Factory acceptance tests (FATs) and product development trials are all about certainty, for both supplier and customer. However, in response to the pandemic and the cessation of site visits, an increasing number of solution providers are taking such services online.
The food and beverage sector is among those spearheading this activity, with food processing and packaging specialist Tetra Pak a case in point. ‘Innovation through adversity’ is how Tetra Pak describes its success in driving innovation through virtual new product development (NPD) during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re committed to helping our customers turn concepts into fully-fledged commercial products - tested, evaluated and modified to perfection,” says Per-Erik Wahlgren, head of the Tetra Pak PDC in Lund, Sweden. “We do this through product testing with our customers, who in most cases visit one of our 10 PDCs to work with us on the innovation and development of an optimised solution for the product they want to manufacture. However, due to COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns, that was not possible anymore. As we tried to overcome this challenge, it helped that our PDC in Lund was already set up to help customers who couldn’t travel. Quickly, the team was scaling-up its offer of virtual product development trials.”
Virtual trials were an instantly popular option for Tetra Pak customers at a time when they needed to prioritise NPD, often within squeezed timeframes, but were unable to conduct trials in-house due to production pressures and travel/safety restrictions. As timing is critical to the success of any NPD project, the introduction of virtual trials was essential to ensure Tetra Pak customers did not miss these vital windows of opportunity.
Says Wahlgren: “Our virtual trial service means we can support business continuity and make it possible for food manufacturers to fine-tune new processing concepts, perform trials and test runs, and evaluate final results with the support of our technicians - all from their homes. Not only does the quality of our virtual trials match the outcomes of Tetra Pak’s traditional face-to-face approach, but in some instances they increase involvement because, without the need to travel, more customers can observe each trial. In addition, virtual trials save time and travel costs, and cut carbon footprint.”
Tetra Pak now offers a 'PDC trial package' whereby customers can book a virtual session at its PDC in Lund. For online NPD trials, planning is required to the finest detail. To minimise any delays or issues, Tetra Pak and its customers agree a clearly defined agenda ahead of time, outlining essentials 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 PDC trials,” explains Wahlgren. “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.”
MULTIPLE CAMERA ANGLES
A new camera system at Tetra Pak in Lund ensures everyone can follow the trial from a number of angles. Customers can even see what is happening inside certain machines.
“To allow for tasting - that all-important sensory profile - we send samples from the trial to our customers,” says Wahlgren. “Remote product trials are now taking place at other Tetra Pak locations around the globe, for example in Denton, USA, and Monte Mor, Brazil. As some customers slowly begin to attend trials again, colleagues often now join remotely, so the sessions are an interactive experience for everyone, while staying productive and safe.”
Tetra Pak is continuously enhancing its virtual experience based on constant dialogue with customers. For example, it is now possible to show results on-screen during the trial, while the implementation of small system tweaks is encouraging continuous feedback throughout the process. It means that Tetra Pak can now make improvements to the trials as they run.
“Using our new virtual approach, we've helped a customer to tweak their parameters and double the shelf life of their products, and another to compare indirect with direct heating systems when producing vanilla custard,” says Wahlgren. “We predict that virtual trials will continue and partly replace some of our traditional face-to-face trials. We’ll effectively be able to offer our customers two different but complementary experiences. Of course, all this requires 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 innovate even faster in the future.”
IN FULL FLOW
It seems the virtual model is permeating across many other sectors. Industrial process instrumentation specialist Krohne UK, for example, has implemented a process so that calibration and product checks can take place remotely via virtual inspection.
During the process, a qualified Krohne operator guides the customer through the virtual session. Customers can view their flowmeter in real time and interact with the operative just as they would normally. As calibrations often last several hours, customers have the option to log off and rejoin later for the results. Alternatively, Krohne UK can make the entire video recording available for subsequent download.
Krohne UK has a wide range of calibration rigs available so that customers can schedule several virtual FATs for the same day to save time. It is also possible to conduct pressure tests virtually, with the same level of operator interaction. Test results are available in real time for direct customer approval, although Krohne also sends the documentation electronically for final customer sign-off before order despatch.
Yokogawa, a specialist in control systems, field instrumentation and data acquisition, is also making advances in this area with recent customer collaborations on multiple virtual FAT projects proving highly successful, particularly thanks to the use of innovative vision technology.
Sean Hodgson, a project manager at Yokogawa Corporation of America, says: “Technology has advanced to the point where it’s now effective and efficient to perform FATs remotely. Microsoft HoloLens is a really neat tool. We’re using it as the eyes for the customer - as if they were here on site. Our engineer will wear HoloLens and inspect the control cabinet. As a result, the customer views exactly what our engineer sees through HoloLens – via an interface such as Microsoft Teams. It is also possible to annotate in the engineer’s field of view, so he or she can take instructions and essentially be the hands of the customer.
So, with so many solution providers readily adapting to the task of providing a highly effective and professional virtual experience, could industry be nearing the end of travelling to site for FAT and NPD?
“In the current climate we’re seeing more customers wanting to perform all functions remotely, not just for safety reasons, but to save time, cost and environmental impact – all with same quality as previously,” concludes Hodgson.