Tyson Discovery Center Cooks Up the Future

Tyson's soon-to-be-completed research, development and training facility is a $52 million commitment to continuing product excellence.

By David Feder, R.D., Managing Editor

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Digital Editor's Note: This article is one of three segments of Food Processing's December cover story on its "Processor of the Year," Tyson Foods. Click here to read the feature on the mega-processor's plant operations; click here to access the article on Tyson's business acumen.



Once you make your first billion, it's no longer about getting to the top - it's about staying there. For Tyson Foods Inc., the drive to stay on the top began $26 billion ago, and the company, which released more than 420 new products this year, still is sharp enough to know that staying at the top of the food game comes down to two words: research and development.

This forward-looking septuagenarian is not about to let size or solid success slow down the thinking process, and to that end has broken ground on a $52 million R&D facility, called the Discovery Center, smack in the middle of its Springdale, Ark., headquarters campus. The project team includes Charles Wyche, senior director of R&D, and Bob Love, vice president of R&D, who provides oversight and direction for the project.

But such a center would be just another building without an attitude toward research and development that is dedicated to exploration.

Carper

Passion in the process

Hal Carper, senior vice president of corporate research and development, describes Tyson's commitment to detail as springing from a plan of "life-long learning and a passion for food." It starts on the inside, he says, noting that his R&D team treats other company business units as if they were customers. "We are firmly focused on fulfilling the needs of both internal and external customers."

Carper explains that promoting the merger of team play and individual contribution allows team members to "pursue parallel paths, simultaneously rather than being limited by a single, linear path in new product development."

In designing and developing new products from ideation and product development through completion, Tyson combines in-house idea generation with consumer insights. "Key insights come from consumers, retailers, distributors, chain restaurants and foodservice operators," notes Carper. "Consumers and retailers alike expect us to come up with new and innovative products that still deliver on the same promises the Tyson name has come to mean - quality, trusted products I can feed to both family and friends."

One example of this synergy is Tyson's new fajita kits, a packaged line of "quick 'n easy, ready in 7 minutes" fajita dinners that contain not only the seasoned meat and vegetables, but the tortillas as well. Says Carper, "Early on, our focus was around gaining synergy from of some of our existing processes. We had tortilla production in one facility, precooked chicken strips in another and vegetable expertise in a third. At the same time, research showed that consumers wanted involvement in preparation, but not too much involvement -call it 'participative convenience.'"

Other consumer product success stories from Tyson R&D include its "ingredient meats," refrigerated and seasoned chicken and beef used in recipes for casseroles, tortilla wraps, salad and pizza toppings; the award-winning "Southwest Chicken Breast Strips"; and a line of refrigerated chicken, beef, pork and turkey "heat and eat" entrees.

On the foodservice side, examples include Chicken Bites, one- or two-bite pieces of whole-muscle chicken breast meat. Each piece is marinated and lightly breaded. The pieces are consistently sized, individually frozen for easy portioning and available in four ready-to-cook versions and two fully cooked and glazed options. They come in a variety of flavors as well: a spicy "Bites of Fire" flavor, "Homestyle Pepper" and the more traditional "Honey Barbeque."

Tyson also powers foodservice "speed-to-plate" with its new ready-to-cook "CrossFires" fully cooked, grill-marked chicken breast filets. They're pre-seared with crisscross marks and have an authentic flame-grilled smoky flavor.

Tyson's new "CrossFires" fully cooked, grill-marked chicken breast filets provide foodservice operators with a heat-and-serve product designed to taste like it just came off the grill.

No stage fright here

Carper relies on a modified Stage or Phase Gate process, customized to Tyson's needs, to manage new product development.

"Our retail new products team employs a five-stage process," he explains. "In Stage 1, we screen new ideas and identify which ones to explore further. In Stage 2, we assess the ideas via consumer input on needs and frustrations, plus we evaluate similar products in the marketplace.

"The end of this process results in creating several consumer-driven concept statements based on what the consumer wants. These concepts are subjected to quantitative consumer testing to assess the size of the idea. Preliminary financial models developed from the information gathered helps determine if the idea will meet the company's threshold for a new business."

Stage 3 moves the team into testing the product in all forms to perfect it and to gauge how well it performs against the written concept. "The testing includes prototype evaluation, qualitative and quantitative consumer research with the product and possibly product optimization work, leading to a quantitative assessment of how well the product is received by the consumer and how well it delivers the concept," says Carper.

Stage 4 is the test market phase. According to Carper, "Manufacture begins here and additional history is obtained on the product, leading to improvements, manufacturing optimization and any other necessities."

Finally, Stage 5 involves a national launch. In this stage, Team Tyson develops and implements a fully integrated marketing plan that stimulates the initial trial of Stage 4 with the goal of leading to repeat purchases.

"Consumers are very clear in maintaining high expectations for a Tyson product," says Carper. "In other words, it must be a quality product that tastes great and is safe and nutritious. A key part of our product launch success is also listening to consumers and customers and then translating their unmet needs into viable meal solutions for themselves, their guests or their customers. We seek to ensure we are delivering on customers' expectations of us throughout our extensive research initiatives."

Fundamentals of success

So, with the new product out where the rubber meets the road, what are key indicators of a successful new-product launch? "Obviously trial and repeat are fundamental to new product success," Carper answers. "But also, creating a product with 'buzz' is important. We want customers, consumers and the media excited and communicating positively about our new products."

Another measure of success for the food giant is industry response. "We have received numerous product awards from our foodservice customers throughout 2005," says Carper. "The awards recognize specific new product development and innovation and include products across all the proteins: chicken, beef and pork."

How long the product stays in the market at acceptable volume and margin shows promise for long-term viability. It also supports the overall view of Tyson in the marketplace. "As the world's leading protein provider and with our brand image of trust and quality, consumers are receptive to Tyson entering new food categories where we are currently not present. Consumers expect Tyson to be a category innovator," Carper says.


KEYS TO THE TYSON FORMULA

Tyson's approach to R&D involves focusing on several key steps, according to R&D senior vice president Hal Carper:
  • Upfront formula work perfected to improve flavor, texture and moistness of an existing product.

  • Large scale CLT (Central Location Test) used to evaluate new samples, current product and competitors' products.

  • Descriptive panel work used to create a map of each flavor and texture profile.

  • CLT results used to gauge success of formula work, immediate implementation or further improvements. Descriptive panel work was used to guide further revised prototypes.




TYSON PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, STEP BY STEP

Tyson employs a Stage or Phase Gate Process to manage new product development:
  1. Team formed with marketing, R&D, plant operations and market research to brainstorm product improvement attributes.

  2. Formulations developed to improve flavor and texture of the products.

  3. In-plant testing preformed to determine cooking rates, temperatures and humidity to produce the best product.

  4. Central Location Test (CLT) designed to test improved formulations with 150 consumers for each cell, divided across six cities. Test quantities determined and assigned a three-digit code. Testing matrix and timeline also designed.

  5. Schedule created with manufacturing; necessary ingredients and packaging materials ordered.

  6. Competitor products acquired by sales department.

  7. All internal products run and labeled.

  8. For refrigerated products, a two-week rest period is put in place.

  9. Physical attributes (such as chemical analysis, piece-size distribution) on each test and competitors' product collected.

  10. Sensory attributes (flavor and texture) mapped for each product using a trained sensory descriptive panel. Spider graphs used to report results on all products.

  11. Sufficient quantities of each product shipped to test locations.

  12. Respondents review "finalist" products in a randomized design. Multiple observations per product collected to provide statistically valid results.

  13. Once test results received, clear "winners" are scheduled for immediate formula changeover. Temporary label approval granted with existing packaging on nearly all varieties to make conversions to marketplace as quick as possible.

  14. Test products that do not score statistically above either the control product or a competitor's product are reviewed to propose further improvements.

  15. Revised products prepared and reviewed by R&D and marketing before submitting to the trained sensory descriptive panel.

  16. In most cases, iterative testing with the Trained Sensory Descriptive Panel is used to determine when product attributes had been moved significantly closer to the improved target.

  17. Once iterative changes are "dialed" to the proper point, product improvement is implemented for commercial products.

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