Improving Quality with Scalable R&D From the Factory

15. complete mini fry line

Food processors get hands-on experience on how advanced cooking and chilling systems can provide important economic and quality advantages.

Increasing product yields, throughput, shelf life and food safety while finding more labor- and energy-efficient ways to address increasingly diverse consumer preferences – these are challenges that confront food processors around the world today.

For many companies these challenges are becoming increasingly difficult to address. Among the chief obstacles is the lack of convenient access to advanced thermal processing technologies and methods needed to acquire optimal results prior to capital investment.

These advanced thermal processing technologies include flexible continuous cooking equipment that will solve product needs and provide other significant benefits, such as the high output of a variety of foods from a single oven with a compact footprint. In addition to the equipment, tools for tracking the results of tests are crucial to measure value and success.

To help address these goals in a more comprehensive manner, thermal processing equipment manufacturers, like Unitherm Food Systems, are inviting food companies to use their equipment and facilities for pilot runs of various cooking solutions. The Unitherm solution center not only includes much of the latest in thermal processing systems, but also discussion with the process engineers and technical sales support who assist in the equipment testing and process development for food processors. 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 the conversation.

“The new test kitchen allows food processors to outsource their R&D work in a highly efficient and scientific manner,” explains Adam Cowherd, Unitherm Vice President of Sales. “This provides a valuable opportunity to smaller and medium-size companies, even the largest processors are among those who visit our facility every week for equipment demonstrations, product trials and other testing services,” he adds.

“For smaller 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. These resources 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. 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.”

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 the Unitherm facility to test various types of equipment that were needed to cook these new items.

“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 most accurate in  predicting future performance once installed inhouse which certainly lends to confidence when making a capital investment.

The solution center Zweigles utilized includes continuous systems involving cooking, , grilling, chilling, freezing and pasteurizing produced by Unitherm as well as that of manufacturers who partner with the company. This includes complete processing lines from raw material forming all the way to frozen, ready for packaging.

For example, visitors can experience a complete forming/batter/bread/fry, spiral oven, and freezer line that is ideal for cooking and freezing products such as chicken nuggets and fish patties.

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

Cowherd adds that equipment for post processing and post packaging pasteurization of RTE products, infrared cooking technology, and product enhancing equipment used for browning applications is also available at the test facility.

“This facility demonstrates many of the most efficient technologies for processing foods that many consumers are looking for today,” says Cowherd. “It creates a highly promising opportunity for large and small processors to try out systems that they have never used before, and can enable them to better service their markets, whether ready-to-eat, food services, or institutional.”

The Unitherm solution center includes the advanced continuous systems of various capacities that can provide very substantial productivity as well as dramatically increased yields and other benefits from the cooking of 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 how continuous cooking and chilling units fit and work together.

Cowherd emphasizes the value for visiting companies being able to test run their products in this facility, not only to see firsthand how various equipment performs, but also to determine how it can optimize their processes – before they make any investments.

Providing decisive results

Because the equipment demonstrations at these factory test kitchens are now available for processors to perform realistic test runs of their products, the results can lead to improving profitability and quality.

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

In the case of 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.

Equipment performance tracking is accomplished through a range of devices, including traveling data probes, real-time data tracking on heat output, and thermal imagery that enables the simulation of heat transfer occurring during the cooking process. For example in a spiral oven test supervisors are able to load in information about the heat exchanger, the oven itself, the air velocity, and the directional air movement. These factors are put into the simulation to provide a two-dimensional thermal image display showing how the heat is distributed in the oven. This process enables technicians to analyze cold spots and hot spots, and to make design improvements to improve the uniformity of heat distribution in the oven.

“The data models that come from various trials are printed or stored as digital copies, and are provided, at our discretion, to the customer,” Cowherd explains. “This gives them assurance that they’re going to get a consistent result once the project moves forward and gets into the design and build phase of the buying process.”

“The future of food processing machinery purchasing is going this way, where the customer can demand to go into a kitchen and actually try out their product on the machinery,” says Cowherd. “Only then can customers feel confident that the equipment best serves their operational parameters and expected results.”

Zweigles’ Salva feels that anyone who has access to something like that is going to get a real-world experience and be able to make a more informed decision. “The test lab 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.”

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