January 24, 2019
The scent of bread baking is powerful. Real estate agents sometimes recommend you bake bread in your home when you’re trying to sell. When you’re walking through the top consumer tech trade show, though, the last thing you’d expect to smell is bread baking.
Yet, the bread-baking vending machine developed by Wilkinson Baking Co., Walla Walla, Wash., was on hand working for the four trade-show days of the Consumer Electronics Show, now called CES. And it was a hit. It’s called the BreadBot.
“My brother was in China, but he came back early because of the reaction to this machine,” says Randall Wilkinson, who created the company with his brother, son and other family members.
In fact, the machine was the hit of the internet for a few days during CES 2019, getting plenty of social media attention. And at a time when gluten is seen as some kind of enemy of the people, it may be refreshing for Western wheat growers to see this kind of tech in action.
To be clear, this machine is baking bread from scratch. “We had to work to gather the information a baker has about humidity and other conditions to make loaves consistent,” Wilkinson explains. “We’re using sensors and machine learning to make that happen.”
Farmers are hearing more about machine learning these days. Essentially, this machine gathers a lot of sensor information to make decisions. When it’s kneading a loaf of bread, it knows the proper consistency needed before kicking it out to the loaf pan. That may mean adding more water or more flour to achieve the right loaf consistency. The fully automated machine can produce 10 loaves of bread an hour; all that’s needed is for supplies to be kept full (tending is important).
Fresh bread in the store
Why is this machine groundbreaking? In part because, there are few grocery stores these days that bake bread fresh on-site. Essentially, loaves of bread, rolls and other items are par-baked to 70% done and then frozen. They are “fresh-baked” in the store when you get them, but not from scratch.
The Wilkinson machine brings back from-scratch baking, and it does it right before the customers’ eyes. “We have machines in a couple stores now; and when parents come in, the children go right to the machine to watch it work,” Wilkinson says.
This machine may be properly timed for a new generation of consumers who also want to know where their food originates and how it’s made. If a consumer can see the bread made on-site with flour, yeast, water and no preservatives or added sugars, Wilkinson said that’s a good thing.
WHEN WAS THIS BAKED? Customers coming to the bread-baking machine display can choose the loaf they want bagged, based on when it was baked. Perhaps you don’t want a hot one, so you can choose a loaf baked a few minutes before.
Watching it work
And watching the machine work can be captivating. The flour bin drops the right amount of product into the kneading area, along with water. Yeast is also added, as well as the other basic ingredients for the bread.
The kneading chamber works the product to get just the right “feeling” before kicking the loaf out to head into the pan for the proofing process. The proofing section is warm, relying on the fact that heat rises. The real baking happens at the top of the chain. As the bread goes through the process, sensors check to make sure all is going well. “If the bread isn’t rising enough, the system will add more yeast,” Wilkinson says. “We’re monitoring every step through the process.”
Finished loaves are moved into a visible storage area and monitored. Each loaf is “known,” and using an onboard display, consumers can choose the loaf they want based on when it was baked. “You probably wouldn’t take a hot loaf right out of the oven,” Wilkinson says. “You can choose the loaf and determine when it was baked.”
Bread can lose condition fast in storage if it’s not wrapped. Currently, a store employee would pull loaves for slicing and bagging. But Wilkinson says the company already has an automated slicer-bagger in the works that would pull loaves after a specified time. Those sliced and bagged loaves would then sit in a rack on the side of the machine.
Already, several grocery chains have expressed interest in the machine. And Wilkinson Baking is talking. For farmers, the idea of a new way to market wheat is a good thing, too.
Ironically, Wilkinson is actually Dr. Randall Wilkinson, an allergist by training. In an age when everyone worries about gluten, his company has come up with a surefire way to market bread. You can learn more at wilkinsonbaking.com.
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