Bakery Automation’s Human Heart: How Labor Is Changing the Conversation Concerning Return On Investment (ROI)

By Mike Terry
Posted In : Labor, Bakery, overall equipment effectiveness, bakery automation, Value-add automation, return on investment, ROI, Plant Space

The conversation surrounding bakery automation systems’ Return on Investment (ROI) is changing.

As we have seen from previous cases, value-add bakery automation systems are transforming lines, integrating robotic assistance at specific intervals of the packaging process.

However, even with this cost-saving hybrid approach, the current labor market is making automation and the definition of “good ROI” more human than ever.

“What used to be ‘we need to have a 3-year ROI on our bakery automation systems investment’ is now ‘Well, I don’t have the people, so I need to automate,'” said Josh Becker, Bakery and Confection Product Manager at Harpak-ULMA Packaging. “Also, producers are asking their people to do these repetitive motions over and over, so they’re weighing the safety factor in a human environment. They are integrating human capital into their ROI calculations. People are looking at it differently now.”

Much of the conversation around ROI has shifted from tangible investment numbers and data into more of a survival mode strategy. Intangibles, such as human reactions to the environment, now factor heavily.

And the change is neither unfounded nor unwarranted.

Producers have identified a real need to consider these factors when discussing ROI. Even though they’re less quantifiable in reporting, they can be the key to optimizing company culture and safety across their operations.


ROIYet not all ROI measurements involving bakery automation systems and human labor are intangible.

Labor availability is not changing in the current market. And producers are tasked with creative ways to increase production to meet demand while simultaneously cutting costs and saving more.

Value-add automation accomplishes this by helping producers take back control of line production, reduce the number of laborers in tedious or repetitive positions, and conserve and even increase plant space for more advanced automation such as robotics.

“Customers come to us and say, ‘Here are our lines; what can we do?,’” said John Weddleton, Automation Product Manager for Harpak-ULMA Packaging. “It is our job to examine their lines and determine where they are losing control of the product. Then, we make important changes before they lose that control. This helps them maintain it all the way through and ideally send product on to one automatic case packing and palletizing system.”

Lose control of the product? Let’s define that.

A three-lane, high-speed flow wrap bakery line, running 520 packages per minute (ppm), can require up to 11 employees to manually case pack their product once it passes inspection. With an average annual cost of $60,000 per employee (conservatively), the labor savings from automating the case packing for one shift alone are enough to justify expenditure:

11 employees per shift x $60,000 per year = $660,000 per year in salary.

11 employees per shift x 3 shifts (assuming the plant runs 24/7) = $1.98 million per year in salary costs

The cost of an automated case packing system under these circumstances?

Approximately $700,000.

The automated case packing pays back ROI within ONE year or less. It also improves Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), reduces the plant space of 11 people per shift, mitigates the risk of illness, improves worker safety, and frees up human labor to move into more fulfilling positions within the company.

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Most importantly, value-add automation isn’t about kicking employees out the door and replacing them with robotics. That’s a common misconception.

Case packing automation solutions also solve how to continue production when the machine breaks down or is being maintained. Value-add automation allows for the integration of manual labor stations, necessitating human intervention, in case of mechanical failure or maintenance. This cooperation between man and machine provides improved flexibility and the collaboration you need for an optimized packaging line.


In addition to reduced plant space and labor costs, we also mentioned improved OEE. Quantifiable and essential to productivity, OEE is also one of the most important factors in any ROI discussion.

Let’s get down to data.

First, automated bakery systems provide full OEE reporting for the entire shift, down to the micro-stop level. This reporting streamlines your process overall through sophisticated tools such as Allen Bradley® Integrated Architecture™ controls platform and the Human Machine Interface (HMI).


OEE is a calculation of the equipment’s availability, performance and quality of packaged product. Your OEE reporting can tell you exactly when and why your machine went down and eliminate the stops that chip away at your efficiency before they add up. Left unchecked, these expenditures can compound to the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in lost production, maintenance, and repair costs.


Moreover, real-time OEE data and reporting allow you to address stoppage issues without waiting. Your packaging partner can remote into your system from an iPad or laptop and provide proactive assistance through digital maintenance capabilities such as Augmented Reality (AR).

The benefits value-add automation exhibits on your OEE all combine to optimize your bakery automation systems. They tell you where the deficiencies in your line exist, train your people on the floor to address these issues in real-time, and help you become faster and more efficient in more measurable ways.


Automation is never all or nothing or one size fits all when it comes to your packaging operations. By choosing a cost-effective hybrid approach like value-add automation for your bakery line, you can better control product packaging, dictate labor savings, improve company culture, and enhance your OEE across the board.

And, you don’t have to say goodbye to your hard-working labor force to do it.

If you think your packaging line could benefit from value-add automation, talk to the experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging. Our automation specialists will examine your unique line, make the best recommendations to improve your process and help you achieve improved ROI on a more human level.

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