next most important thing is getting a consistent product. Whether it be a continuous mixer aerator to guarantee a consistent product provided to the decoration unit, this then gives you a consistent result.”

Buttercream is often used, especially for sheet cakes, says Sonia Bal, director of marketing for Unifiller.

“Typically, our customers use buttercream for their sheet cakes, usually one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch thickness for spread,” Bal says. “Occasionally, we have been asked to spread whipped topping. Either topping’s viscosity or spread thickness is built into the recipe to drive the deposit parameters.”

What moves?

The most basic choice with a decorating system is which components are going to move. With icing and other decorating, there’s a certain amount of motion involved, over and around the cake or other target. The question is whether the applicator or the cake itself will be doing the moving.

The former requires robotics; the latter, a material-handling component that can maneuver and rotate the baked goods as needed. As with many such situations, the choice is determined in large part by what’s needed more: flexibility or high throughput.

“The benefits of using Unifiller’s sheet cake line with fixed nozzles and bridges are consistency, repeatability, throughput and affordability,” Bal says. “Robotics are complex, and require more upfront cost and training, lending itself to a longer ROI period. Additionally, adding robots to border Unifiller’s sheet cake line simply wouldn’t keep up with throughput -- speed would be an issue resulting in bottlenecks for the production team.”

Using robots for decoration confers maximum flexibility on an application.
Photo: Apex Motion Control

Riis, for his part, emphasizes the flexibility conferred by robots. “The great thing about the Baker-Bot is the flexibility and ease of use,” he says. “One day you could be using it on a cookie production line decorating the cookies and the next day roll it over to your cake line. This gives the baker a lot of versatility and enables them to use it for lower volume production runs.”

Of course, flexibility versus throughput is not an absolute dichotomy. Many fixed-applicator systems have improved flexibility, thanks to advances in servo and other digital technology. And robotic setups can be chosen for high throughput.

The use of servos makes Unifiller’s sheet cake line more flexible and effective than ever, Bal says. “The recipe storage on servo systems offers a great deal of flexibility to the customer in ensuring the deposit volume, speed and other parameters can be stored and recalled based on different product configurations.” Other variations that can be stored include pre-finishing modules for cardboard placement, cake slicing or glue icing, or post-finishing modules for bordering or decorating.

Apex, for its part, offers two basic options: The Baker-Bot, which is a cobot, designed to work in close proximity to humans; and the Deco-Bot, which is a fixed, high-speed production unit, often paired with an icing pump from Unifiller. Riis says the Baker-Bot is preferable for applications with a high need for flexibility, and the Deco-Bot for when higher throughput is needed.

Fixed or semi-fixed depositors are a good option when high throughput is required.
Photo: Apex Motion Control

Find the cake

Before a system of any kind can decorate a cake, it first has to know where the cake is. That’s why improvements in vision and sensor technology have increased the versatility of decoration systems.

“We always recommend our customers to have quality control over their product and try to maintain even cake heights and center them on the conveyors,” Riis says. “But in many cases, this can't be consistently achieved, so our vision system can detect the orientation and location of the cakes as well as do a 3D scan of the surface to ensure the decoration is applied correctly.”

Smith says that consistent placement and orientation on the conveyor belt is important, but adds, “Now, you can use scanning systems to map the orientation and changes in heights of what is being decorated, so the nozzle will automatically adjust to any discrepancies.”

As with any system that allows customization, ease of end-user input is a prime consideration in decorating equipment. The goal is making it as easy as possible. Unifiller, for example, allows customization with a simple tablet interface.

“If a customer were looking to finish their sheet cakes with writing, drizzling, roses or other intricate patterns, we would recommend our robotic decorating module,” Bal says. “This system is driven by a tablet interface where a user can load images or do freehand drawings.”

Apex also has this sort of tablet interface available, Riis says. “The operator simply draws or writes on the tablet, saves it, then the robot quickly learns it and duplicates until a new pattern is entered.”
Decorating and depositing cakes and other baked goods is one of the most intricate, time-consuming tasks in baking. Decoration systems have the potential to make this task as fast and efficient as any other operation on a baking line.

Sponsored Recommendations

F&B Manufacturer Implements Powerful Cybersecurity

A leading F&B manufacturer has moved to harness the skills of Rockwell Automation and Claroty to harden their OT and IT defences.

6 Ways to Augment Your Food and Beverage Workforce

Modern digital tools and technologies help attract, retain and empower a modern workforce.

2024 Manufacturing Trends - Unpacking AI, Workforce, and Cybersecurity

The world of manufacturing is changing, and Generative AI is one of the many change agents. The 2024 State of Smart Manufacturing Report takes a deep dive into how Generative ...

Better OT Asset Management Increases Uptime

A food and beverage company streamlines and simplifies its OT cybersecurity to increase system reliability and uptime.