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Finding the perfect mix of craft and automation

20 June 2016

Suzanne Gill visited the Village Bakery Group to find out how this forward-looking craft bakery is managing to find just the right mix of automation technology and skilled craftsmanship. 

Established in 1934, in North Wales the Village Bakery Group is a family owned business which produces a range of bread, pies and morning goods for sale in independent retailers throughout North Wales, as well as several major supermarkets in the region. The company has won Craft Bakery of the Year three times. In 2013 it was crowned the fastest growing company in Wales and in 2014 it was named as the Bakery Manufacturer of the Year at the Baking Industry Awards.

The company currently has three sites. The original site is at Coedpoeth, where a range of premium breads, rolls and savouries are produced. In addition it has a dedicated gluten free bakery and its newest state of the art bakery is located in Wrexham.

The Wrexham bakery is believed to be Europe’s largest and most modern pancake bakery. It was built to meet the most stringent retail specifications and has cleverly incorporated automation into its traditional processes, to help increase capacity and product quality of a range of pancakes, pikelets and blinis to ensure that is able to meet increasing demand.

One of the areas identified for automation at the Wrexham bakery was for a handling solution to arrange pancakes into various pack ready formats. Christien Jones, project director at Village Bakery Group takes up the story: “We chose to partner with RM Group for this project because the company was able to demonstrate its ability to help us increase capacity and product quality.”

In order to achieve the required speed and accuracy needed for the line RM Group collaborated with its partner in automation, ABB Robotics on the project. “Having reviewed various layout options we arrived at a ten robot system, split into two banks of five ABB delta-style, Flex-Picker robots with Pick Master 3 control,” explained Roger Cope, technical sales manager at RM Group. The system also incorporates six high-resolution ABB vision systems, which provide the robots with their picking accuracy and undertake quality inspection of the pancakes prior to packing.

The pancakes are conveyed away from the cooling conveyor and split between the two banks of five robot cells. Each robot is equipped with a Festo pick-up head which operates using a non contact end effector, based on the Bernoulli principle which exploits the airflow between the gripper and the pancake causing a lifting force that brings the gripper and pancake close to each other. With minimal product contact which also offers a hygienic handling solution. It provides a simple but effective handling solution for the pancake line which also allows for high picking speeds. The panckaes are picked and placed directly to Fuji flow wrapper infeed conveyors which have been integrated into the system along with Fuji card feeders.

The Village Bakery had been producing pancakes in its craft bakery for around five years. The automated product handling and packing line has extended its pancake production capabilities and gives the bakery the additional capacity needed. “Despite automating parts of this production process we believe that we still offer a craft product. We have simply utilised available technology and automation to help us create our craft products on a larger scale,” continued Jones.

“Our bakers use a live recipe to create the pancake batter. Automation enables us to add value and gain more control. It allows us to make a better product, more consistently and the craft bakers are still able to input their wishes into the equipment – relating to roundness, colour and inclusions.”

Jones was keen to point out that the Village Bakery Group did not seek out automation technologies to provide it with cost-savings but instead to allow it to make the best use of its skilled bakers to add value to the products and to concentrate on production, instead of having to spend valuable time packing products too. “Packing pancakes at high speeds can be a mundane job so instead we are trying to better utilise our human workforce in areas where we think they can add the most value and leaving the more basic work to automation,” explained Jones. The automated packing solution also increases hygiene levels. Traditionally the packing process was originally carried out by hand. Today there is no human contact with the finished product.

In other areas of Europe as well as Asia and the US, the use of robotics is far more advanced in bakery production than in the UK. However, according to Jones, the benefits of automation for the food industry could be huge. “It’s not all about cost or cutting staff,” he said. “It can help increase product consistency and quality control and allows staff to be moved away from mundane tasks. With an automated solution we know exactly where we are with order fulfillment and quality levels and at the touch of a button we can access lots of data to demonstrate this.”

A key element of the automated solution was the vision system. Cope explains: “Robots are fantastic pieces of machinery for repetitive operations but they do rely heavily on vision technology. For the Village Bakery application, consistent quality was an important requirement. The vision system ensures that every pancake that comes down the line is inspected, even at high speeds.” Jones is delighted with the vision system. He said: “Vision technology lends itself particularly well to the bakery environment – which is prone to variation from batch to batch. One of our quality systems requires products to fall within a specified spectrum of bake colours.

The vision system helps us maintain colour accuracy and also helps us save energy through improved baking control.” The vision system is positioned at the end of the line, before the robot – its main purpose is to check for the correct roundness of product before packing as well as product colour and the amount of sultanas and their distribution. “Monitoring the colour of pancakes in real time allows us to modify the temperature of the baking process and to alter the bake if the colour of the finished product starts to move closer to the acceptable colour threshold. This means that our oven is always running at its most efficient,” explained Jones.

“The primary reason for installing vision into the line was to plot the position of pancakes on the conveyor belt to allow the robot to accurately pick them,” said Cope. “However, we were able to exploit many of the other features of the vision system to provide a host of additional quality control benefits.”

“Having added automation solutions to the pancake production line I would certainly consider automated solutions in other areas if I felt it would make a positive difference we feel it would make a difference,” concluded Jones. “Automating should never just be about cost. We will be looking for areas where it can help us add greater efficiencies and product quality.” Jones believes that the food industry should also be taking notice of the Industry 4.0 trends. “We are taking these ideas on board as they could offer huge benefits and I think that it could have a particular impact on the bakery sector. Take, for example, the data analysis capabilities of a connected plant… this will lead to greater levels of consistency. With consistency comes efficiency and with efficiency comes reward!”

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