Unless your dear old granny made everything from scratch, the chances are good that the last pie you enjoyed had a crust that came from a machine made by Comtec Industries. Pies, pastries, tarts, cheesecakes, hors d'oeuvres and quiche all come with a formed pastry crust, and our machines form the crusts in commercial bakeries around the world.
We are a family-owned business that started out as a pneumatic fittings company more than 50 years ago. Somewhere along the line, my father was asked to assist with solving a problem related to pie crusts. He did, and my brother and I ended up in the business.
Our company has produced two main models of crust-forming machines since the 1960s. They're known to be strong, reliable and simple enough to maintain with a screwdriver and wrench. This is important because in the baking industry most maintenance people are responsible for many tasks. They're our jacks of all trades. Sophisticated electronics are not a typical skill set, and anyone designing machinery for bakeries needs to keep this in mind.
The previous-generation machines were largely standalone without a great deal of automation. This allowed Comtec to grow without building a worldwide cadre of support people.
Pie Crust: The Next Generation
As we began to plan for our next-generation machine, Comtec proceeded with two strategic thoughts. First, any new machine had to be easy to maintain. Our customers' core competency is producing culinary treats, not tweaking automation equipment. Further, machine setups, diagnostics and other important information gathering needed to be handled without adding dozens of field service people.
Our next-gen machine, Model 2900, is fully automated. It's hydraulically powered with a PLC, HMI panel and a number of sensors that measure temperature and pressure where the dies form the crust.
In addition, to meet our important objectives, we needed to think outside the box on topics such as machine diagnostics. It isn't enough to provide just a solidly running machine. Our customers' operating world calls for more extensive assistance, and we need to look at the whole operating environment.
A good example of what got us thinking about remote monitoring was a call several years ago from an anxious customer with a machine down. They reported their machine was taking more than two hours to warm up each morning instead of the usual four or five seconds. After several rounds of phone questions, the customer's maintenance person told us they had changed the oil that powers the hydraulic rams in the machine and replaced it with vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is what most of us would call cooking oil. Once this type of oil is heated, it congeals upon cooling, producing what looks like the solid grease that forms in the bottom of a frying pan.
Our machine uses a hydraulically driven die to press and hold the dough into its pan. To avoid any customer confusion, we designed our machine to use the most common form of hydraulic fluid available—the very standard ISO 32 that can be found in most auto parts stores. Apparently, we didn't communicate this strongly enough because adding cooking oil to the system is akin to using bacon fat in a high-performance racing engine.
Because the cooking oil solidified, each day the machine had to run long enough for the other parts to generate enough heat to turn this substance back into a liquid. It's a marvel that the machine survived.
It was these types of issues—ones that we simply couldn't anticipate—that told us we needed the means to monitor and log some of this information in the new-generation machine.
My brother Jim Reilly serves as Comtec's president. He also oversees the logistical details of taking care of machines in the field. "Our old line of machines are simple enough, we can trouble shoot them over the phone," Reilly says. "And, in a few rare instances for which onsite customer service was required, we would try to use a third-party service organization such as Hobart Service or other service providers in our industry to minimize travel costs. But even this strategy costs us $700-$1,600 every time we make a service call. Trips out of our Chicagoland headquarters cost double that, not to mention wear and tear on the person traveling and lost engineering time."
We invested some time to understand the potential trouble spots in the operation. Temperature and pressure histories in the machine are clues to locating trouble points. The combination of temperature and hydraulic pressure are important to ensure the pie crusts release from the molds. We accomplish this by applying an electric heater block between the machine and upper half of the die. This doesn't cook, proof or otherwise alter the crust; instead, it ensures the crust leaves our machine properly. Incorrect temperature especially results in a poorly formed product, manifesting itself in appearance issues. The consumer wants to see a perfectly formed pastry, not a broken-up pile of crust. In extreme cases, poor release can translate into jammed machines and lost production.
Control of Process Variables
In our environment, every recipe calls for a slightly different temperature. We monitor and build a history for both set point and actual temperature. Comparing the history allows us to determine if the customer is experiencing a regulation problem or an issue with one of two heating elements in the block. This can be a tricky situation for a customer in our industry.