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Piloting a New ProductPiloting a New Product

March 1, 2005

10 Min Read
Piloting a New Product

March 2005
Nutrition Notes Piloting a New Product
By Martin Schultz
Contributing Editor
Underpinning a decision to go ahead with the production of, say, a new vanilla-frosted cookie are issues of cost and risk -- two sides of the same coin. Will the frosting cost too much? Can it be produced at high-speed without jamming the pumps? Will customers like it and will consumers keep buying it? In the process of constantly generating new brands or line extensions, food processors stay competitive by juggling the investment/production equation. While unsuccessful introductions often clutter store shelves, these represent only the tip of a mountain of failures that never reach full production. Some disappear while still on the lab bench, others when they get to the pilot line of a production facility. But the vast majority of products with market potential end their careers in a pilot plant. "A pilot plant's purpose is to reduce the manufacturer's investment risk in a new product," explains Edward Goldman, senior vice president of Waltham, MA-based Foster-Miller, Inc. "When you minimize risk, you reduce the possibility of costly surprises occurring at the manufacturing stage." The cost implications are huge, says Paul Keida, president of Food Innovations and Design, Columbus, OH. "Essentially, one of the roles of the pilot plant is that's where you want to make mistakes and find out what does not work." Small-scale complexity
Essentially, pilot plants replicate the full production process in miniature, typically with the same level of sophistication but at a reduced throughput speed that makes testing cost effective. "Production lines typically run at very accelerated rates, thousands of pounds per hour," notes Jim Cross, vice president of technology, sweet ingredients, Kerry Americas, New Century, KS. "It would be very destructive to production to break into lines that have throughput of around 4,000 lbs. per hour to change over to a test product running at only 1,000 lbs." Depending on whom you talk to, pilot plants represent either an extension of the R&D "learning" process or a commercial testing facility contracted to rapidly respond to a customer's needs -- or both. However, this is more a case of emphasis than a clearly demarcated difference. As new products emerge from the lab, it becomes necessary to test their quality or viability in commercial-size batches. "There is a need to see how a commercial sample compares with the bench-top gold-standard sample that was previously approved by marketing and R&D," explains Lou Cooperhouse, director of the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. "In addition, a pilot-sized batch will enable researchers to better understand product quality, consistency, safety, yields and overall costs. "Based on the health-inspection status of the facility, a pilot plant may also serve to produce limited quantities of product for commercial sale, enabling market research that will help prove the viability of a new business opportunity," Cooper- house adds. Pilot plants offer manufacturers a long list of advantages, says Karen Smith, whey separations technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (WCDR), Madison. "You use a pilot plant when it's not practical to run test product in your full-size plant." Pilot plants save time, because you're not tying-up expensive machinery. They also enable researchers to avoid using, and therefore risking damage to, production equipment. "For example, I've seen people trying to pump something that's too viscous and they burn out the motor," Smith notes. A pilot plant doesn't require fabricating production-scale volumes of product to satisfy a tryout. "Often, 10 gal. are all that's needed, especially if all you're doing is tweaking a formulation," Smith says. "It's much less risky to waste 10 gal. of materials than the contents of a tanker truck." When it comes to developing a new process, the pilot-plant approach might be the ideal solution. Sometimes, all that might be entailed is a new raw material or a new piece of equipment. "You may not even have to purchase the machine," Smith explains. "You may be able to get hold of a loaner for a while." Cross contends that the pilot-plant process works best when researchers have a fundamental understanding of processing. "Good R&D means you can go from the lab bench to the pilot plant to the manufacturing plant seamlessly." Of course, this sounds easier said than done. In reality, product complexity, equipment shortfalls, inadequate research skills and time pressures all work to impede a successful outcome. The Learning Curve
Acknowledging that a pilot-plant project can often fail, John Miles, president of Raleigh, NC-based MicroThermics, sees the ultimate value of the pilot plant depending on how researchers approach the process. "If you are using your food technologists properly and letting them do good work, they learn how the product performs in a variety of processes. The learning curve is fundamentally the most important thing they've got." As Miles views it, the job of food-technology researchers is to figure out how to get a product ready for production: "They have to draw on both education and experience. Well, education's one thing but the other is: Have they been given the opportunity to work on the product sufficiently in various kinds of processes to know what to expect when something isn't quite right?" Can they, as he suggests, anticipate the outcome? "In reality," Miles suggests, "when they've done more products in the pilot plant than they've taken to the production facility and found out how to foresee what works in production through the testing process in the pilot plant, then you've developed a really useful set of tools." Such tools naturally improve with practice. When researchers decide every day how to formulate and process while continuing further and further along the learning curve, the better the decisions they make. "When things go wrong, the researchers become the best-informed individuals available to suggest the changes needed to get the process to work properly," Miles says. This is one of the more-important reasons that manufacturers who choose to be intimately involved in the pilot-plant process need to have their best people on-site. "If this is a new product," Goldman says, "you'll need people who have tremendous amounts of optimism and energy. They need to be familiar (and not) disheartened with the concept of change." A staff of people who know how to turn on equipment and clean it, and who understand the specific intricacies of sanitation and maintenance, is needed, says Keida. "And (a staff) who grasp how to identify scalable equipment, including knowing the minimum size necessary and still be scalable, meaning it translates into full production units." Just as important in ensuring the success of pilot-plant projects, says Peter deBakker, manager of business development at Foster-Miller, is how they enable researchers to "play with the process to come up with a superior product with the lowest cost -- whether it's ingredient cost or process cost. Working with the customer, we can jointly evaluate what the optimum parameters ought to be." This is the essence of minimizing risk. Keida suggests: "Getting a better, fuller, more-robust understanding of your parameters. This is what you need to control." Of course, the process of gaining insight into any specific project does not have to take place completely in the pilot plant. Because it is a multistep project, some parts of the process can take place in the production facility. As Keida explains, "there are steps you can do in the (manufacturing) plant where you'd have wider variables say, in temperature, in which you could be looking at anything from 180?F to 220?F. But if you had the opportunity, and time and expense were no object, you'd still want to test those variables in a preproduction setting, just to see what the reaction is." Moreover, doing the testing in a pilot plant makes the kind of financial sense that wins the accountants' confidence. For every test potentially costing thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a manufacturing plant -- and that takes months to complete -- pilot-plant researchers can turn out 10 to 25 treatment combinations in a day. Designing a Pilot Plant
So, given the necessity of a pilot plant, what elements ought to be included in a proposed facility? "The first thing you have to decide is: 'What is going to be the focus of the pilot plant?'" says Smith. One factor that should influence thinking is adopting the good manufacturing practice of keeping various processes separated. "For example," Smith explains, "you never want raw product anywhere near finished product that is destined for packaging. Also, note that meat processing has refrigeration needs, whereas dairy products tend to be processed in a very warm environment." While candy manufacture needs its own designated area, vegetable processing requires space for very large equipment. So, once the type of food product that'll be researched is identified, then the size of the facility needed can be determined -- whether a stand-alone or a dedicated room in an existing manufacturing plant. The ideal solution might be a new building, but when this isn't practical, picking a suitable independent space becomes crucial. "For example, in the dairy industry we use water. We use water everywhere, so when testing dairy products, you'd need a facility where the walls and the floor are liable to get wet," Smith contends. "So, you'd need plentiful floor drainage." The chocolate industry, by contrast, avoids processing with water, preferring instead copious amounts of fats and oils. Thus, one of the first questions to ask in creating a pilot plant is whether the new facility is physically suitable for the desired type of testing. Another question concerns getting utilities, like electricity, into the pilot plant in sufficient quantity and of the right type. Other questions to ask: Does the facility have plenty of outlets to plug equipment into? Can an air line go into the space for processes that require air? Or a steam line? Is adequate cooling available? If a drier is needed, is there a line to bring in gas? Can all of these utilities and various pieces of equipment be maneuvered around hall corners if necessary? Are the elevator and the floor of the designated pilot plant strong enough to support the weight of the incoming equipment? Some machinery is very heavy and it's sensible to obtain the advice of a construction engineer before moving forward. Periodically, equipment might require moving to make space for new pieces or new configurations as the projects change. So, another question to consider is whether there is sufficient storage space? Is there need for a forklift? In which case, is there enough room for such equipment to move back and forth? Also check whether the halls and the doors are wide enough to get a forklift in and out. Another area that requires advanced scrutiny, says Smith, is safety. "Some of the chemicals you'll be using need to be kept separated," she notes. "Emergency exits need to be clearly identified in the event of an accident." Also, devise a safety plan and include first-aid cabinets, eye-wash facilities and material-data safety sheets. "It's vital to have quick access to showers to handle contact with toxic materials," adds Smith. Finally, when planning the installation of a new pilot plant, it's always best to assemble a team that includes engineering, construction, production, accounting and product-research skills. "Very rarely does one person have all the answers. It's always best to bring in several parties who can provide a wide spectrum of knowledge on how to set up a pilot plant," Smith acknowledges.     Martin Schultz is an experienced consumer and trade magazine writer with a special interest in food and food-technology topics.
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