The baking industry has traditionally prided itself on its artisan production methods, usually portrayed by television commercials showing the baker’s lad on his bicycle, delivering fresh bread or a loaf gently rising in the oven. However, the multi-billion pound bread and morning goods market now delivers an estimated 12 million loaves and packs every day in the UK, and producing that quantity requires a far more state-of-the-art approach.
Many smaller British bakers have yet to come up to speed with modern production solutions. The apparent reluctance to adopt new technologies in some quarters mirrors many sectors of the UK food industry as a whole. Even major bakery manufacturers, who already employ higher levels of automation, can benefit still further from the innovative methods now available for boosting productivity.
It was to overcome this scepticism about the capabilities and benefits of flexible automated processes and solutions in the UK food industry that CenFRA, the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation, was founded. In contrast to the UK, the food manufacturing industry in Europe embraces automation and robotics at all levels. Even the craft bakers who dominate the Continental market rely on automated processes, so CenFRA’s primary aim was to close that technological gap.
Many bakers are aware of basic automation, such as mixers, depositing systems and conveyors, but some find it difficult to think ’outside the box’. Issues such as factory space, concerns that automation is not cost-effective for small runs or fears that switching to robotics could compromise the quality that hand-crafted products provide are all cited as reasons not to engage. Yet CenFRA says these fears are unfounded and, to encourage and enable greater take up of automation, has developed discrete event simulation systems to demonstrate the advantages without the need for physical mock-ups, which can incur significant costs. CenFRA’s engineers can draw up a "virtual" map of the baker’s set-up, using highly advanced software and can then highlight prospective areas for improvement, while identifying any potential or unforeseen obstacles and influences created elsewhere in the client’s manufacturing process as a result of these changes.
Traditionally, bakeries have been labour-intensive, fed by the many workers choosing to come to the UK to seek work, particularly from within the eastern region of the European Union. But there is an increasing trend for foreign workers to return to their homelands, and despite a backdrop of rising unemployment in the UK, many of these places remain difficult to fill.
Benefits of automation
Investing in robotics and automation lessens dependence on labour availability and can create a better working environment, freeing staff from the more menial and repetitive tasks, so that they can be redeployed on more productive activities.
Fosters Bakery of Barnsley, which supplies many well-known retailers with its products, recently introduced a unique ’baking robot’ for unloading and loading a bread oven at its South Yorkshire facility. Doncaster-based CenFRA was engaged by Fosters to evaluate the robot, which had experienced teething problems due to the sensitive nature of its heat sensors. CenFRA’s research and development team came up with a new design and formulation solution for the robot and supported the integration of the robot in the bakery.
The new robot is set to increase the capacity of the bakery’s morning goods department by 50% with an estimated two-year payback. It eliminates the repetitive manual operation and lessens the risk of accidents associated with moving products in and out of a hot oven.
Fosters operations director Michael Taylor says that technological advances in robotics and automation offer viable, gainful alternatives for almost any function of the production line. "We have always been forward-thinking and our willingness to integrate new technologies into this artisan industry has resulted in a significant increase in our levels of productivity and clearly shows the value of investing in automation," he says.