26 September 2016
Q&A with Alex Croy, Tetra Pak Pilot Plant Manager
What is pilot testing?
Pilot testing is essentially the step in between the test kitchen and commercialization. In a test kitchen, producers can only make a very small product batch—maybe a couple of pounds or a gallon. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s extremely expensive and disruptive to test in a commercial plant because minimum runs are huge and it’s very inefficient.
What benefits does pilot testing offer to brands?
During pilot testing, brands can produce larger quantities than in the test kitchen without making a substantial investment to test formulations or produce samples in a full-scale food and beverage plant. Pilot runs offer the best of both worlds by allowing producers to refine their formulations in smaller runs while still replicating full-scale production conditions.

For example, many of our customers know their product will work through the aseptic process, but they want to hone in on a flavor and texture or generate samples that they can take to a consumer test panel or tradeshow. That’s where a pilot facility like Tetra Pak’s Pilot Plant fits: between true R&D and commercial production. It’s the fastest, cheapest way to develop and optimize aseptic products, giving them a higher chance of commercial success.

How does product development typically work?
Product development is a lengthy, complex process. Normally you start with an idea: You see a gap in the market and have just the product in mind to fill that gap. Or, if you have an existing product, you may want to change up the flavor or test less costly ingredients. Either way, you develop it on paper before it’s taken through a test kitchen, where very small batches are made. Then you’re ready to start pilot testing. By the time products get to our Pilot Plant, brands are probably 80 or 90 percent finished with their product.
How long does it take to develop a new food or beverage product?
For small, nimble companies, the development process can range anywhere from three to six months. Larger companies generally take 12-24 months to complete the product development cycle.

In the 15 years I’ve worked at Tetra Pak, that timeline has decreased significantly. Today, our market here in the U.S. is very savvy and mature, but 15 years ago there was more trial and error. Now, we still see a lot of trial, but we see much less error. Our customers have become far more skilled and experienced in the product development and innovation process, so they can focus on fine-tuning things like flavor, texture and color rather than working through the basic formulation.

What are some challenges brands encounter during product development? Any tips on how to overcome them? 
A product on the shelf looks pretty simple, but there’s an enormous amount of effort involved in creating it. All the pieces have to come together to bring a product to market.

The biggest challenge in product development is the sheer complexity of the food and beverage processing business. During pilot testing, all of the ingredients—not to mention and all the suppliers—have to come together at precisely the right point. Newcomers to the industry definitely get a taste of this when they come to the Pilot Plant, which is a great experience because they’ll face the same challenges—but on a larger scale—when they move to full production and commercialization. They’ll have to plan for the next steps as well: distribution and getting their product onto store shelves.

As far as tips, I can’t overemphasize the importance of preparation and building a strong knowledge base. Participate in industry events like trade shows, conferences, and seminars and develop a network you can tap into throughout the development process. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” That’s preparation. So build that network and plan for each step before you jump in.
What qualities should customers look for in a pilot testing facility?
It’s important that any pilot testing facility meet government regulations for a food production facility. Our Pilot Plant, for instance, is FDA-compliant and USDA-inspected, so our customers can feel comfortable with the safety and quality of the products that are produced there.

Beyond that, brands should look for a clean, well-maintained plant with an experienced, customer-focused team. Since you’ll be working closely with both plant management and production workers, you may want to meet the team and tour the facility before making a decision. This will help ensure a good working environment and the best overall experience.
What benefits does the Tetra Pak Pilot Plant offer?
In the aseptic food industry, there’s always been a huge need for pilot plants capable of meeting the strict standards required in aseptic production. Tetra Pak has been filling that need for the last 30 years with our network of Pilot Plants. We’ve maintained our Denton, TX Pilot Plant since 1999.

Many new customers come to us with an idea but may not know what to do next. As a full system supplier, Tetra Pak has a great depth of knowledge throughout the development process and is well-equipped to help customers navigate their way to commercialization. We can connect producers with formulation assistance, ingredient suppliers, contract manufacturers and so on. We offer tremendous support, especially to start-ups and innovators, and that is rare for a food industry supplier.

We run our Pilot Plants as a service to the industry. We don’t require that you use our packaging and processing solutions as a condition of using our Pilot Plants, and we don’t operate them as profit centers. We consider our Pilot Plants to be an investment in the long-term health of the food and beverage industry, and in our customers’ success.

Alex Croy is the Plant Manager at the Tetra Pak Pilot Plant, located in Denton, TX. He manages the facility, the people and the process and has worked for Tetra Pak for 15 years.

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