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

“To understand aseptic processing, you have to process foods aseptically,” says Jeff Kellar, vice president of strategic business development for Tetra Pak (www.tetrapakprocessing.com). Kellar regards a pilot plant as a critical tool of processors, particularly those exploring the possibilities of aseptic processing. “You may have had experience with a number of technologies like retort, coldfill, hotfill. But you may not know how your product will do in an aseptic process.”

Tetra Pak’s seven pilot plants around the world – in the U.S., Brazil, Singapore, Japan, India, Denmark, and Sweden – function as testing grounds for new products and reformulations. They offer a variety of packaging options, not only for aseptic but for other pasteurization methods including extended shelf life (ESL). Services range from lab scale tests to small-scale production runs. Equipment encompasses three components: batching and blending; heat processing; and packaging.


NOTE TO R&D

Make a point of getting to know the capabilities and pilot plant facilities of all manufacturers of major equipment utilized in the processes of your company's products. Learn as well those of companies with advanced technologies your company has yet to try.

Key equipment manufacturers may have several ramp-up options, ranging from small-batch operations to full-scale production. The big advantage may be at small-batch stages. The equipment-maker may have lab-scale equipment that is far closer to production-scale equipment in its function and impact on product.

Working on this equipment can be far more revealing and closer to "real world" food manufacturing. It will save you time and money, too.

Aseptic competency takes place in the middle phase – the heat processing segment of the process. The system provides three types of thermal treatment: direct steam injection, indirect heating with tubular heat exchangers and indirect heating with plate heat exchangers.

“The whole idea is to increase speed to market,” says Kellar, who claims his company runs 150 to 250 trials per year at the U.S. pilot facility in Denton, Texas. “In fact, we can actually do small commercial runs in a facility that meets full FDA and PMO regulatory compliance.”

Despite the global association of aseptic processing with the dairy industry, most pilot plant testing today involves products from other categories, including beverages, food (gravies, culinary sauces, soups, mixes) and nutritional products (protein shakes, meal replacements, soy beverages and sports drinks). Tetra pilot plants have evolved to keep pace with the shift.

“Prepared foods are getting lots of attention at our aseptic test plant,” says Kellar. “The benefits of aseptic processing run deeper in foods than in the other areas where aseptic technology is applied.”

The Denton facility has added new equipment, including an aseptic dosing system (Tetra Aldose) to add ingredients that have not gone through heat processing. The FDA-approved system adds to the effective amounts of some ingredients, such as vanilla.

“We have a portable retort system that we tote around the world and can plug into customers’ systems for testing,” says Kellar, who notes its use in testing of the Tetra Recart, a retortable paperboard carton.

Dairy processors are testing drink mixes, coffee beverages, creamers, flavored milks and smoothies, to name a few products. But Kellar notes that many are also revisiting the prospects of aseptically processed milk at Tetra pilot plants these days.

“In 1982, heat processing [of milk] was more challenging,” says Kellar. “A lot of people still think there is a great taste difference between aseptically processed milk and [conventionally] pasteurized milk. But in blind panel tests, there is no difference. The technology has gone a long way since the ’80s.”

Some of the company’s largest customers employ Tetra Pak’s pilot plants despite having pilot plant facilities of their own.

“Most food companies are outsourcing more, and they feel it is best to go to someone who is an expert,” explains Kellar. “We have things that are not commonly available. And we are service oriented.”

APV: “Test before you invest”

The prospect of investing in new processing equipment or a new product is always a costly proposition. That’s why Invensys APV (www.apv.invensys.com) encourages customers to begin the decision-making process at its pilot plant facility in Lake Mills, Wis.

“We tell them to ‘test before you invest,’” says APV’s Donna Crumley. “Test the process, test the product before you invest in full-scale production. Determine first if the equipment is appropriate.”

The Lake Mills pilot plant testing facility, in its 30th year of operation, is equipped for a wide variety of products and processes with a range of mixing and blending equipment, pumps, and heating, cooling, homogenization and freezing equipment.

The pilot plant stage provides an opportunity not only to test the suitability and quality of equipment but to optimize product characteristics as well. Accurate assessment comes from testing product variations in taste, color, texture and moisture levels with product run through equipment that matches or approximates the machines involved in full-scale production.

It also gives the processor clues to optimizing processes and production costs prior to investment and installation. Variables such as energy, labor, supplies and replacement parts can be factored into manufacturing and operations costs.

In addition to the Lake Mills facility, Invensys APV has a pilot plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., with evaporation, membrane filtration, drying and distillation equipment to test advanced separation technologies, and another in Grand Rapids, Mich., for bakery and snack products.

FMC’s three Ts: Training, techniques and technology

FMC FoodTech (www.FMCFoodTech.com) boasts that its seven Food Processing Technology Centers (FPTCs) spread across the globe serve more than 450 companies each year and accommodate more than 875 product applications.

The company claims its center in Sandusky, Ohio, was the first facility of its kind in 1982. Twenty-three years later, the company claims it is still the largest and most diverse test facility on the North American continent following its most recent $500,000 capital upgrade. Recent equipment additions include a new Accura 700 series waterjet portioner, Link Process Analysis, Link Line Control modules, and a ThermoFin conveyerized fryer.

The company recently named Ramesh Gunawardena manager of the Sandusky FPTC’s process and technology development. His goal is to help customers find new applications for existing equipment and potential opportunities for new or modified equipment. “Our (FPTCs) let customers test on actual production line equipment, giving them the opportunity to test new products in real-world conditions without the costly effect of tying up their own production lines,” he says.

Acknowledging that no equipment or processing system can manifest its capabilities if it is not run right, Chicago-based FMC FoodTech also offers an advanced training center where its customers can receive vital education and hands-on experience. Training classes range from coating and portioning to cooking, frying, freezing and refrigeration.

Niro: Pilot plant-to-go

“Our pilot plant and (portable) systems comprise one of our real strengths,” says Mads Skaarenborg of Niro Inc. “I don’t think there are many companies that have as many pilot plant facilities and options as we do.”

GEA Niro Inc. (www.niroinc.com) has a pilot plant facility in its food and dairy division center in Hudson, Wis., and another technology center in Columbia, Md., for chemical and pharmaceutical testing. But more often these days the company brings the pilot plant to the customer.

Extending the reach of its pilot facilities are a score of portable membrane filtration systems and a fleet of about 10 high-pressure pumps and homogenizers, plus a number of spray dryers and fluid beds. The company supplies these to processors at their own production sites under reasonable terms for process and product testing.

“Most companies employ our pilot plants because they have a product in mind but are not sure about it,” says Skaarenborg. “They use if for application development, or they want to be sure the equipment does what they want it to before they invest several million in it.”

It pays to check with any equipment provider on whether it has equipment or a pilot plant available for product or process testing. The cost will be small compared to the actual equipment investment, and you won’t need to factor in guesswork or shut down a production line to get what you need to make a decision. Besides, terms may be negotiable, particularly if a potential purchase rides on a successful test.

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