The Bakery of the Future is Here
Where’s the last place you would expect to see robots simplifying a human’s job? A bakery would be near the top of my list. But as our world adapts to automation, engineers are finding more and more helpful and innovative uses for robotics in our everyday lives.
ABI LTD—which manufactures bakery equipment—caught on about a decade ago, realizing that not only could robotics offer great new opportunities to the company, but it was something the bakery industry needed. Unfortunately for the baking industry, a majority of the robotics manufacturers at the time were interested in low-hanging fruit, like the automotive industry.
“Not many people were interested in diversifying into bakeries,” said Alex Kuperman, President and CEO, “It’s also difficult to make a robot that can work with live organisms and food. But ABB, one of the world’s largest and most renowned robotics manufacturers, and our interests intersected. They, like us, had a keen interest to invest in developing the sector.”
Since then ABI has specialized in manufacturing automated equipment, which is often created for clients’ unique needs or to fill a gap in automation in the industry. Kuperman, whose enthusiasm for his job and company were palpable in our chat, shared that for many at the company, the job is seen as more play than it is work.
“You have to like what you do. When you start with a piece of metal and end up with a device of tremendous complexity, it makes you proud. There are mundane day-to-day challenges, just like with any company, but at the end of the day we get to build robots—grown men playing with toys, essentially—which is a great job to have.”
Recently Kuperman and his team took ABI’s latest and greatest bakery offerings to iba 2015, the world’s largest exhibition for bakeries and bakery equipment, held every three years in Germany. It showcases the best of the best in the industry, and ABI was honored to attend.
“You’re being compared to the best in the world—being part of it is very exciting, but at the same time is also a little scary,” he shared.
For ABI, the results were far from scary. There were a lot of excited customers, totaling the largest yield (by threefold!) of visitors the company has ever had visit its booth during an exhibition. The company showcased four of its premier products—a bagel forming device, a robotic scoring machine, a robotic water jet cutting device, and a robotic decorator—all of which garnered much interest and attention.
ABI’s core product line was built on its bagel machines, which were developed with the inception of the company. Kuperman shared that bagel production continues to be a major vertical for the company and that ABI is arguably the largest producer of bagel machinery in the world right now.
“Bagels are a very American-type food,” he said. “But right now bagels are gaining a lot of ground all over the world. About a third of the increase in our business can be attributed to the increase in bagel production and consumption globally.”
The robotics offerings ABI brought to Germany and iba are the company’s most recent research and development offerings. Its robotic scoring device—which creates the trademark cuts found on baguettes, a job usually done by human hands—can score with multiple techniques and multiple blades. The device’s ability to replicate a very human movement demonstrates the innovation at work behind the scenes at ABI.
But that wasn’t all. ABI filled another niche need of exhibition goers with its robotic water jet cutting device, which can cut flaky pastries and spongy cakes alike, hundreds of times an hour. This system harnesses the power of industrial-scale waterjet cutting technology and combines it with robotics and advanced product mapping software. The end result is a system with the ability to cut complex shapes incredibly precisely while still meeting the line speed expectations of high throughput bakery operations.
“We did not invent water jet technology, but we are the first to marry waterjet and robotics in the baking industry. It generated a lot of interest at the show,” Kuperman said.
Other machines on the showroom floor at iba included a robotic decorating machine, and a recently patented end-of-arm tool that bends and pinches croissants into their famous closed crescent shape.
Although Kuperman shared that developing the technology is like playing with toys, it can also be extensive and exhausting.
“We brainstorm for days. There are a lot of tests, a lot of failures. Sometimes we scrap full ideas all together. Even with the final products, we encourage feedback from our clients so that we can continuously improve the equipment.”
One thing ABI’s engineers must keep in mind in their design is the end user, who has to be able to operate the machine without needing a degree in robotic programming to do so. Although there is a certain level of education and skill that is required by the operator—greater than you might see from the usual laborer that is employed at a bakery—a lot of thought has gone into making the equipment ‘user-friendly’.
“The engineers spend a great deal of time facilitating communication between machine and human,” said Kuperman. “Our operator tools are designed using icon-based, touchscreen interfaces. They are also engineered with enough intelligence to process external input, as opposed to just pre-programmed executable commands. Once we’ve set up the machine and we are out of the bakery, the client can produce their goods and operate our equipment without requiring us to re-program it for every customized order.”
ABI is excited about its accomplishments thus far in the field of robotics, and is looking forward to its continuing role in the development of innovative technology for bakeries and other food producers. However, the company and its goals are all about the people.
“It’s all about the people—the right people make great companies,” Kuperman said. “It may be a cliché, but it’s absolutely true. There are people who have been working for ABI since its inception. We work in a pretty detail-oriented environment, and yet the interpersonal relationships between our employees, as well as the relationships between our employees and our clients, are fantastic.”
Since 1989, ABI LTD has specialized in the manufacturing and integration of automated baking equipment. We are an industry leader in the development of high-calibre technologies and provide solutions for every stage of the baking process, from ingredients handling through to packaging.
ABI LTD provides stand-alone equipment and mid-range lines for retail bakeries while at the same time designing and integrating full end-to-end production lines for many of the world’s largest industrial baking centres. The company boasts a network of satisfied customers from all over the globe.
What We’ve Achieved
- • We have satisfied customers on four continents, with successful installations across the US, Canada, China, South Korea, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, Russia and many more countries around the globe.
- • We provide turn-key solutions, not just stand-alone machines. We are a full solutions-provider, integrating machinery from numerous partners to make fully automated lines, start to finish.
- • Our machines have produced more than 50 million tons of baked goods over the past two and a half decades.
- • Robotics is revolutionizing industries around the world. In the baking industry, we are a Preferred Partner and the integrator of choice for the largest robotics manufacturer in the world, ABB.
- • Together, we build products that offer our customers unparalleled precision and efficiency.
- • Some of our recent projects are: