Mike Wilson, business & development manager, UK and Ireland, ABB Robotics, on the role robots can play in smarter bakery production

The ability to respond quickly to changes in customer tastes and keep up with competitors is putting bakeries under pressure to find new ways to stay one step ahead.

Fast, flexible and increasingly simple and cost-effective to use, robots offer an attractive solution for bakeries, especially small and individually-owned businesses, to expand the variety of goods they can offer, from gluten-free bread to individual iced cakes.

Developments in technology, coupled with an expanding variety of robots in different sizes and mounting arrangements, are seeing a growing number making their way into bakery applications.

In picking and packing, for example, integrated vision technology enables the latest high-speed robots to recognise a variety of shapes, sizes and colours, adjusting their performance to achieve the fastest and most precise process. They can also be switched over to handle different products within minutes, with the added option of equipping them with either finger-like grippers or suction pads. 

Robots are also transforming performance in slicing, where the challenge of achieving a clean cut in products with a variety of different layers has been overcome. Compact robots tooled with ultrasonic blades can slice through different substances quickly and to a consistently high standard. Compared to a mechanical cutter, a robot tooled with an ultrasonic blade can achieve a greater variety of cut profiles with no risk of errors.

For products with different layers or types of fillings, robots can be programmed to change speed, performing a fast cut for cream and a slower cut for the crumb base in a cheesecake.

Developments in robotic vision and software have also opened new possibilities to produce bespoke items. One example is Dutch baking company, De Bakker, which uses the same CAD software found in automotive or aerospace manufacturing processes to create and upload individual designs to a robot, for icing onto cakes. Able to handle multiple designs, the robot system has helped increase the company’s productivity by more than 1,000% compared to the previous manually-based production line. 

With advances in technology opening up new possibilities for the production of an expanding range of baked goods, forward-thinking UK bakeries that make the switch to robots will be able to set themselves apart from the competition.