Another year, that is. We are beginning to bring down the curtain on another challenging season for our country and our industry. The economics of our world are still on a roller coaster ride, and the housing market makes it tough for anyone to make a move. And here we go again with another batch of presidential promises from a gang of “not-so-ready-for-primetime” candidates. Next year should be fun.

Over the past 12 months, our industry has seen its share of interesting moves and shakes. We’ve seen the big guys get bigger and the small guys continue to hang on, despite of the big guys’ power. This has happened on the bakery side as well as the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and allieds side.

This year has been a year where positioning for the future has been taken very seriously.

When thinking about the workplace, the challenges continue to be finding creative ways to automate processes that reduces headcount, finding people who will work hard and strive to grow and searching for even stronger manufacturing efficiencies that reduce cost inputs, so that the price of products can still be tolerable to the buying public and so that companies can remain competitive.

On the automation piece, we’ve seen advancements and developments from the equipment manufacturers for many years. We always get a closer look at these next greatest ideas at IBIE every three years, and we occasionally implement what we find, only to see the next step in progress three years later.

Part of the challenge for bakers is that while they can see their way to investing in automation once in a while, they can’t see doing it every third year. While a company might have their process up to automation standards three years ago, the company that waited and implemented is now three years ahead and possibly more competitive.

Equipment manufacturers design and build equipment and bakers bake. The day that an OEM brings a baker into their ideation sessions, the better they will be in reading the minds of the dough side of the industry. As an organization, BEMA, Overland Park, Kan., has touched on this with its Baking Industry Forum, but there is a ways to go. Working together will do two things. First, it will keep mechanical automation ideas relevant to the needs of the bakers, and second, it will help the ingredient operations develop better ways for a baker to handle and use their products.

The “people factor” still seems to be an issue where challenges continue to slow overall progress. Whether we are talking about production workers, supervisors or managers, finding the right people for the job is difficult. Developing current people to modernize ideas has also seemed to take a back-burner approach.

In the past, companies would give bakers and mechanics additional training, but there continue to be roadblocks, such as not having backup for such individuals during training and the cost of training. Folks at the American Institute of Baking, Manhattan, Kan., will tell you that the ratio of foreign students to U.S. students is very troubling.

If bakers don’t find ways to develop the talent they have, companies may find themselves stuck in old-fashioned ways. The only way you can take an experienced person in an operation and improve their ways is to get them out of the house so they can see what’s going on in the outside world. To accomplish this, you must bring the outside world to them in the form of hiring teachers or consultants who can teach development tactics in-house.

The final piece of the equation is the production efficiencies that drive cost avoidance and price reduction. It’s tough enough to have products on the shelf in just the right place, but if they have the wrong price, you have a double negative hit. The automation challenge, coupled with the people challenge, can often create an efficiency challenge.

Inefficient equipment operated in old-fashioned ways doesn’t equal the level of competitive pricing that comes with that ever-welcomed element called profit. Plant efficiency really depends on that combination of the appropriate level of automation and the right people who are developed.

Going into 2012, the industry has opportunities for everyone to get up on their feet and make a change. As chairman of the American Society of Baking, Swedesboro, N.J., I would like to take a minute to remind everyone that the annual BakingTech conference is being held March 4-7, 2012. This conference will touch on many of the ideas discussed in this article.

 We will double the number of breakout education and information sessions, keynote speakers will supply methods and strategies for workplace improvement and we’ll again offer the Marketplace, where bakers can mingle with OEM’s and allied’s, sharing ideas that bring efficiency to the forefront.

The theme for the conference is “Rise Up, in Community, in Industry, in Workplace and in Self,” and I encourage you to rise up and find your way to the meeting. I personally look forward to seeing you there.