Pilot Plants Test Production and Products

Pilot plant facilities offer cost-effective opportunities to test the tools of production and new products in a real food manufacturing environment.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Culinary Concepts was having problems with its Hollandaise sauce. “When it is done correctly, it has to set at room temperature. Yet keeping those ingredients of raw eggs, lemon juice and butter at room temperature can pose a health threat,” explains President Hal Valdes.

Valdes and his product team pondered the possibilities of aseptic processing for this and other products in the line. The Orlando, Fla., company manufactures time- and labor-saving soups and sauces for foodservice under the Chef Creations label. “Our products are all chef-quality products that we sell to restaurants,” he says. “They are all natural, no preservatives.

“A lot of times, sustained temperature kills a product’s taste,” continues Valdes. “Retort processing holds product at high temperature for a long time. Aseptic processing exposes the product to 283°F temperature, but for only four seconds. That’s not a long time. The product isn’t exposed to heat long enough to develop that burnt flavor.”

Culinary Concepts used a pilot plant to test whether its crème brulee and Hollandaise sauce could be processed and packaged aseptically.

Gambling on an aseptic system with no proof of the outcome was out of the question. But Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Tetra Pak had an option Culinary Concepts couldn’t refuse.

Work began at the Tetra Pak pilot plant in Denton, Texas, to test the viability of commercial production of these tough-to-deliver products via an aseptic processing and packaging system. The product team ran 8-gallon batches in Tetra’s SteriLab. “It’s small scale, like a test kitchen, but with machinery identical to Tetra Pak’s processing equipment,” explains Valdes.

Once the product neared acceptable formulation and process, they ramped up tests to 100-300 gallon batches. The pilot plant run ultimately led to the first aseptically packaged Hollandaise and crème brulee sauces in the U.S. and Canada. Shortly afterward came new sizes and an Alfredo sauce. And the aseptically packed line continues to grow.

“Within the next 60 days, we will be producing a 6.75-ounce version in the new Tetra Pak Microwavable Wedge [package] in Germany along with a brown gravy, Hollandaise sauce and a cheese sauce,” Valdes adds. Later this year, Culinary Concepts will add lobster bisque, cream of wild mushroom, tomato bisque, cream of asparagus, and a line of cooking soups.

And that will likely mean another trip to the pilot plant.

Why pilot?

Virtually no product goes from the test kitchen to the processing plant without rigorous rounds of adaptation. A test kitchen invites artistic flourish. It is a place for bold culinary experimentation. It offers plenty of creative elbowroom.

An operating processing line, on the other hand, means well-defined stages and tight tolerances – technology under rigorous control and scrutiny. It is the end result of a monumental scale-up effort.

During scale-up, pinches and dashes of ingredients convert to vat and drum volumes and meet other ingredients along the way to make sure the product can withstand the rigors of processing. Everyone involved hopes the test run of processed product bears reasonable resemblance to the small batch of delightful creation concocted in the kitchen.

Processors don’t always have the luxury of halting production in a processing plant running near capacity for experimental runs of new products or processes. That’s what makes a pilot plant so important.

For a new food product, the pilot plant is a transition zone, the turning point from kitchen recipe to process formulation, a testing arena to determine commercial run viability.

The pilot plant may also serve as a process lab, a place to see how processing equipment impacts foods under varying conditions. It may be a place to experiment with new equipment and processing steps on old products or to link old equipment in new ways.

Any way you cut it, the pilot plant is the all-important stage of product and process development that can have huge impact on manufacturing and capital decisions.

A pilot plant is usually a mini-processing plant. In fact, many are capable of producing test market quantities of product. Major processors often have one or more pilot plant facilities equipped with versions of the equipment used to make existing products for their ongoing testing and scale-up purposes. But while the pilot plant is a place where decisions on major investments in products and equipment for commercial runs of product are made, it can also be a serious investment in and of itself. Even small components of a process or product undergoing a test can be expensive investments.

That’s where third-party pilot plants come in. Sometimes contract packers can be a good choice to test a new process, product or package before it leaps into commercial production. But when new technologies or equipment unknowns come into play, your best alternative may be to go directly to an equipment manufacturer outfitted with a flexible mix of process equipment that is easy to configure into a wide range of experimental process systems.

Where to go/how to select

What characterizes a good pilot plant? Once you’ve narrowed the field to pilot facilities geared to your product and process, the real selection process begins. Three principles should direct your choice:
  • Flexibility: This may be the pivot point of your decision. Does the plant give you systems options, permitting flexible line configurations and relatively easy tests of alternatives? Can you accurately simulate the process you will likely employ with a new product? How does the pilot plant equipment compare with full-scale production equipment? Packaging line flexibility may be critical as well.
  • Meets regulatory and quality requirements: Pilot plants and their equipment should meet all regulatory standards. (This is particularly important when a processor intends to utilize pilot plant output in market tests.) The pilot plant also must deliver product quality as close as possible to that expected from a full-scale production line.
  • Scalability: How well does the pilot plant facility enable scale-up to the production environment? Ideally, the plant offers the capability to test increasing batch sizes.
Tetra Pak: Aseptic specialists

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