An exclusive interview for FoodPack Automation of Per-Erik Wahlgren, Head of Tetra Pak’s Product Development Centre (PDC) in Lund, Sweden.
Tetra Pak, a leading multinational food processing and packaging solutions company, announced publicly in August 2020 that it had taken its product development trials into the virtual arena. The move has proven to be a categorical success, benefitting a myriad of customers unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions. Per-Erik Wahlgren, Head of Tetra Pak’s Product Development Centre (PDC) in Lund, Sweden, speaks exclusively to FoodPack Automation about the project and how the idea of virtual testing turned from concept to reality.
Innovation in cutting-edge technology and integrated solutions for food processing and packaging has been taking place at Tetra Pak since its formation in 1951. The company is committed to helping its customers convert concepts into fully-fledged commercial products: tested, evaluated and optimally modified. As part of this offer, a rigorous and comprehensive product trial process is essential. A number of customer representatives typically attend these trial days but, with the arrival of COVID-19 and its associated travel restrictions, Tetra Pak took the bold step into the world of virtual testing. No mean feat considering the scale and intensity of a new product trial.
“The first step in new product development is planning, where our account managers liaise with the client to discuss requirements,” explains Wahlgren. “The first question is always the same: what is the objective? The definition of the objective must be clear; it should be tangible and something we can act upon – a hypothesis, if you like. A definition of the success criteria must also be set out.”
Tetra Pak specialises in the processing and packaging of next-generation products, including ambient yoghurt, plant-based drinks and nutritional beverages enriched with insect protein.
Says Wahlgren: “If we are testing a plant-based coffee whitener based on a barista of oat, for instance, we use the trials to explore the effect on parameters such as shelf life. Success criteria would include delivering a stable product, obtaining a good whitening effect in the coffee - comparable to standard milk - and achieving an appreciated taste.”
Once Tetra Pak and its customer have agreed the objectives and success criteria, the company assigns a highly qualified (MSc or PhD) food technologist to the project. The project team sets out the number of batches to be tested and the parameters to study.
“The customer will send us any raw materials, such as oat extract in this example, while we purchase any standard materials,” explains Wahlgren. “We steadily build up a protocol prior to the trial, which can last from one to five days.”
Once the trial is complete, the Tetra Pak team will analyse the results before drawing conclusions and writing a customer report.
“We reach 80% of trial days within 8-12 weeks of first contact with the customer,” says Wahlgren. “Two weeks after the trial is complete, the report will be ready.”
With such a well-drilled process for helping customers develop the optimum solution for the product they want to manufacture, the need to change it presented quite a challenge.
“In 2019 we had 155 customer days at our site in Lund, 80% of which involved international travellers,” states Wahlgren. “Many our customers come with 5-8 people.”
As fortune would have it, prior to the pandemic Tetra Pak had already been mulling over the potential to introduce virtual trials and whether they would provide the same experience for customers. The arrival of COVID-19 accelerated this thought process dramatically.
“When the pandemic hit, one of our biggest customers called to say they had to cancel the trials as they would not be coming to Sweden.,” says Wahlgren. “However, it was critical business, and therefore the introduction of virtual trials now assumed top priority.”
Tetra Pak wanted the virtual trials to remain highly professional. The setting is made to simulate a studio, like those of television news. The team can move a number of cameras to various areas, including the laboratory and even inside a machine so customers can follow exactly what is happening during the trial. The two-way web broadcast itself is via Cisco Webex or Microsoft Teams platforms, while the company uses vMIX as its live video streaming software.
“The results are shown on screen during the trial and small tweaks can be made to provide continuous feedback throughout the process,” explains Wahlgren. “It means we can implement improvements in real time. Our aim is to provide beneficial outcomes for customers, whether that’s increasing the shelf life of a product or helping them to make informed decisions about new technology investment, for example. We encourage our customers to push boundaries and get ahead of the curve.”
A director oversees each trial, one who knows how to give customers a great virtual experience, but also understands the intricacies of 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 allow for tasting, Tetra Pak sends trial samples to the customer for assessment.
“We were a little nervous at the first virtual trial on 25 March 2020, but there was no need because the feedback we received was tremendous – the customer said it was just like being on site,” says Wahlgren. “Since then, we’ve hosted 74 virtual trials involving 42 different projects. This has saved around 125 people from travelling to our site, which we calculate is the equivalent of 13-19 laps around the globe in a Volvo.”
The company refers to the virtual trials as ‘travel-free days’ due to the impressive savings in CO2 emissions. Customers can book travel-free sessions as part of an official PDC trial package now available from a number of Tetra Pak PDCs around the world. By taking up the package, food manufacturers are able to fine-tune new processing concepts, perform trials and test runs, and evaluate final results with the support of experienced food technologists and engineers – all from the comfort of their homes.
“Today we have a proven technique and application in place, but what’s more important is the two-way communication,” says Wahlgren. “We are discussing and interacting with customers throughout the travel-free trials. It feels like we’re in the same room. As a result, the package is extremely popular and the feedback has been tremendous.”
During the autumn, between the first and second waves of COVID-19, Tetra Pak had a situation when a few customer representatives visited its premises for a socially-distanced trial, joined virtually by a number of colleagues.
Says Wahlgren: “It was quite a challenge to manage both as we had product developers on site and decision makers sat remotely. However, it worked really well and in my opinion this is likely to be the future. There will be far fewer people travelling to our premises.”