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Design project focuses on automation, ergonomics

For five engineering students, constructing equipment that makes the telltale chocolate and vanilla swirls in marble cake meant becoming as knowledgeable about cake batter as they are about pneumatics and hydraulics. All the concepts proved deliciously compatible.

Working with the engineering team from Wegmans Food Markets, student-engineers developed an automated solution for the growing company and provided an ergonomic alternative for its bakery employees.

Even though the Bakeshop uses seven industrial ovens to produce its varied lines of artisan breads, pastries and cakes, a few of the processes are manual. The company is looking to identify more ergonomically friendly solutions and is collaborating with RIT faculty and student design teams on projects, including the swirl-cake process.

Making the popular marble cakes is labor intensive, with employees using spatulas to swirl batter while multiple pans move down the bakery line toward the ovens, says Ryan Norris, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student from Stillwater, N.J., and the design team’s project manager.

“Because the swirl process must be completed quickly and manually, the risk for repetitive-motion injuries is present and cakes are sometimes inconsistently swirled,” he says. “The goals of our project were to automate the swirling function and provide a more ergonomic, efficient and cost-effective process for the company and employees.”

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The students worked on several designs and delivered a prototype and documentation for a mobile unit consisting of four independent swirl modules with several “fingers,” or prongs, driven by motorized gears. Fastened to a moveable chassis, the device can be placed on the bakery production line, accommodate varied sizes of sheet cake pans and is synchronized using a programmable logic controller and sensors. The entire process—from pan placement, swirl and pan exit—takes less than eight seconds.

“Having a nice swirl pattern was only one of the requirements for the project,” says Benson Yu, a fifth-year electrical engineering student from Hong Kong. “There are three arm lengths on the swirler. Every single one of the fingers is placed at a different radius from the center of the rotation. The longest arm pushes the chocolate batter into the center for really good coverage.”

The team tested swirlers made of metal and wood, finding the shear forces on the batter were more consistent with metal and were more appropriate for food safety. “The arms are a little thinner on our prototype,” Yu adds. “One of the considerations for the next iteration would be fewer fingers. Too many fingers means a wash of chocolate rather than a swirl.”

Not having chocolate swirls throughout an entire cake may seem minor, but when a company is known for its high quality and customer service, that is a major feature that cannot be ignored, says Mike Least, Wegmans manufacturing engineering manager.

“The students gave us a starting point to put a successful, working piece of equipment on our line,” says Least, who worked closely on this project with John Kaemmerlen, lecturer in RIT’s industrial and systems engineering department, and several other projects taking place concurrently between the college and Wegmans.

“The students put a tremendous amount of effort into this,” Least adds. “Think about the project experience that they gained throughout the course. These projects are also about information transfer.”

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