Byline: Per-Erik Wahlgren, Head of PDC in Lund
Innovation often thrives in periods of adversity. It's a lesson from history, and during the past few months it has been proven to be right yet again. When Covid-19 was spreading globally, so was innovation; germinating where it was needed most and proving that humanity can respond smartly and swiftly to even the most elusive of challengers.
At Tetra Pak, we've always believed that the future of a brand is rooted in the future of its ideas. Since 1951, we have been working to protect what's good – innovating with cutting-edge technology and integrated solutions for processing and packaging. We are also committed to helping our customers turn concepts into fully-fledged commercial products - tested, evaluated and modified to perfection.
We do this through product testing with our customers. In most cases, this means that our customers come to one of our 10 Product Development Centres and work with us to innovate and develop the perfect solution for the product they want to manufacture. Due to Covid-19 quarantines and lockdowns, that was not possible anymore. As we tried to overcome this challenge, it helped that our Product Development Centre (PDC) in Lund, Sweden, was already set up to help customers who could not travel; quickly, the team was scaling its offering of virtual product development trials that were streamed live to wherever our customers are based. Now we have moved all our product trials for customers into the virtual world.
Virtual trials were an instantly popular option for our customers at a time when they needed to prioritise new product developments (NPD), often within squeezed timeframes, but unable to conduct trials in-house due to the pressure on production lines and all the travel and safety restrictions. As timing is a critical element for the success of NPD, virtual trials have been key to ensure customers are not missing these vital windows of opportunity.
Our virtual trials service meant that we could support business continuity and make it possible for food manufacturers to finetune new processing concepts (whether that's liquid milk, plant-based beverages, ambient yoghurt or spreads such as hummus), perform trials and test runs, and evaluate final results with the support of our experienced technicians – all from their homes.
Not only did the quality of our virtual trials match the outcomes of our traditional face to face approach, but in some instances they increased the customer involvement because without the need to travel, more customers could observe each trial. Overall, virtual trials save time and – obviously - cut carbon emissions.
As a result, getting Tetra Pak's help with product development is even easier. From our very first virtual trial we've finetuned the experience and now offer a 'PDC trial package'. Just as we would have in a face-to-face set up, customers can book a session at our PDC in Lund. Once they share their objectives, our expert food technologists and engineers help them to validate and explore their options with prototypes – combining technology and solutions to find the optimal approach.
For virtual NPD trials, planning needs to be done to the smallest detail. To minimise any delays or issues, a clearly defined agenda is agreed with customers ahead of time, outlining prerequisites such as the digital tools, conference platform and audio quality parameters required.
We assign a director to each trial who knows how to give customers a great virtual experience, but also understands the intricacies of the PDC trials; he or she decides in real-time what to stream live and what to record for later viewing, when to switch between cameras and other technical aspects – for a full, up-close product development experience.
To ensure the best possible results, a food technologist is also always involved on-site, who has the expertise to ask the type of questions the customers would typically ask.
A new camera system ensures everyone can follow the trial from a number of angles. Customers can even see what's happening inside certain machines. To allow for tasting, the all-important sensory profile, we send samples from the trial itself to our customers. Remote product trials are taking place globally, for example in Denton, United States, and Monte Mor, Brazil. Where customers can attend trials, they are now often joined remotely by colleagues, so the sessions are an interactive experience for everyone, while staying productive and safe.
We are continuously enhancing the virtual experience, based on constant dialogue with our customers. For example, results are now shown on screen during the trial, and small tweaks have been made to encourage continuous feedback throughout the process. It means that we can now make improvements to the trial as we are running. Our aim is that the customer is happy when they receive the final report and its findings, so that they are ready to take the next step in production.
Innovation does not always have to be radical; sometimes it is incremental, at other times it's transformational. In either case, we help both our customers and end consumers to discover new food experiences – whether it's through a more efficient process for yogurt production, fine-tuning a new ice cream flavour, or by developing a nutritional beverage enriched with insect protein (yes, really).
Using our new virtual approach, we've already helped a customer to tweak their parameters to double the shelf life of their products, and another to compare vanilla custard production on in-direct versus direct heating systems. The ability to trial the process on our cutting-edge equipment helped them to achieve a higher quality output and make an informed decision to invest in new technology.
At our 10 PDCs worldwide we have incredible insight into the food and beverages that will fill the supermarket shelves of the future. We test and trial everything - from milk and plant-based beverages, to hummus and processed cheese, and are always encouraging our customers to push boundaries and be ahead of the curve.
During the past year, about 50% of PDC trials have been experimenting with plant-based products; we're already seeing a surge in popularity of plant-based fermented foods. Another 30% were focused on making nutritionally enhanced products. The testing of products with added nutritional benefits, such as immune boosting beverages, has remained a key customer priority during our virtual trials.
The benefit of investing in foods and beverages with added nutritional benefits is that the timescale from trial to release can be as little as 6 months, versus 10 years in the pharmaceutical industry. Due to the speed of innovation and the demand from an ageing population, these types of products will increasingly form an important role in medical nutrition.
The expansion of our virtual product development trials has proven to be beneficial, going from 10% to 100%. We predict that virtual trials will continue and partly replace some of our traditional face-to-face trials in the future. We will effectively be able to offer our customers two different but complementing experiences.
All this does require a lot more flexibility on Tetra Pak's side, particularly when it comes to ordering and transporting raw materials, but the customers who have been through the virtual process so far were impressed with how similar the experience was to being on-site. Now they want to see how a more virtual approach to testing can help them to innovate even faster in the future.
When Covid-19 struck, our traditional approach to new product development was derailed. Driven by a commitment to our customers, we applied our innovative thinking to inspire a new way of working. In the face of adversity, we dramatically reconfigured how we supported the development of the next generation of food and drink products.
By transforming our PDC offering, we not only made new product development safe and accessible during a pandemic, but increased the overall fluency, flexibility and frequency of innovation - as well as making it more sustainable.
At Tetra Pak we will continue with this kind of creativity and innovation and are looking forward to working with our customers to explore the full potential of new product development.