In navigating a path through the Total Packaging Show’s five seas of stands - a quintet of enormous halls showcasing the shiniest new packaging and automation technology - a common theme quickly emerges: the Brave New World of bakery appears to be finally with us.
Over the past 12 months, bakery manufacturers have been racing to automate their production and reduce labour, say the machinery suppliers. Of course, they would say that, but the bite of minimum wages, coupled with cost pressures, are evidently forcing a rethink on forward investment. Elements of the baking industry - those that some observers say have been slow to embrace technologies such as robotics - are changing tack and investing in the future.
"People are looking a lot at automated feeding systems - they’re spending money on anything that can take labour out of the process," says sales engineer Tony McDonald of Ilapak, which claims to be the largest supplier of flow-wrappers into UK bakeries, with Warburtons, Allied Bakeries, British Bakeries, Discovery, Mission and La Fornaia among its customers. "With cost-cutting, the supermarkets squeezing margins and the minimum wage rising, there is not enough room to make a profit. The only way to do it is to take people out of the equation."
The firm supplies smart belt feeding systems, which take the product straight off the conveyor and load it into the flow-wrapper, without having to load the in-feeds off flow-wrappers. Ilapak is also developing a system to replicate the shelf-life of multi-vac using a flow-wrapper, for naan bread manufacturers. "This can give a six-month shelf-life on tortillas," says McDonald. "It vacuums the product in a travelling carousel system, before it goes into a gas-flushing flow-wrapper, at 50-60 packs per minute, and gives you a residual oxygen level of less than 0.5%."
Gas-flushing products to extend shelf-life is a big area of interest, but the supermarkets are not driving packaging innovation in bakery as hard as other categories, such as fresh produce, observes John Emerson, marketing manager of Manchester-based Record Packaging Systems. "Gas-flushing has been refined, and shelf-life is where the market is at right now. In fresh produce, some supermarkets are even flow-wrapping or tray-sealing celery, while others want to go back to a ’market’ feel with no wrapping at all." The firm supplies L-sealers and shrink-wrappers to craft bakeries right up to plant bakers, such as Fabulous Bakin Boys and for the Rankin-branded breads.
"Some of the bigger bakeries are going in for more and more automation," says Colin Sorrell of Leeds-based PFM Packaging Machinery, an Italian company, which manufactures a range of vertical form filling seal machines, multi-head weighers and horizontal flow-wrappers. PFM launched the Pearl machine this year, an entry-level 3-axis servo system, which sells for £30,000 - suitable for wrapping smaller products such as paninis.
Meanwhile, the big bakery PLCs are said to be following the lead taken by independent bakery firms and automating more. "We’ve been very successful with the independent bakers and we’re starting to see more enquiries coming with the main groups," says Roy Fraser, sales manager of RTS Flexible Systems, which supplies Warburtons and is in talks with Allied Bakeries and British Bakeries about integrating robotics. He says the firm, which majors in high-speed vision-guided robots that pick products off the line, has developed a pancake picking system that has been a huge success in terms of completed pack and pick rates. "It’s the first time vision-guided robots have been deployed in the UK for this type of application," he claims, adding there is huge interest in automated basket-loading, following the roll-out of the Tesco-driven Omega bread basket, while more bakers are automating morning goods lines.
This view is shared by Keith Bartrum of Abar Automation, based in Holland, which specialises in pick and place technology. "We’ve been doing a lot of work with sandwich manufacturers and bakers making buns - products that have historically been difficult to handle. These need to have a perfect surface, especially for the supermarkets. It takes a lot of work to develop that technology, especially if you’re handling at speed," he says.
Datalase was showcasing its Casemark range of laser-imaging technology for labelling secondary packaging, such as corrugated boxes. The firm has developed a white patch for placing on boxes, whereby the ink pigment is activated by laser - it reacts to the light and changes to black text - and is claimed to be faster, cleaner and more efficient than inkjet. "The idea is you don’t have to have pre-printed labels in stock - you can change the programme to suit each batch," says Michelle Radcliffe, sales and marketing coordinator.
Meanwhile, Domino UK says it now offers a facility for thermal transfer printing and ply-labelling. "There are changes in retail in the way that product is presented on-shelf, and that is spreading throughout the industry. We’ve launched the V200 bakery printer - a specialist product for printing best-before dates to the base of the loaf, where bread is presented end-on in the tray, like in Tesco," says sales manager Gino Pistilli. The V200+ is capable of applying variable data including text, real-time clocks, bar codes and logos onto a range of flexible packaging materials, including films and paper.
Romsey, Hampshire-based Radix Systems was promoting automated sorters that check for colour, shape and size defects in processed products, particularly cookies and biscuits. "There are systems available to detect colour, but to combine that with detecting shape defects as well, and an ability to accurately measure down to 0.25mm, gives us a great competency in that area," claims sales director John O’Shea. The technology could extend to bagels, mini-pizzas or bread buns - anything that’s in danger of overbaking; it can also detect uneven distribution of seeds on seeded products. Once more, this is a technology aimed at reducing labour. "Where a company has automated with high-speed wrapping machinery, people are no longer there to check the products," he says. "So automation creates an even more compelling reason to use this sort of equipment, because the higher the speed of the packing lines, the tighter the tolerances have to be. If the wrong-size products are going through to a standard-size pack, you have a big mess on your hands." n