In the beginning, archaeologists believe, the first breads were created using some of the most rudimentary technologies in human history: fire and stone.
In the region that now encompasses Jordan, one of the world’s most ancient examples — a flatbread vaguely resembling pita and made from wild cereal grains and water — was cooked in large fireplaces using flat basalt stones, according to Reuters.
The taste is “gritty and salty,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a University of Copenhagen postdoctoral researcher in archaeobotany, told the news service. “But it is a bit sweet, as well.”
More than 10,000 years later, bread has clearly evolved but, perhaps, not as dramatically as the technology being used to bake it.
The latest example of this pairing of old and new is the BreadBot, a bread-making machine that mixes, kneads, bakes and cools bread without human assistance. The robot bread maker — which can produce 235 loaves a day (or about 10 loaves an hour) — is on display at this year’s CES technology show in Las Vegas, where one reporter labeled it the media expo’s “best-smelling booth.”
Wilkinson Baking, which created the machine, says its robotic oven is not limited to white and whole-wheat dough — it can also produce nine-grain, honey-oat and rye breads. Once a human adds dry mix to the hopper, the company states on its website, “the process is fully automated.”
Once the dough is mixed into balls, the machine moves them onto a conveyor belt, shapes them and puts them inside individual trays in which the dough is baked. Once it is finished, a robotic arm moves the freshly made loaf to a vending machine for customers to purchase using a touch screen.
“The big challenge with bread — as anyone who has tried to bake it has discovered — is that it’s a tricky process, because you’re working with a biological organism,” said Randall Wilkinson, chief executive of Wilkinson Baking, which has spent much of the past decade developing the machine. “To duplicate what a master baker can do with a robot is quite a challenge.”
When professional human bakers produce a perfect loaf of bread, they are most likely relying on intuition and experience. With the BreadBot, human intelligence has been replaced by more than 70 data-gathering sensors that monitor the bread 100 times a second and adjust the baking process in real time, Wilkinson said.
From the water temperature and mixer speed, to the proofer’s humidity and loaf height, sensors are always monitoring what’s going on, Wilkinson said. In the process, he said, the machines are able to capture valuable data.
“What we have the ability to do is to know that an individual loaf that came off at 7:39 a.m. had these parameters and inputs and this many grams of water and yeast, and rose to this particular level and had this particular level of brown coloring,” Wilkinson said. “You’ve got a lot of AI data that you can crunch for optimum performance, and all of these machines are Internet-connected.”
The robot isn’t fully independent, the company says, noting that users still need to clean the machine after it’s used and slice the final product.
The machine is being marketed to grocery stores as a way to jump-start bread making several hours before a store opens and allow the user to schedule baking times and loaf quantities months in advance.
To guarantee bread is produced with consistent quality, Wilkinson said, the company doesn’t sell the BreadBot and, instead, leases it to “partner stores.” He said the company plans to put the BreadBot inside a partner store later this year but declined to reveal the name of the store. He added that “three of the top five grocery store companies in the U.S.” have shown interest in testing the robotic baker.
For the next-generation BreadBot, Wilkinson envisions customized carbohydrates in which the machine could engrave a loaf of bread with personalized messages.
In addition to getting “Happy Birthday” engraved on your loaf, you’ll be able to order loaves with a specific mix of ingredients.
"Using an app, you’d say, ‘I want 40 percent more sunflower, half the salt, and I want it at 3 p.m. on Tuesday,’ ” Wilkinson said. “Then you’d show up and present a QR code to the machine and pick up your bread.”