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George Wright:The biscuit industry is in a state of transition

George Wright:The biscuit industry is in a state of transition

Well-known Bakery Consultant and International Food Processing Consultant, George Wright, has over 50 years of experience in providing a service to the international snack food and confectionery industry. So we asked him few questions about his rich and long career and about the past, present and future of biscuit and baking industry.

1. Would you please briefly, in ten sentences, tell us how you chose this specialized industry and how difficult your beginnings were?

I chose a career in the baking industry, because I considered that it would be an occupation for life, people would always require food, so the opportunity of having a five year apprenticeship appealed to me. This also gave me the chance to attend day-release college and night classes to learn the craft skills and science and technology of the baking industry.

In the beginning, the employment hours meant early morning starting times of 06.00 hours and a 48 hour week for a starting salary of £204 P.A. and two weeks holiday per annum.

My skills were honed by working along-side experienced skilled bakers, mechanical and electrical engineers and acting in an interface role to process commission the products, in industrial scale environments. These early years are the foundation on which I have built my career, with the objective of one day becoming a consultant.

I was fortunate to have been mentored throughout my first 25 years in the industry, by my first technical director and good friend, the late Dr. Eric S. Beaton.

2. Please compare the biscuit and bakery industry then, half a century ago, and today. What are the main differences? What, in your opinion, was better then, and what is better today?

The practical skill levels were the main ‘drivers’ of the industry fifty years ago, and a gradual introduction of engineering and electronics have been introduced, but sometimes, at the expense (in my opinion) of understanding of the technology.

Examples of this today are ‘touch screens’ for controlling the process, compared to potentiometers with a ‘ten point turn’ in previous times, which provided the skilled operators a ‘feel’ for the changes they made to correct and establish benchmarks in specifying a process. Unfortunately, today they only punch in numbers.

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Manual dispensing of ingredients into mixer

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Automatic dispensing of bulk ingredients

Independent companies have been taken over and run by large organizations, who don’t understand the core business. I have experienced one blue chip organization who entered the North American biscuit industry, without any understanding of the technology, e.g. using the wrong type of flour in cream sandwich biscuits. When I arrived, I enquired why they were using ‘high ratio’ cake flour, which has a great affinity to hold onto water, resulting in ‘checking’. Surprise, surprise, they are no longer in the biscuit industry.

There has been a large change from manual process operations, to automation, e.g. bulk and dispensing of ingredients. The present analytical equipment has enhanced our ability to quantify rheological changes to dough/batter consistency and baked goods, with the application of the texture analyzer, and in-line color measurement of baked goods, etc. Also, the application of a data logger for humidity and temperature profiling.

3. Please indicate whether the crisis (recession), which hit the economy in Europe and the world seven years ago, reflected on the biscuit industry and in what way?

During this period, the baking industry suffered from lack of investment in new product and process technology. The corporate companies focused on ‘cost reduction’ priorities. ‘Value engineering’ was the order of the day, improving process efficiency, standardization of their product range.

The bakery engineering companies had reduced orders, leading to a reduction in staff (usually those with long term experience in the industry retired early) and those skills have been lost to the industry.

4. Today you are a respected bakery consultant. You established an international reputation for process knowledge and troubleshooting consultancy with major bakery manufacturers and bakery equipment suppliers. Please, reveal how you usually come up with an idea and start a project?

It is in my DNA, I enjoy being creative. I have been fortunate in my consultancy roles, that my customers give me the license to express my skills in all aspects of their concept development, to industrialized and production processes. What my customers get is 100% effort in sharing my practical knowledge with them and their staff.

I consider the projects shared with me, and the responsibility I undertake is to apply precision engineering to the process, i.e. take on the challenge to make equipment function as it was designed, or reviewing other technologies and considering their application in the baking industry, e.g. chilled cake batter that can be wire-cut, producing a product that reduced the usage of chocolate couverture by 3%. Or, for example, Crispbread Minis, which are a blend of wafer process technology and application of fluid bed drying. I developed a range of iconic chocolate images, i.e. chocolate in an art form.

Also, process troubleshooting often requires applying and combining other technologies to resolve process issues.

Brain storming ideas:

• Ice Cream Liquers: multi-coloured flavoured ice cream in a layered presentation in a cocktail glass;

• Making process cheese behave like chocolate compound and even rotary moulding of the cheese;

• Reducing acrylamide values in baked products by replacing milled cereals with heat treated cereals, thereby saving energy and achieving similar eating/taste characteristics as the original products.

5. On several occasions, you participated in the construction of a biscuit or bakery factory and procurement of equipment. What is your role today in this process, as a respected bakery consultant?

The biggest problem we have in the industry today, is the lack of understanding between the product and the process. As a result, I as an independent consultant, with no affiliation to any one supplier of ingredients or equipment, can give objective impartial views on the optimum technology required to manufacture the defined product. Are these the correct ingredients? If not, I say so. Is the equipment ‘fit for purpose’?  If not, I say so.

I implement a process specification for ingredients and process equipment, as well as purchase equipment from suppliers who can demonstrate their expertise either in the development phase or in a production environment.

Too often new investors into the industry are coerced into buying equipment that does not meet the contractual agreement. The customer wants to produce the product and not spend months (I have spent up to 18 months on such contracts) after mechanical commissioning, trying to resolve process issues

This is the benefit I have as an independent consultant – I am hired to act in an interface capacity in resolving such issues.

6. In particular, do you personally choose the suppliers of equipment and raw materials, or just recommend them? If you choose, what is the usual procedure?

I don’t choose either the supplier or the equipment, I only provide technical support and recommendations, to ensure that they chose the correct process equipment for the application.

I often get the opportunity to review equipment suppliers proposals before my customer places an order. This is a better approach than resolving process issues after they have purchased the wrong equipment. It has been known to happen that, due to the equipment suppliers ‘lack of knowledge’, they have sold two different pieces of equipment to do the same job! In one instance, a customer was sold a dry ribbon blender for mixing semi-sweet biscuit dough. In another, two sets of gauging rolls were sold, to produce a potato snack product, when only one set was required…

7. In recent years, new types of products in the biscuit and bakery industry appeared on the market. How has this changed the raw materials and equipment for their processing?

There is a trend to produce products that are perceived to be ‘healthy’, with the introduction of biscuits incorporating whole grains, seeds and dried fruits, launched as ‘breakfast biscuits’, thereby increasing the potential frequency of usage for the consumer. These can also incorporate yoghurt and honey based fillings.

The growth of baked and unbaked cereal bars has now been well established by major manufacturers and entrepreneurs, targeting not only adults but children, in their school lunch box. The unbaked process for cereal bars, involves pre-cooking of sugars, syrups and binders, then blending by incorporating particulate cereals to be formed in a bar shape.

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Rotary moulder process control

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Touch screen process control

New process engineering technology has been implemented by the extrusion/sheeting process of savoury snacks, replacing hydrogenated fats with rape seed oil, reducing salt levels, replacing chlorinated cake flour with ‘heat treated flour’ in cake processing, gourmet baked deli-slices, muffins, cakes, pastries and biscuits are on the increase as coffee shops and restaurants are a growth outlet for manufacturers, since this market allows for shorter shelf-life products with an artisanal presentation.

In addition, the laminating of crackers was a manual operation and is now conducted in a continuous process and one manufacturer uses a ‘vacuum system’ for layering of the dough sheets; pick and place robotics have replaced cream sandwich machines; reciprocating cutting of biscuit dough has been replaced with rotary cutting; the manual rolling of Swiss Rolls and Mini Rolls that are now processed with an in-line continuous process; tunnel ovens have gone from 800 mm wide to 1.2 – 2 m wide and increased in length with higher production outputs; robotics are common feature in the packing of baked products, where once this was very labour orientated, etc.

8. Since you have worked and collaborated with producers from practically all over the world, please compare biscuit products in different markets. How, for example, do biscuit products and the technology for their production in Europe differ from those from South America, Asia or Africa, and why?

One of the refreshing aspects of travelling to these continents, reassures me that they still adhere to the first principles in the fermentation process. For example, in the bread industry, many corporate organizations still use the ‘sour dough fermentation process’ and in the cracker industry, the sponge and dough fermentation process, both resulting in modifying the dough consistency but also producing a wonderful texture and flavour of the baked products.

When I compare this with the UK and some continental manufacturers, they have abandoned ‘long term’ fermentation at the expense of product quality. The same is true for baking times for these products, with higher throughputs and shorter baking times. The artisanal ‘Continental’ bakers still have pride in their products and the consumers are prepared to pay for quality.

In Asia, my observation is that baked snacks are on the increase, still retaining the ‘indigenous taste’ requirements of the local consumers. Products like Yum, Yum and Moon Pie, have been replicated in many countries, as consumers experience these new tastes during their travels.

This is also true of the phenomenon of Krispy Kreme doughnuts that are now a global ‘must-have’ purchase, for the younger generation. The use of local indigenous ingredients, are key in developing products to suit local tastes.

9. In your biography, I noticed different jobs that you were working in the biscuit industry in South America. How did it happen? Did you need to specifically adapt to their way of work and business thinking, and why?

In 1976, I was fortunate to have my first overseas assignment on a green-field assignment in Peru, where I spent 7 months, adapting to a new culture, where the operators were just being introduced to industrial scale biscuit processing. They shared their knowledge of indigenous ingredient functions with my process experience and we established a proficient industrial scale environment.

It was a humbling experience for me how the operators would bring their children into the factory to meet Mr. George. I respect that I need to adapt to differing cultures, and have great affinity with people in Latin America, for their work ethic and friendship.

I had to adapt to operating in relatively high altitude and humid environments, which brought its own challenges, reacting to differing ingredient water pH values and ingredient cold water temperatures of 30°C.

10. Why are you so successful in this business? Is there something that sets you apart from others involved in it?

That is better answered by my customers, as ‘what you see on the label’ is what is inside the tin’. I enjoy a challenge, for many years I have heard: “IT CAN’T BE DONE’ IT WILL NEVER WORK.” “Why has no-one done this before?” was music to my ears, and “I WILL MAKE IT WORK” is how I reply.

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Chocolate icons

I have been faced with these process challenges whilst commissioning or troubleshooting in the cake and biscuit industries and after many sleepless nights, I come up with a solution. I do not have a knee-jerk reaction to process issues, but look objectively in identifying the problem and I offer advice by a methodical approach to process problem solving

I am systematic in my approach in defining the cause and in doing so, it leads me to offer a practical solution. I have been advised that I engage with people and have earned the respect from owners, from directors to on-line operators, as I have been in their position myself and have empathy with the roles that they perform, and this has resulted in repeat consultancy roles.

I respect others who consult in my industry, who also have many years of experience, but my skills encompass both the baking technology and the process engineering aspects of the industry. As a result, my customers consider that I am both a bakery technologist and a process engineer. It is nice to know that I have earned their respect

After listening to my customers views, I offer advice, based on what is practical, but involve them in the decision making process, whilst they take ownership of the solution. This is often achieved by interacting with the operators, who are familiar with their machinery and process issues on a daily basis, but like some managers, don’t have the technical understanding. The operators are keen to share their views with consultants like myself, and we are then half-way to resolving any process issues. Their comments are rewarding in the sense that there is ‘someone listening to them’.

11. Would you reveal any “secrets” of your success in the book that you are writing? What is the main subject of your book?

The theme of my book is about my practical experience on the topics of ‘the global aspects of the baking industry’. I don’t have any ‘secrets’ as I am keen to share my knowledge with the younger generation, and this experience is available on a commercial basis.

I have many constructive ideas on how to improve processes through a technology and process engineering approach. Some of these ideas have been industrialized and others are at the prototype stage of development and some still need capital investment.

12. What are your personal plans for the future? Do you have any unfulfilled desires in the biscuit and bakery industry?

My priority is to complete my book, which I started writing 20 years ago. However, when I get involved in another project, it adds another chapter to it. There is an other idea which should summarize my intention to make the great products to consumers and to make profit to biscuit manufacturers.In the era of energy and health awarness I work on a project which gives solution for both – NEW TYPE OF TUNNEL OVEN.

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Tunnel oven

I am looking for the right people who will understand the concept and join with their resources.

13. I noticed that you often participate as a speaker at conferences. What is your crucial reason to accept the invitation to participate in a conference, or not? The term, subject, location, or something else?

My first introduction to public speaking was a daunting experience, but when confronted with the delegates, I realized that I passionately wanted to share my experience with them, and this was also a way to gain exposure to potential customers.

My advice in this regard is:

• Research your audience, who might be ‘key’ targets for you to reinforce topics that will interest them.

• Prepare your presentation, but better to be a ‘short and sharp’ presentation, so it leaves time for interacting during or at the close of your speech.

• I had an experience in the Far East where the audience were ever so quiet and polite, with only a few questions from the floor, however the response was amazing afterwards, when they delegates wanted to interact on a one-to-one basis. So it was a lesson for me to research my potential audience and cultures, before further presentations.

• This led to speaking to ‘blue-chip organizations on topics that were important to them, that I had global experience, adapting processes in differing climatic conditions, i.e. high altitude; relatively high humidity and relatively high temperature, etc.

• The main thing I enjoyed was interacting with the delegates, involving them in the discussion.

• Visual images can say a thousand words, and the delegates could interpret my commentary, in conjunction with the visual images. If your presentation is based on a lot of words (the delegates’ can read this themselves), so I try to make it interesting using visual aids along with commentary.

• I learned to put my views across in short, sharp sentences.

• The subject matter can be persuasive in my presentation, as in topics such as continuous mixing, I express my enthusiasm to enlighten others of the opportunity to improve ‘process control’ over the mixing cycle and dough/batter rheology.

14. Do you have an idea for any new biscuit product? If so, can you tell us something about it?

Yes, I am in discussion with several customers regarding the development of a new cracker, but it is only at the concept stage of development, but watch this area.  There are several products that I would love to develop, such as: healthy snacks incorporating oats, developing a unique textured crispbread; or industrializing a Turkish dessert, into a unique textured product by combing differing technologies.

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New product development: Soft cookies

15. How do you see the future of the biscuit industry? In which direction will it develop over the next ten years and what would be the key to one’s success?

The industry is in a state of transition because global organizations are buying into new markets, e.g. in developing countries, but they require meeting the expectations of the indigenous tastes, not just applying a ‘technology’ transfer of existing products.

I have experienced this in South America, where ‘brand’ loyalty was a key factor for one organization, which had to withdraw their global brand image from a new product range. Companies who have ventured into the Far East, have had to adapt their formulations to meet local tastes. An example of that is Weetabix in China.

I expect the future will bring about premium added value products, rather than volume led, as well as fat reduced healthier products.

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