Hot on the heels of Japanese Brain Buns (British Baker, April 21, pg 9) comes another tale of baking with a cerebral twist. This time it takes the improbable form of a professor of cognitive science dressed in bakers’ whites doing a shift at a supermarket in-store bakery.

But rather than developing another brain-boosting bread (or supplementing his day job), this academic is instead flexing his intellectual muscle on a new way of running bakeries – a project aimed at bringing bakery scheduling into the 21st century through integrated IT.

Whereas bakery schedules generally employ the not-quite-so-cutting-edge technology of paper and pen, the new system uses software to work out how to plan production, share

knowledge between staff and, ultimately, to highlight areas for improvements in the bakery.

The Rollout project, which is drawing to the end of its three-year funding, has applications for craft and plant bakeries alike. Support has come from the major supermarkets, plant bakeries, oven manufacturers, craft bakers, universities and food technology experts. But it is in a Sainsbury’s in-store bakery in Ashford, Kent, where I witness the system on trial – an enclave largely bypassed by the IT revolution, until now.

Simple diagrams

While scheduling normally relies on the expertise of the bakery or shift manager, the program uses a simple diagrams-based interface, which can be picked up in a flash by all bakery staff, says program designer Professor Peter Cheng of Sussex University. He says: “All the benefits of diagrams that we’ve studied in cognitive science, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence, we’re trying to bring to bakery.” This could be the first time that “cognitive psychology” and “bakery” have appeared together in the same sentence, but despite its lofty origins the program is intended to be accessible even to IT virgins.

The software employs a graphical approach rather than dozens of confusing drop down menus and windows, to integrate all the information that is most important for scheduling. Despite first appearances (see above), the system is quite simple to grasp.

The software’s screen layout allows you to view which product is being made with which equipment at any one time. Each block on the screen represents one of the processing stages around the bakery, from mixers through to ovens. These are tied together to represent the run of a batch of product through the bakery. The width of the block indicates the amount of time that product will be at each equipment stage; the depth shows how much of the machine’s capacity the product is using.

“Ordinary bakery operatives are able to understand these kinds of diagrams and make intelligent decisions about what you can do with the schedules,” says Professor Cheng. And although the bakery manager might already have a good idea about what a typical day’s production might entail, the aim is to improve that by using software that does not require much in the way of specialist IT skills, he says.

20 minutes’ training

During an earlier trial at the test bakery at Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association, experienced bakers could understand the diagrams in just 20 minutes of training, he claims. They were presented with various troubleshooting scenarios, such as the need to fit in a rush order to replace sold-out bloomers, having to adjust the batch diagrams to find a workable solution.

“People may not be able to use spreadsheets and numeracy may also be an issue,” explains Professor Cheng. “Having something which can directly represent what’s happening in the bakery, and gives bakers the quantitative information they need to manage the bakery, is a major point.”

Another benefit is that bakers can easily judge how best to deploy their equipment by spotting under-capacity. “At a glance you may see that you have spare capacity in your prover to put some more product in if you have the need to.”

The diagram turns red to show where capacity is squeezed too much, causing production clashes. Spare capacity at the mixing stage, for example, if filled up, could lead to bottlenecks in the schedule if there is no room in the oven for baking. “If a problem arises because you’ve made an adjustment, it lets you know without you having to recalculate everything yourself.”

Quality versus efficiency

The complex trade-off between quality and efficiency is often overlooked when talking about scheduling, since a product left waiting too long might deteriorate in quality, he notes. “At present you would be reliant on the bakery manager or the people handling the equipment to imagine what is going to happen in an hour or two’s time. If you’re relatively new to bakery scheduling then that’s a real problem.”

So will this system see the light of day? “It’s a matter of whether the commercial partners [of the project] try to incorporate it as an addition to their existing IT vision or as a stand-alone program,” says Professor Cheng. With the commercial companies involved in the project, its future would seem to rest on whether the benefits outweigh the costs of implementation.

But the potential is to have a system that is integral to the bakery, while accessible to all staff. “If there was a network of these around the bakery then each person who finishes their process step could update the diagram. They would also be looking to see how other people are coping with their processes.”

“It’s a very good tool, says busy in-store bakery manager John Duke. He has been charged with trialling the software while also being a man down. The system has many pluses, he adds. One is that it enables in-store bakery managers to communicate to store bosses exactly what resources are needed, by showing precisely where the time goes and the staff numbers required to get products on shelf, he says.

A further note of encouragement comes from Richard Ball, central retail operations specialist at Sainsbury’s, who comments that Rollout could provide a “real tool to do the job”.

“All previous production-planning systems have related to sales figures, but left the conversion of these into mixes to the bakery manager,” he says. “No consideration has ever been given to the availability of the machinery, which has been left to a mental calculation for the bakery operative. Rollout has changed this,” he says.

“For in-store bakeries this is invaluable as all staff can clearly view their tasks. Any production bunching will be alerted and a quick move of the cursor corrects the problem, says Mr Ball.”

So what makes Rollout different from existing IT systems? Most are focused on automation, says Professor Cheng, but allowing bakers to make decisions quickly and easily should be the main purpose of integrating IT into a bakery.

His message then seems to be that technology will take you so far, but leave the baking to the bakers. “If you have a system that is fully automated you can never build rules into the system that are sufficiently sophisticated to match the baker’s own knowledge,” he explains.

- Rollout is a joint project involving bakery consultants BakeTran, University of Sussex, University of Nottingham, CCFRA, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Warburtons, Fine Lady Bakeries, British Bakeries, E Botham and Sons, Scobie & McIntosh and Tom Chandley. It is being funded by the Economic & Social Research Council and the DTI.