CHICAGO – Automation is one of the hottest topics in the bakery industry as bakers try to rationalize their production amid growing consumer demand and widespread labor shortages.
At the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech 2022 conference, held March 1 to 3, industry leaders discussed the biggest cooking automation trends and shared valuable information for those looking to automate.
Bakers need to aim for return on investment, employee comfort and loyalty while automation, said Mark Salman, president of Middleby Food Processing.
“We live in a world where manpower is very scarce,” he said. “Our environment in the bakeries is not the best: it is hot, there is a lot of physical work, it is noisy. So you have to focus on those areas where you can attract people to come for us rather than somewhere else. “
He stressed that it is no longer a question of whether bakers should automate, but when and how.
“The bakery was one of the last industries to look out for [automation]. Look at our factories – we’re still pushing trucks, racks and trays, ”Salman explained. “It’s a great area of opportunity.”
Some of the best areas to automate are repetitive motion and heavy lifting and will help bakers retain workers, said Craig Souser, CEO of JLS Automation, who described these jobs as dehumanizing.
“These tasks should never have been done by people, and we are finally seeing that the baking industry is becoming aware of them,” he said. “It’s amazing to us how many times we’ve moved someone for a task, and that person looks for us after we put robotics in and hugs us because he hated that job so much.”
Automating these jobs allows workers to play more engaging roles and will help bakers keep them.
“When we struggle to hire people, retain people and engage people, these are not very engaging jobs,” said Ken Newsome, CEO of Markel Food Group. “It’s not just about the return on investment in terms of how many people are online, it’s about how I can keep the people I have.”
There are many new technological advances that even bakers can take advantage of. One of the biggest are collaborative robots (cobots).
“The more cobots we have around us in the factory working hand in hand with the boundless human, the efficiency increases a lot there,” Salman said. “Any application that could take a cobot into space would be great.”
While many larger bakeries have gone headlong into automation like cobots, some smaller bakeries are just getting their feet wet. Mr. Souser advises these bakeries to start with a 3 to 5 year automation strategy and really consider where automation can fit their line.
“If you have equipment that is outdated or about to be, it should still be replaced, does a completely new line make more sense than trying to put a Ferrari engine in a Yugo?” He asked. “You really have to look at the big picture and be strategic about how you approach automation.”
All panel members agreed that recent industry challenges have made it clear: the time to automate is now.
“If we take a little chance and bring more automation to our bakeries, the opportunity is fantastic,” said Salman. “We have to hug him.”
For more information on how bakery companies are investing in automation to reduce their dependence on labor, register at Baking and snackingwebinar “Automation out of the challenge of work”.