The demand for more diverse, pre-packaged baked goods is on the rise. Product shortages from pandemic labor deficits, supply chain issues, and stressful global conflicts have enhanced consumer appetites for sweet artisanal indulgences that they can have at home.
Hostess, one of the leading snack manufacturers in industry, saw net revenue increase an incredible 25.1% in Q1 of 2022, with 15% of that demand coming from broad-based consumers. Through 2025, demand for baked goods packaging is forecast to rise 2.9% per year to $4.4 billion.
These revenue trends have producers scrambling to meet this increasing demand and offer consumers products comparable to those they find fresh in their local bakery. As technology evolves and these companies continue to grow from new sales, they find their labor outpaced and more motivated than ever to reinvest capital to improve production and offset exponential growth.
However, with today’s labor availability, does this mean taking the traditional route and doubling your human labor force to fill that demand?
The workforce doesn’t exist. Experts estimate that labor hasn’t yet rebounded from high pre-pandemic levels, and there will be a shortfall of approximately 2.1 million jobs in food production by 2030.
With the labor pool stagnant, even on the decline, do you run more production cycles in more shifts? Create more plant space for complete lines of automated systems? For many, that prospect is cost prohibitive or physically limiting and therefore not a viable option.
More and more, producers are getting creative and turning to “value-add automation” to solve their labor woes, hit production goals, and save more through Return on Investment (ROI) over time.
WHAT IS “VALUE-ADD AUTOMATION?”
Value-add automation means integrating customized packaging automation only at specific production stages or intervals, rather than in every aspect of your operations all at once.
For instance, a fully automated packaging line for high-speed flow wrapping (the preferred baking line application) can cost upwards of $5 million and replace 30-40 human laborers or more at a time.
With value-add automation, you’re opting for a more hybrid approach to meet your specific needs and get the highest value. In doing so, you could pay 1/5 of the cost of full automation and realize the highest ROI in the shortest time.
THE MOST VALUE WHERE IT IS LEAST EXPECTED
If the idea of custom automation at a fraction of the price sounds promising, it’s because it is.
Demand always dictates the pace of production. As a packager, you cannot hope to survive on manual labor alone. With production speeds reaching upwards of 300 packages per minute (ppm) and more for single-serve baked goods, the rates are just too high.
However, you’re not new to the industry either. You have been running primary packaging machinery – flow wrap, thermoformer, vertical form fill and seal (VFFS) machine, and tray sealing – at full tilt for years now, and you have already acquired the automated assets to carry on production.
What about before your primary packaging? What about after? Traditionally, where have you used manual labor the most in conjunction with automation to fulfill production?
Integrating value-add automation in these processes – product infeeding into primary packaging, secondary case packing, and palletizing – feels unexpected but offers the best value, optimized efficiency, and resource conservation.
BAKERY AUTOMATION AT PRIMARY AND END-OF-LINE PACKAGING
The truth is that value-add automation will positively impact where it matters most and benefit packagers who integrate it properly.
The “how” is the real magic behind the strategy. Can integrating lesser automation at specific stages make that much of a difference to your operations?
Let’s examine the new trend in baking automation at each level:
BAKERY AUTOMATION FOR PRODUCT INFEEDING INTO PRIMARY PACKAGING
Integrating full automation for a larger variety of bakery items can be challenging and, therefore, costly. With value-add automation, you design the automated system around the products you are packaging, with the different baking pans and molds in mind, and create the product flexibility you need.
Automation is a must in creating a continuous line into your primary packaging machine. Value-add automation makes an invaluable tool for predominantly smaller producers looking to do precisely that while also reducing manual labor (and the associated costs).
Additionally, the number of human laborers loading product (three on average) will vary from line to line based on several factors, including:
- The number of products you offer
- The rate at which they are being loaded
- Plant space
- Continuing pandemic health concerns
One of the primary goals of integrating value-add automation for your labor force is eliminating people working in close proximity and increasing the risk of contagious illness. With precise value-add automation, you can prepare for that, maintain necessary production safety standards and open more plant space for more advanced automated systems as your company grows.
BAKERY AUTOMATION IN SECONDARY CASE PACKING
Traditionally, once product leaves the primary packaging equipment, it snakes its way down the line on conveyors to case packaging stations. It is then prepped for departure from the plant.
In bakery facilities across the country, this case packing is still done manually, employing multiple human laborers to form, pack, and seal corrugated boxes or load plastic totes full of product for their final destinations.
But do more case packers mean better efficiency, fewer product defects, and less risk of additional expenditure due to illness and injury? Does overspending on case packing automation solve all your issues as long as the ROI is there?
Far from it.
When comparing value-add automation to human-based case packing, you must evaluate all the automation factors, not just the ROI.
“You can’t just automate to remove people but then have damaged product,” said Josh Becker, Bakery and Confection Product Manager at Harpak-ULMA Packaging. “Everything goes into your automation equation. You must look at everything: product quality, material quality, inspection. It’s not as easy as buying a case packer and moving on with your day.”
By adopting a hybrid method of collaborative human and automated case packing, you can examine in-depth where value-add automation would fit best to meet stringent labor standards and eliminate deficiencies in your line while avoiding overpaying for full automation.
Packaged product doesn’t just fall into an oversized box and get placed on store shelves. Retail cartons hold at most five to ten packaged products and include fun marketing materials to impress supermarket and convenience store customers.
Manual case packing requires employees to remove product from the line, form the box, configure product properly, close and seal it, then send it off for palletizing. At an average of 200ppm, that will take 4-6 people to maintain production speed. Unfortunately, that means more defects and possible packaging damage.
Carton erector and case packing automation works with almost any marketed materials, optimizes efficiency and inspection, and reduces product defects with packing systems based on “controlled gravity” rather than physical product handling.
Even at the high-speed bakery production demands, product is aligned, inspected, configured, and packed with minimal defects in a continuous line with value-add automation and offers optimal appeal.
Value add-automation extends even to the materials used in case packing. For example, when laborers remove a blank box off a pallet, load it, and send it on, the quality of that box varies dramatically. It can be old, warped, or damaged. If that is the case, your automation project will inevitably fail, as the materials aren’t uniform.
Conversely, value-add automation for case packing materials requires all corrugated boxes to fall within certain specifications and tolerances. This uniformity not only keeps suppliers accountable for every shipment but also keeps operations departments in sync and reduces the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of your system by minimizing extra packaging cycles that make up for damaged cartons.
Inspection & QA
But whenever you’re reducing labor off your line, you’re eliminating quality assurance (QA) and inspection capabilities those team members provide. So it falls to you to ask, “What else does that human laborer bring to their position?” Once you determine that, you can integrate sophisticated value-add automation even at these micro-process levels – x-ray product inspection, vision inspection, 3D measurements, color inspections – meet your standard, and ensure optimal product for every cycle.
BAKERY AUTOMATION IN PALLETIZING
Before the 1950s, hand-loading pallets was the only way to prep boxed product for shipment. However, times have definitely changed, with technology and automation taking great strides to ensure the highest safety standards in food production.
Today, like case packing, integrating value-add automation into palletizing saves physical plant space, reduces labor costs significantly, and improves flexibility throughout your packaging operations.
With value-add automation, you can design a tote (basket) management system that achieves nearly “lights off automation.” Destacking, singulation, palletizing, cleaning, restacking, and loading all move continuously without human intervention, repurposing up to 20 manual laborers from the line into more fulfilling roles.
Alternatively, you can choose ONE of the most critical elements on that list to automate and still realize impressive benefits from reduced footprint, improved ROI, faster tooling changeovers, varied material usage (plastic totes and corrugated boxes), and minimized labor expenditures.
Palletizing Automation & Worker Safety
Value-add automation is not only about process but about people as well. Think about the palletizing process using manual labor:
- Destacking/ Depalletizing Incoming Baskets
- Stretch wrapping
There is a high risk of injury working at high speeds in the baking sector. Boxes can weigh up to 25lbs, and human laborers lift them eight feet into the air, eight hours a day per shift.
The results of such constant, repetitive motion?
- Every year, over 1 million US workers are injured on the job
- Warehouse workers are 8x more likely to suffer back injury than other workers
- The average person takes NINE days off work to recover
- Over 9 million lost workdays each year because of on-the-job injuries
- Over $1 BILLION SPENT PER WEEK on non-fatal workplace injuries
With palletizing end-of-line automation, you can mitigate and even eliminate that risk, preventing employee injury and turnover. Moreover, you have a system that never gets sick or injured and runs 24/7, year-round.
INTEGRATING VALUE-ADD AUTOMATION INTO YOUR BAKING LINE
Integrating automation into your bakery line doesn’t have to cost you millions. Customized value-add automation can be applied to the most specific, important parts of your production – product infeeding, case packing, and palletizing – to give you better efficiency, safety, cost savings, and attractive ROI on your investment.
If you feel like your production could benefit from value-add automation, talk to our experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging. We customize every automation installation as your single-source supplier to optimize your packaging flexibility and capabilities where and how you need them the most.