Technology moves fast, but what’s changing is the speed in which the bakeries are adapting to it out of necessity to keep their operations running efficiently and at the highest capacity possible.

That’s especially the case when it comes to automating the topping, decorating and glazing of buns, desserts and other eye-catching products. 

“While labor continues to increase in scarcity, the baking industry is developing more autonomous systems and machines to better deliver product quality and consistency with reduced risk and less room for error as smart devices use machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to continuously improve the process,” observed Hans Besems, executive product manager, AMF Tromp, an AMF Bakery Systems brand.

“Humans make emotional, reactive decisions,” he added. “Machines do it all based on data, even integrating preventative measures. We believe these solutions are complementary to human operators.”

Often it takes just one or two systems to replicate decorating a cake with an artistic dollop or exquisite swirl of icing on a high-volume production line.

Other times, bakeries employ automation to slash unnecessary waste of expensive toppings. 

“Integrated vision tracking with servo controls and improved processor speeds is taking this entire category to previously unimaginable precision,” said Jerry Murphy, vice president of sales, Gemini Bakery Equipment. “From pizza sauce application to donut decoration, the limitations are only defined by one’s creativity.” 

PLC controls, smart software and industrial-grade sensors are combined to precisely add toppings or finish baked foods on high-speed or rapid changeover lines.

“Digital imaging technology is used together with AI and machine learning algorithms to make the system smart and more efficient than today’s machines in factories,” Mr. Besems explained. “Added value is created because the digital images also can be used for quality control and across shift benchmarking or quality control. This makes it easier to detect, find, track and trace quality issues without losing complete runs of product, resulting in less waste.”

He added that it takes only a few days to integrate systems like AMF’s Smart Applicator on production lines, but it requires a little longer for the machine to “learn” how to target the desired amount of toppings onto a specific crust or flatbread base.

“Sometimes the algorithm needs training, which we can prepare together with the customer and operators,” Mr. Besems said. “So the specs, defaults and products are known, and machine learning can do its job onwards.”

For control and efficiency, several companies have turned to phones and touchpads, while simplified or standardized software allows finishing systems to be more easily added to existing lines.

“New developments include controls from smartphones, as well as easy integration with other equipment providers, and compatibility with ethernet protocols that allow for integration with centralized computer systems,” said Mauricio Nahum, applications manager for Unifiller Systems.

However, most new systems require training, especially in bakeries that are in the beginning or middle of their automation processes.

“Our technician will help program recipes into the system and train the customer on recipe storage or how to change from product to product with the touch of a button,” he said. “We offer quick changeover of parts for customers who have a lot of different products.”

While many companies are looking more actively at every opportunity to automate these days, what about bakers who continue to invest? Has technology advanced enough that they’re considering upgrading their systems from those they purchased just 10 years ago? 

“If you are happy with your current technology and are achieving the desired results, there really is no rush to upgrade your system,” said Jamie Bobyk, marketing manager, Apex Motion Control. “Upgrading, though, can often help you achieve better results than what you are experiencing now. The labor shortages are not going away. They will only get worse as the boomers retire and the new generation’s interests lie somewhere other than working in a baking manufacturing plant.”

But then there’s always the sales pitch that’s making bakers give the latest technology a second glance.

“On that note, if you are looking to really ramp it up, the Deco-Bot is a no-brainer,” Mr. Bobyk added. “The Deco-Bot is an all-in-one robotic decorating station that is capable of accurately decorating cakes, cookies and cupcakes with that homemade look. Write, draw, drizzle and decorate round or sheet cakes with roses, or finish cupcakes with swirls, rosettes and roses.”

For bakers, it comes down to their willingness to adapt to new technology to determine how well they’ll compete in the marketplace and whether they will come in first to the finish line for new customers.

This article is an excerpt from the November 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Finishing/Icing/Topping, click here.