Bakers Journal

Panel: Time to automate?

June 5, 2024
By Bakers Journal Staff

Experts discuss how automation can help the small to medium-sized bakery

“Automation doesn’t have to be complete new line or a large investment,” said Peter Jacobs. “If you’re an artisan baker, it’s maybe just a matter of getting a new dough divider or a press to press down your cookie dough – something you used to use a rolling pin for.” Photo: Abbie Kierstead for Bakers Journal

A diverse panel of experts focused on automation for small and medium-sized bakeries, key considerations when automating and what ROI to expect.

Panellists included Peter Jacobs, The Baker’s Workshop; Joe Swiston, vice-president of operations for WOW Factor! Desserts; Thomas Zetlian, plant manager for Arz Fine Foods; Randy Belcot, vice-president of sales, Reiser Canada; and Alyson Slapkauskas, CEO of ABI Ltd. Here are highlights of our conversation.

What are the considerations in deciding to add or increase automation?
Thomas Zetlian said, “The bottom line is it’s going to improve your efficiency and give you a better, more consistent product. Every small bakery has a different mindset, product and way of production so you need to really think about it, decide what’s best for you and go from there.” 

Joe Swiston suggested that anyone who’s looking at automating fully develop an understanding of what of what they’re doing, knowing what their limitations, the capacity of each piece of equipment is and how it integrates with your full line. “Understand the equipment pieces you’re working with. This could be something as small as a pan or utensil or tool that integrates with the production line. Understanding what each piece does is critical before you make the decision to automate.”

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Peter Jacobs has worked with hundreds of bakeries. “Some have what I call a graveyard of equipment. Over time when leadership or ownership changes, everybody is favourable to one piece of equipment or another. Many bakeries have gems sitting there already paid for but don’t have the knowledge of what to do with them. Understand the equipment you have available to you.”

Alyson Slapkauskus offered this: “We see bakeries of all different sizes, so it’s really a solution going in with people who have seen and done these things with other bakeries to help you assess where the challenges are and where to focus. Maybe it’s a labour resource issue, maybe it’s product quality you’re trying to improve, maybe it’s a safety issue.”

Randy Belcot said, “A lot of times people think of a robot that picks something up. But automation could be [as simple as] a conveyer that moves product from one side of the building to another. Usually small to medium-sized customers find that labour is too expensive, they can’t get labour or they need to scale up because they just got a big contract. Automation is a team sport. If you’ve not done it before, you really need to find a partner that has the understanding, the depth, the knowledge and the support to follow through with you. Once you get the machine in your plant, that’s when the trouble begins if you’re not prepared.”

What ROI can I expect?
Panellists agreed that two to three years represents a reasonable return on investment but noted that this calculation is very specific to each operation. 

“We get involved with our customers regarding ROI because we provide them pieces of equipment that cost them money,” Belcot said. “The cost to that equipment plays into that ROI. Are you reducing labour or eliminating labour? Does it increase speed, efficiency or throughput?”

Slapkauskas spoke to product quality. “When you’re thinking about the shape, the weight – these different types of things that can be automated, this is another way that it’s payback in terms of scrap materials as well as the product quality that you’re providing to the end customer.”

Zetlian said: “For a small bakery you need to be flexible. You’re buying a piece of equipment to do cookies, for example. Can you do something else with it? Because sometimes your ROI calculation doesn’t work out at the end of two years. You need to be ingenious. You need to figure out if you can do something else with that piece of equipment and put it to use. You need to be able to use that machine all the time to the maximum of the output it can produce for you.”

Jacobs said: “Every little piece of equipment that helped me shave off half an hour at the end of the day to be earlier home to my family and spend time with them – that was automation for me. If I had a hydraulic divider or a balance scale to scale up my pie dough or my bread pieces, that was automation.”

Swiston offered this advice: “If you’ve done all the work up front and you understand all your capacities, you understand what your labour conditions are, where you’re looking to grow your business – those are things that you should know. If you’ve done all your calculations and this is a viable piece and it’s two years or less ROI, I encourage anybody to purchase the piece because it’s going to have a huge impact.”


Watch for extensive coverage of this and other Bakery Showcase education sessions at bakersjournal.com and baking.ca.


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