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Case Study: Perfecting Food Process Through Collaboration

Food processors are utilizing R&D test kitchens that combine equipment and processes from multiple manufacturers to gather scientific data and perfect the final product.

Imagine a collaboration between multiple cooking equipment manufacturers who partner in a test kitchen facility to deliver end-to-end solutions for food processors with one goal in mind: to provide those customers with a superior process.

The need for that kind of test facility has become more imperative as food-processing systems have become increasingly complex, requiring the integration of multiple technologies that often require incorporating equipment from multiple manufacturers. By experiencing end-to-end processing solutions rather than only limited equipment demos, processors are able to view a complete equipment line that includes everything involved in producing their products from raw materials to packaging.

The outcome of working with this more comprehensive approach is valuable R&D, which can enable processors to develop improved products as well as systems that meet other goals, such as improved product yields, food safety, and shelf life.

This also provides processors a testing ground utilizing high quality equipment from specialized manufacturers rather than just buying from turnkey manufacturers whose systems may not be the best suited solution. True collaboration as such, where multiple manufacturers consult under one roof is rare, as each party is bidding for a limited portion of capital available, but the results are remarkably improved processes.

One such facility is the solution center located at the headquarters of Unitherm Food Systems, Bristow, OK. A global manufacturer of advanced cooking, pasteurizing, chilling and freezing systems, the company has partnered with other manufacturers in order to integrate all the equipment necessary to provide visiting processors with a complete production line experience.

“For companies who don’t have their own R&D facilities, Unitherm’s solution center provides access to all of the equipment and testing processes, resources that we couldn’t afford to have in-house,” explains Kevin Salva, COO of Zweigles, Inc.

Headquartered in Rochester NY, Zweigles is well known for producing “Old World” hot dogs, sausages and lunch meats for more than 130 years. The company is currently expanding its plant and product line to include chicken, beef, and pork products, and recently decided to utilize Unitherm’s test facility to evaluate various types of equipment that were needed to cook these new items.

These advanced resources to which Salva refers include wireless temperature probes, thermal 3D animation of airflow and burner efficiencies, vision technology for belt loading efficiency analysis, and more.

“We can’t realistically set up a pilot lab or a pilot kitchen at our plant,” Salva says. “So, I think this is a great resource for large and small customers to perform real-time testing of their own products on the latest equipment.”

According to Salva, the Unitherm “solution center” test kitchen includes the latest continuous systems of various capacities for both protein and vegetable products. Examples of system capabilities include inline smoking and browning, small footprint “spiral” ovens, and continuous peeling, pasteurizing and grilling of vegetables, such as onions and peppers. The equipment in the solution center is arranged in in-line configurations, so that processors can experience continuous cooking, say, with a spiral oven and complete fry line to see how the two processes work together providing an alternative solution through flash frying.

However, instead of a facility dedicated to one manufacturer’s products, Unitherm includes third-party “partner” suppliers’ systems and accessory equipment in a variety of configurations to provide visitors with a true end-to-end examination of various processing options. This equipment could include virtually any design required from input of raw ingredients through to packaging.

“The equipment selection in our solution center encompasses machinery used in combination with our own product line,” Explains Adam Cowherd, Unitherm Vice President of Sales. “For example, we may incorporate a Grote slicer at the discharge of the oven. This slicer self-sterilizes and can be used for slicing chicken breasts or pork bellies. We’ve also introduced some new technologies such as hybrid cooking systems with Amtek microwave technology.”

In another example, Unitherm offers a former-batter-breader-fryer line using a continuous system provided by Deighton Manufacturing. The system automates the preparation and frying of formed products such as chicken nuggets and fish patties.

In addition to the equipment, tools for tracking the results are also provided, which is crucial to measuring value and success.

“I think it is important to be able to actually cook on a piece of equipment using your own products and see what your results are, versus doing a pilot lab or in-house test kitchen where you’re trying to replicate the equipment and process in your own facility using the equipment you may happen to have,” Salva says. “Being able to test your products on the advanced systems should be very valuable to any company in our industry.”

Furthermore, testing on these scalable systems makes the trials more accurate in predicting future performance once installed in-house, which lends to confidence when making a capital investment.

In the case of Unitherm, its solution center also provides opportunities for discussion with the process engineers and technical sales support who assist in the equipment testing and process development for food manufacturers. In-house engineers make it possible to discuss further customization and development directly between the customer and design team, software such as Solidworks 3D provides a visual to aid in the conversation.

“The more advanced test kitchen allows food processors to outsource their R&D work in a highly efficient and scientific manner,” explains Cowherd. He emphasizes the value this adds for visiting companies who are now able to see firsthand how various equipment performs in unison, while also learning how it can optimize their processes – all before making any investments.

“We focus on the visitor’s takeaway from the testing experience,” Cowherd adds. “We’re incorporating more tools and methods for recording data from the equipment demonstrations and product testing. This enables the visitors to compare systems and processes more efficiently, and also enhances the R&D value of the experience.”

For Zweigles, the testing addressed the characteristics of its new products and the settings and adjustments that were available on various types of equipment that enabled different output from the same system. “We were looking at the ability to adjust the air velocity or the temperature or humidity and measure what the output was in terms of our product,” Salva explains.

In the view of many food processors, the future of machinery purchasing is going this way, where the customer can demand to go into a kitchen and actually try out their product on the equipment. And when that kitchen includes the entire processing line, customers can feel confident that the equipment best serves their operational parameters and expected results.

Zweigles’ Salva feels that anyone who has access to such a solution center is going to get a real-world experience and be able to make a more informed decision. “The testing experience is product-specific and customer-specific, so it shows you what equipment and processes you can use for whatever product you have in mind. Plus, Unitherm adds its input and experience in creating a variety of solutions. I think this would be very valuable for a company of any size.”