The process of manufacturing animal crackers is fun to take a look at, as it uses techniques that are typically associated with plastic and sheet metal manufacturing. Also, the recipe for modern graham crackers and animal crackers are very similar, only differing in final shape and flavor treatment, so we can look at the process of manufacturing these guys in tandem.
The major ingredients include flour, vegetable shortening, and sugars, all of which are bought in bulk. Certain ingredients have to be stored under specific temperature requirements so they can be processed. For example, vegetable shortening becomes solid at room temperature, which would make it difficult to pump later in the process, so heated and insulated chambers are utilized.
At the beginning of processing, the ingredients are combined in a mixing tank. The liquids are measured to the required volumes with metered pumps. The solid materials are dealt with through pneumatic transfer, which is a process that pumps the powder with air and allows for the metered pumps to measure them more carefully. Sugar, water, and shortening are creamed together, and the remaining ingredients that were pneumatically pumped are added after spindle mixers or high-speed horizontal drum mixers that would be very familiar if you’ve ever seen an episode of How It’s Made, or Unwrapped. The dough is left to leaven for two to three hours.
This is where we’ll see a technique that is often used for plastics and we learn about in our Design for Manufacturing class, ME 270. It’s called Calendaring and is a process in which feedstock is passed through a series of rolls and the thickness is reduced by the end.
In addition to food production and plastic manufacturing applications, calendaring has a history in textile and paper production. For our application, imagine just the “Calendar” section of the gif with a vat of dough on top of it with sheets of dough flowing out to the right. In our case, we’ll replace the cooling and winder section of the gif with a conveyor belt where the dough is rolled further, allowed to relax, and then sent to the cutting machines.
Now in a sheet form, the edges of the dough are cut with rotary cutting machines, and the excess dough is sent back for reuse. Here is where the graham crackers and animal crackers split. The dough to make animal crackers will be run under a press die that has animal shapes in it, and will be stamped, similar to the way that sheet metal can be stamped.
Instead of a singular stamp there would be an array to make a dazzle of zebras, or a troop of kangaroos, a crash of hippos, a barrel of monkeys, a kaleidoscope of giraffes… I could go on naming the collective nouns for animals for a long time. For what it’s worth, here is a link to 141 animal nouns. Go nuts.
Once the crash of rhinoceroses have been formed and any extra requirements from the recipe - like sugar, cinnamon, or honey - are added, they are transferred to a metal conveyor belt and moved through an oven. The stages of baking include development, which sets the shape of the dough, drying, where the greatest reduction in water volume takes place, and coloring stage, where the dough is changed from white to the familiar light golden brown. The process is quick, sometimes only taking 4 minutes for animal crackers, and just slightly longer for graham crackers.
At this point, there is a post-conditioning process that takes place before the packaging. The crackers are flipped twice in the process as they travel on a series of conveyors to cool. Other finishing touches to the recipe requires such as icings, chocolates or sugars can be applied after the cooling, and the excess toppings will be removed with forced air and vibrating shakers. Finally, the crackers are packaged. Graham crackers are more fragile than animal crackers, and need to be stacked and wrapped in film, whereas animal crackers can be packaged in coated plastic bags. From here, both types of crackers are placed into their own packaging, shifted to larger shipping boxes, then to pallets and into stores.
And now we have animal crackers and graham crackers! It’s fun to see how certain techniques we associate with a particular set of materials can actually have very broad applications. Try to stay away from any pandemonium of parrots you might encounter out there.