The Future of Bakery Automation
ABI LTD, of Richmond Hill, Ontario, has emerged as a global leader in the manufacture and integration of automated baking equipment. The company makes it its mission “to empower every bakery to maximize their potential. We do this by being a technology and equipment partner.”
Founded by Alex Kuperman and his father in 1989, ABI LTD has developed high-calibre technologies and customized solutions for many stages of the commercial baking process, while preserving a reputation for reliability among bakers everywhere.
As a result of these abilities, plus the robust design and ABI’s ‘built-in” quality, growing numbers of bakeries in North America are turning to the company’s solutions to produce baked goods, from bagels to pretzels, and pizzas to sweet pastries and breads.
In recent years, as the company grew from 16 employees to 80, its reputation crossed the Atlantic to Paris where TMG (Together Means Greater), the company that in 2018 had acquired Mecatherm, the French bakery equipment industry giant, sat up and took notice. The result was that after a series of negotiations, TMG announced it had acquired a majority stake in ABI LTD, inviting the Canadian company to step onto the global stage as a sister company to Mecatherm. This partnership gives Mecatherm access to North American markets and ABI LTD to the 80 countries in which Mecatherm equipment currently operates.
In a joint press release, issued simultaneously in Paris and Toronto on January 5, 2021, ABI LTD is described as “a premier North American bakery solutions provider recognized for its bagel and pretzel production equipment, its robotic solutions, and its automation equipment. Led by co-founder and CEO Alex Kuperman, ABI LTD has sales of roughly $20M (CAD), strong growth, and deep technical expertise supported by a team of nearly 80 people.”
Declared Olivier Sergent, President of TMG and Mecatherm, “ABI’s know-how for integrating robotic solutions in production lines, its leading position in bagels in North America, and the reliability of its equipment – widely recognized by the market – convinced us.”
Recently we enjoyed a teleconference interview with Alex Kuperman, ABI’s co-founder and CEO; Carl Heinlein, President and COO; Eric Miedema, Engineering Manager; and Jadecy Kidane, who joined the company this past April as marketing and communications specialist.
Kuperman’s story begins in the former USSR, where he was born in what is now Ukraine, in the city of Odessa, before emigrating to Canada with his parents in 1977. Upon arrival his father began working for a company that was manufacturing bagel-making equipment, “and within a year I started working there as well, doing odd jobs after school. I really loved the work because I love being around machinery,” he tells us.
After graduating from Ryerson University in Toronto with a degree in mechanical engineering, he joined the company as an engineer and began designing machines. “There was a bagel boom at the time,” he recalls, and bagels had just started appearing on North American tables.
The company for which the Kupermans worked was one of the first to manufacture a fully automated bagel production plant, but after initial success, it was sold to a US conglomerate and moved to Florida.
The Kupermans were not left workless however, and their combined expertise as millwright and engineer “gave us a foot in the door,” Alex Kuperman says. “We completed some local projects and customers were happy with our work, and we continued to service customers and extend the business by selling bakery equipment and coming up with small innovations.
“But we decided we needed to start manufacturing as we didn’t want to be just a service and re-sale company. With my engineering background, we came up with the idea of providing automation to the bagel forming process. We developed and patented it and that is how ABI started in 1989.”
In addition to manufacturing bagel-making machinery in their first facility in Concord, ON, Kuperman designed a multi-belt bagel former and began automating other parts of the process, including placement of bagels onto the boards, and boiling and adding toppings to bagels, “and we slowly expanded our range of machines that would give consistent results.”
Today most of the world’s bagel-making industry is using either ABI’s equipment or equipment the company supports.
Robotics can be found in an arsenal of tools that industrial bakeries typically use to move products from point A to point B, from production line into packaging. ABI, however, has produced application-specific robotic tools which increase consistency and quality of end products – in the case of this example, bread.
Once the dough has risen and is placed in the pan, the upper surface of the dough must be scored to allow gasses created during the baking process to escape. As the temperature within the bread rises, the water content in the dough becomes steam and if the surface hasn’t been scored or cut to a precise depth, the result will be an ugly, cracked loaf.
But scoring bread on a high production line is a boring job, as Kuperman points out. “If the bakery is using unskilled labour, the quality of the bread will suffer, but on the other hand qualified bakers don’t want to do this job. So here is where robots come in, making the depth of the cut consistent throughout the entire process.”
ABI’s ultrasonic blades are stronger and more durable than conventional blades, Kuperman says. They are flexible in terms of the look they create because the vibrational amplitude, ranging from 20 to 40 kHz, can be adjusted to create bread that has an artisanal appearance, and as it’s an ultrasonic blade, it doesn’t have to be cleaned often as nothing sticks to it.
Robots are also used in packaging, as one might expect. But in addition, ABI has designed a cake decorator that can create piping designs that previously would have needed highly skilled cake artists; a robot that can brand a loaf of bread with a bakery’s name or logo; and a water jet robot that can cut through a cake to create unique designs.
ABI, however, is about more than robotics, as Carl Heinlein explains. “It’s about providing solutions to customers. Many come to us because competitors have given them a catalogue-driven range of equipment. Even though we do see the economies in having a standardized product, many of our customers appreciate our ability to customize, to address exactly the problem they have and solve that specific problem,” he says.
“We do that very well. We manufacture on site and do it more quickly than many of our competitors because we have a shorter cycle from order to delivery and we use our own teams for installation and commissioning the equipment. We own the whole process, from winning the design, to manufacturing it, installing it, and getting it up and running,” he explains.
“We get it done, we stand by our product, and, because our customers come first, we make the sacrifices we need to until we have a happy customer who is satisfied with our solution.”
To continuously improve the company’s manufacturing abilities, adds Eric Miedema, “We’ve focused a lot on Lean Manufacturing training, especially with regards to reduction of waste, and Lean Six Sigma Training, which is about reducing variation, and that has helped everyone be part of the change.”
Repeat business plays a leading role in ABI’s success, and Kuperman notes that he’s just come off the phone with a customer ABI has worked with for 15 years and who is now expanding. “We appreciate the quality of the product you’ve supplied, and want you to be an integral part of our growth,” the client told him.
The company’s expertise, he says, is “such that ABB (one of ABI’s choice suppliers and a leading global technology company) calls up and says, ‘we have this problem, and can you guys solve it?’”
After 25 years, Kuperman and his father came to a realization of the difficulty of doing everything that needs to be done to grow a company and that started them thinking about ABI’s future.
“We understood that a small company like ours has only two ways forward: either to remain a family-oriented operation (indeed both my mother and wife were also involved in the company’s origin); or to persevere and make growth our focus. This is when I found Carl and he joined the leadership team as COO and President, and together we began implementing changes to develop a top-tier and professional management culture.”
ABI moved from a 20,000 square-foot facility in Concord to a 40,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Richmond Hill. The move proved useful when he and Heinlein set out to streamline and mature the company processes and fill in gaps with the necessary skilled people, which increased its workforce to 80 team members.
They believed that production was in keeping with global standards, but they hired an HR professional to organize the workforce and ensure hiring policies were inclusive. Today there are at least 15 different cultures or ethnicities employed at ABI, and the office staff and executive comprise some 50 percent women. Currently, the company is working to increase the number of women employed on the floor.
While ABI moved to professionalize its business practices, there’s been an effort to keep the family atmosphere. “I’ve gotten to know people here in a short time,” Kidane says, “and it feels like more than a team, but at the same time there is a continuous effort to improve the business processes with an understanding of what value that can bring and what that means for us as a company in a competitive market.”
“We must have done something right,” Kuperman says, “because a year ago, a large company from France came to us and said, ‘we really like what you’ve built, and we think your product line complements ours. We are not competitors; we have certain expertise and you have certain expertise, and we think that together we can achieve better results than we would with each of us going our separate paths.’ Negotiating during the pandemic presented some difficulties, but because we thought alike and we viewed the industry from the same perspective, we were able to complete this deal. TMG (Together Means Greater) acquired a majority stake in ABI and I am very optimistic about both companies’ futures together,” he says.
“I always thought Mecatherm, (founded in 1964 in Paris and acquired by TMG in 2018) was a very advanced and forward-looking company. Their equipment looked sharp, their performance was known, and we had worked on a number of projects for the same customers, so we had a firsthand opportunity to observe their professionalism and the quality of their work,” shares Kuperman.
“When they approached us, I was extremely proud that we had developed the type of company that would attract interest from a global company.”
Heinlein says the company mission now is to “double our business in the next five years, just as we doubled it in the last five, and to continue with our mission to empower every bakery to maximize its potential – so that may be through robotics, investment in R&D surrounding artificial intelligence, or just automation of existing plants. We are there for companies who want to reduce their labour costs and their inefficiencies.”
Adds Kuperman, “We firmly believe that investing in AI technologies will help us achieve our goals,” and proceeds with an example – a current project that addresses complex issues of machine vision when dealing with massive numbers of baked goods moving quickly along a conveyor belt, all jumbled together.
“It’s an ambitious project, but I’m happy to say that our research team recently reported that we were now able to identify individual pieces with 99 percent accuracy. That’s a phenomenal achievement from where we stand.” And it is one that’s set to positively affect bakeries around the globe.