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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“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.

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