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Digital Bytes Make Better Bites: The Digitalization of Chocolate Manufacturing

Chocolate is a passion and probably considered a food group by many. And, when you think of digital and chocolate in the same sentence, your mind may conjure up Mike Teavee from Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, digitizing through the air into the television after Mr. Wonka revealed his new invention to get chocolate faster to the consumer.

While they cannot quite yet deliver a bar of chocolate this way, chocolate manufacturers are turning to digitalization to take the production of chocolate to new heights that would make Willy Wonka proud. And, while it sounds like a child’s argument that this technology would mean chocolate should be consumed every day, the benefits of full-scale digitalization for chocolate manufacturers increase product transparency and operational efficiency, reduce overhead, and create happier employees and satisfied customers.


Starting from the ground up


Digitalization begins in the field where the cocoa bean is grown. With the farm-to-table movement, many consumers are invested in understanding where and how their food is produced and making decisions based on their food’s social and global impacts on the world.


In 2019, a three-year project called “Chocolate 4 All” began in Honduras, equipping small-scale farmers with the ability to digitize their cocoa production. Utilizing blockchains to evaluate their supply chain data, and agricultural sensors and drones to monitor their fields, they analyze this information to improve crop management and optimize product yields.


One manufacturer, Cargill, utilizes digitization to bring transparency across the entire cocoa supply chain. With the use of barcoded cocoa bags and digital cooperative management systems (CMS), 50% of sustainable cocoa beans in the global direct supply chain are now traceable from farm to factory. This data includes:

  • GPS polygon mapping that identifies where the cocoa originates from, which areas may be at risk of deforestation, and how to mitigate this risk through specific interventions.
  • Implementation of child labor monitoring and remediation systems (CLMRS) to address child labor issues.
  • Enhanced communication through digital tools for farmers during a crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic.


Improving operational efficiency


The image of making chocolate in most people’s minds would be warm, liquid chocolate pouring into a bowl, smooth and soft—perhaps the image is Willy Wonka’s river of chocolate or Lucille Ball stuffing her mouth full of truffles as they come through the line. However, anyone who works with chocolate knows it is an exact science of temperature and time. Even the slightest mistake can ruin a batch of chocolate by blooming, burning, not setting, or looking dull. Chocolate is a temperamental substance that demands its own exact way.


To increase productivity and reduce operational costs, the chocolate industry is incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) technologies such as digital twins, data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) to help create smart factories where processes, machines, and people are all interconnected, to provide real-time information that eases decision making.


The entire chocolate manufacturing process is evolving through digitalization, beginning with the machines that process the chocolate from bean to finished product.


Bühler’s moulding plant ChocoBotic, with its robotic technology and online learning platform ChocoGenius, demonstrates how digital processes and IoT technologies can significantly increase efficiency.


“With more intelligent process control, we can further improve productivity and achieve even more consistency in product quality,” explains Marco Zappa, head of business unit chocolate mass at Bühler. “Not only will it be possible to increase productivity, but also to have more product quality consistency. And, because fewer manual interventions are required, the manufacturing costs drop, while food safety improves.”


For example, machines switch automatically from dosing, mixing, refining, and conching production, reducing the cost of many different product lines and requiring less factory floor space. Flexible configuration and integrated robotic technology can be modified to suit different masses, recipes, or products in order to produce filled chocolate of various sizes, shapes, and forms. This gives small and large chocolate manufacturers the ability to respond to changing customer needs and provides flexibility to produce smaller batches or seasonal items.

The chocolate digitization process begins in the field where companies are equipping farmers to track and trace cocoa crops, utilize drones and agricultural sensors to monitor their fields, and analyze the data to improve crop management.

Quality and product loss


Chocolate is temperamental, and fluctuations in the process can result in a lesser-quality product. Consistent product quality is vital for success in the chocolate industry.


During the different filling stages, moulds can now be kept at precise temperatures with a digital thermos-technical controlled crystallization process that creates a glossy finish that chocolatiers aim for in their finished products.


Cocoa is a high-priced commodity, and, during processing, a portion of the chocolate is lost. Instead of letting that go to waste, it is increasingly vital for chocolate manufacturers to recover as much as possible to reduce overall costs.


Pigging is a recovery process that helps chocolate manufacturers reduce chocolate loss. HPS has designed an automated pigging system that increases product retrieval, improves worker safety, and removes the chance of human error. As a result, many chocolate and confectionery manufacturers are turning to waste-reduction initiatives to ensure they use all the chocolate they buy, reducing production costs.


Taking chocolate manufacturing to the custom level


Cargill has announced plans for a 700-square-meter “House of Chocolate” complex at its Mouscron, Belgium site. Built alongside the company’s existing chocolate production plant, it will house a chocolate experience center, pilot plant, sensory lab, and creative workspace for the company’s European team of 40 chocolate engineers (sensory experts, technical specialists, and R&D scientists—sorry, no Oompa Loompas).


This facility will enable customers to experience an all-inclusive chocolate development process, culminating in commercial-scale production.


“Innovation stands at the forefront of our House of Chocolate, as we bring together all our expertise and resources,” says Harold Poelma, president of Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. “It will allow us to collaborate with customers at every step of their product development journey, transforming ideas into reality using a streamlined approach to facilitate innovation and deliver greater efficiency and speed to market.”


The “house” will include:

  • Chocolate Experience Center: Cargill provides cocoa and chocolate expertise to inspire, innovate, and educate customers and partners. The co-creation platform improves customer product decisions and increases speed to market for both gourmet and large-scale applications.
  • Pilot plant: Replicates real production conditions on a small scale and produces samples for testing and trial before phasing into large-scale manufacturing.
  • Sensory Lab: Outfitted with state-of-the-art high-tech equipment, the lab provides a wide range of sensory testing on anything from chocolate, coatings, and fillings.
Digitization allows chocolatiers to keep moulds at precise temperatures in order to produce that glossy finish in the final products.

Imagine creating and designing your own chocolate


The market for 3D-printed food is expected to reach $425 million by 2025. A key driver of this growth is the emerging market for customized food, where manufacturers compete through product differentiation and customization and direct-to-consumer relationships.


Companies like 3D Systems and Choc Edge have created 3D chocolate printers to create unique personalized chocolates that might otherwise be difficult to make by hand.


The Hershey Company, one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers, installed CocoJet 3D-printing technology in its consumer retail stores. “We can print anything that you could print with a plastic printer, but in chocolate,” states Hershey’s technical marketing executive Jeff Mundt. “It looks very similar to a standard 3D Systems printer but is heavily modified.”


This new system gives Hershey the ability to test new designs, textures, or shapes, as well as allow consumers to customize and personalize their products. In return, Hershey collects valuable data regarding customer preferences, which helps the manufacturer make decisions on each product’s production scale and stay competitive with high-end chocolate brands.


Chocolate manufacturing has come a long way from its 4,000-year-old beginnings when it was ground with a rock. Our love for this “Food of the Gods” has driven us to innovate over those thousands of years to make a better chocolate.


“When it comes to the manufacturing side of chocolate production, digitization has allowed us to bring the quality and repeatability of the largest manufacturers to a level attainable by the artisan and retail chocolatier,” says Kevin Laud, vice president of engineering for Candy Worx.


Who would have thought a few years ago that the literary vision of Roald Dahl would, in a manner, come true, as digitalized chocolate manufacturing tames the temperamental substance, bringing greater efficiency, lower cost, customized products, and happier consumers?

"When it comes to the manufacturing side of chocolate production, digitization has allowed us to bring the quality and repeatability of the largest manufacturers to a level attainable by the artisan and retail chocolatier."
Kevin Laud, Vice President of Engineering

Candy Worx

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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