Today, Bakeries are adopting technologies to automate processes and help them accurately produce in high volumes. Even with the industry-wide push for innovation, automation, and data-rich production applications, most bakeries still employ manual inspection to determine whether products achieve visual expectations.

Manual inspection was more reasonable in bakeries 30 or more years ago, producing products at smaller volumes than today's high-throughput operations. Access to baking quality assurance experts was also different back then. Even still, relying solely on manual inspection presents several challenges to bakeries – especially regarding production process control.

Oven Control Demands Quick Decision-Making

In most mass-production bakeries, products enter the oven in individual segments or lanes. Within the oven and above these lanes are individual heating elements controlled by the production operator, who oversees whether products are baked uniformly across the entire belt width.

Many bakeries take a reactionary approach to controlling oven performance. When an inspector on the processing floor notices products baking too dark or too light at the end of the cooling stage, it is unfortunately too late to make any process adjustments for those products.

As with all machinery, industrial ovens can drift outside specifications over time. The operating environment – including temperature, humidity, and even vibration within the plant – also has a role in the baking process and oven performance. Relying solely on the production operator or product inspector on the floor to make the split-second decisions necessary to ensure top-quality products are challenging to manage from employee to employee, and even within the same shift.

Automated Vision Inspection Technologies Improve Process Control

In its early days, in-line vision inspection technologies – like the Q-Bake Vision Inspection System – were used to measure final products before packaging, helping apply objective data to enhance a bakery’s quality assurance program.

In recent years, however, baking companies began considering different ways vision inspection technology could help close the loop on quality control. While final product vision inspection could accurately assess the production process results, they could not determine why they were getting the results.

This lack of information led to the development of a new category of vision inspection technology called Vision Process Control Systems (VPC).

Figure 1: Vision Process Control (VPC) technologies (indicated by “Process Control” in this diagram) are an emerging inspection method to help bakeries monitor the health of their production process before and after baking.

VPC systems are typically installed at key production process stages – such as before and after the oven. Data visualization and real-time feedback connected with process machinery can automatically act to keep the process performance on target. Using multiple VPC systems makes it possible to monitor different production phases in real-time and, if necessary, react to fix issues causing non-compliant finished products. This solution is essential to developing a "Smart Manufacturing Line," where bakers and operators can make data-driven production decisions and verify their choices with their final product analysis.

Closing the Loop on Oven Performance Control

Assuming dough forming and proofing processes maintain visual standards (also manageable with VPC systems), including another vision inspection checkpoint at the oven exit can monitor the baked color of each product.

If the system detects a change in bake color over time – generally by the color of the outside crust of the final product – it can alert the production operator whether a specific lane or collection of lanes may need adjustment or repair. Additionally, because the inspection method analyzes products in real-time, the operator can review the timeline of data to determine whether a protocol may be necessary to adjust their processes for routinely checking their oven performance.

It is also possible to integrate a Real-Time Oven Feedback module within an oven’s control software, which uses the measured bake color to automatically adjust oven settings, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Real-Time Oven Feedback module automatically adjusts oven temperature based on the baked color of products.

Savings from Reduced Waste Stack Up Thanks to Vision Process Control

A biscuit producer operating six production lines has a manual inspection protocol where personnel remove sample biscuits after cooling every 15-20 minutes. Unfortunately, this plant has a high waste percentage (~25% of the total quantity of rejected goods was due to wrong plant regulations). About one-third of that value (9.1%) was explicitly due to inaccurate baking temperature. This value calculates to around 40,600 kg of wasted product over six months.

After vision inspection integration: With real-time, 100% monitoring of products exiting the oven, the company's production team could react much quicker and adjust oven temperatures as variations occurred throughout the day. 

Over time, the bakery reduced scrap waste by 8.7% (the remaining 0.4% of scraps occurred during the system integration process), amounting to a total of 38,800 kg in saved material. Based on these figures, with an average biscuit cost of $1.22, these savings translate to nearly $47K in six months (38,300 x $1.22 = $47,336) – and an annual savings of $94.6K. These savings only account for the reduction of wasted products; having the ability to make data-driven decisions on oven temperature also helped the company save energy costs.

Product Quality & Consistency Builds Stronger Brands

Baking brands have a solution to ensure all products maintain visual brand standards batch after batch with the help of automated vision inspection solutions. For more information on automated vision inspection technologies, contact us today

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