This article originally ran in the May 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing.
In an effort to save customers time and money — and to showcase their own equipment — food manufacturing vendors are launching test facilities across the globe, providing space for processors to assess equipment function before implementation.
Many food manufacturing suppliers are operating test facilities that allow processing customers to perform physical tests on equipment before acquisition.
The tests run in these facilities can save processors time and money as they test out equipment to determine whether it is a fit for their facilities and how best to integrate it once it arrives.
Location, Location, Location
Reiser has long operated a showroom and test kitchen for its customers. When one of its largest suppliers opened a customer center in 2005, Reiser immediately realized the benefits of replicating the test facility and opened its own facility two-and-a-half years ago. Robert Reiser, the Customer Center Manager for the company, said the goal was to present customers with “one of the nicest processing facilities you’d ever been in.” Customers can take advantage of two large processing rooms, a smokehouse, bakery ovens, meeting rooms and more.
Lyco Manufacturing also opened a facility on-site at their headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, where its customers can participate in full cooking demonstrations for products including pasta, rice, vegetables, dry beans and hot fill pouches.
“We set up equipment in the lab that is close in size and configuration to what the customer’s process would look like,” says Steve Hughes, the company’s president.
Unlike Lyco and Reiser, Bühler’s new test facility does not share space with the company’s headquarters. According to the company, the facility was built adjacent to the London City Airport in order to make it more accessible to European visitors. One of Bühler’s sister companies also operates a test facility in Stockton, Calif.
Bühler operates several facilities for different industry sectors around the globe. The newest facility in London is specially designed for fruit and vegetable sorting, includes a cooling room and storage freezer, and can handle fresh or frozen product.
Stephen Jacobs, the company’s Global Product Manager for the Fruit and Vegetable Sector, says that the facility has been a great opportunity to “show our customers what our machines can do” and that the facility is equipped to run general demonstrations or customized lines for food processors.
While Bühler touts the benefits of an off-site facility, Reiser notes that having the company’s test facility adjacent to the headquarters allows a free-flow of communication between Reiser staff and potential customers, as well as providing access to all the resources at the company’s disposal.
Reiser says, “We’re overwhelmed by the response” to the new testing facility. Reiser is now welcoming two customers per day and is booked a month in advance.
Hughes has noticed similar excitement among Lyco customers. He says that customers at all stages of the acquisitions process have visited the facility, but that “80 to 90 percent of the people who visit are customers who have an approved budget, and this is one of their final steps before acquisition.”
Jacobs concurs. “Usually they’ve made a decision about acquiring sorting technology, and they’re looking at our equipment against competition.”
He continues, “We offer our customers the option to go and see a machine in someone else’s plant, or we offer them the opportunity to see one of our machines in their plant, which is always a good way to see the product run, but it can be costly. So the customers quite often like to come see the equipment run in our facility without costing them too much money.”
Reiser sees similar eagerness among customers and also notes that testing in a facility before implementation can save manufacturers big headaches. “We want to work with food processors to become part of the development process as they’re developing new products,” he says.
Hughes notes that customers can often realize and correct plant inefficiencies by visiting test facilities. “Many times they come in believing their process might be 12 or 15 minutes, based on the way they’ve been doing it, and what we’ve been able to show them is that process time goes down with a continuous process, and uniformity and consistency of the finished product is much improved over what their process was.”
Recipe for Success
Food equipment vendors are realizing success in test facilities not only for their own sales teams, but also for customers who are able to test the equipment hands-on before integrating it in their own facilities.
Success stories “happen every week,” according to Reiser. “Is this going to run through your machine? How is it going to look when it runs through your machine?” How will the equipment play with other pieces of equipment in a processing facility? Running samples in a test facility can help answer these questions.
Reiser says that often customers can halt acquisitions headaches before they manifest in their facilities. He says a customer sometimes, for example, will select a smaller piece of equipment and then realize during testing at the Reiser facility that the machine is overloaded and a larger machine is needed. “That saves the customer time and money. It saves us time and money because we haven’t shipped the machine. It works for everybody and simplifies the process.”
Hughes has noticed savings for customers who are looking to change or update processes. “We had one customer that was totally changing their process for beans from a soaked process to a continuous hydration process. We developed the processes in our lab prior to them installing the new process line, and what they found was that the process that we developed in our lab was applicable to the process they were running in their plant, so it saved them R&D time in their lab because the processes had already been determined.”
Reiser expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “We want to work with food processors to become part of the development process as they’re developing new products.”
Put to the Test
Food manufacturers may find natural partners for R&D, equipment testing and equipment configuration in their equipment vendors. Vendors can showcase their equipment and help processors choose the best solutions for their facilities while demonstrating how their machines operate in the field.
Hughes says that he views Lyco’s facility as a way “to help customers understand our technology.” As processors seek to make equipment acquisitions, whether they can “try it before they buy it” may play a key role in their decisions.