The end of the Covid-19 pandemic could soon – it is to be hoped – be in sight, but meanwhile it is hugely important for companies within the food processing industry to continue to drive consumer demand. One of the ways JBT is supporting such efforts is through its Food Technology Centers (FTCs), located worldwide, including one such center in Livingston, Scotland, which has been employing innovative methods to help customers test new equipment and machinery.
In fact, the Livingston FTC – along with a similar facility in Helsingborg, Sweden – has led the way when it comes to new innovations in remote testing, allowing products to be refined to customer specifications at a safe distance.
The Livingston site, close to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, was completely refitted after acquisition by JBT and today forms a fully functional technology centre. The centre includes adjacent offices and conference rooms, combining substantial testing capabilities for chilled, frozen and fresh foods all located at the company’s manufacturing facility.
However, in recent times the site has become an innovator in remote testing, developing solutions that are proving so viable, they could become a semi-permanent feature in the post-Covid world. JBT Livingston FTC’s remote testing services are offering customers the means to carry out testing – with effective real-time remote monitoring – without having the expense of international travel and hotel accommodation.
As JBT Regional Solutions Manager John Kelso explains, the FTC provides the service for customers when it comes to defining the hardware specifications. “Objectives defined enable our equipment setup for best targeting colour, fat rendering and succulence for example, among other attributes for best preparation and cooking to customer request,” he says. The facility covers the full process from coating, through frying and cooking to freezing, forming an essential part of JBT’s work with customers.
“In order for a customer to buy from us, we need to know the processing times for the equipment and that’s where the Food Tech Center comes in,” says Kelso. “Obviously, Covid has prevented a lot of customers from travelling, we still need to be able to demonstrate the best yield, color, consistency and appearance.”
Starting with video calls, Kelso and his colleagues experimented with a number of solutions for giving customers remote access to testing. However, it was quickly realized that a more flexible and dynamic solution than carrying a laptop around was required. “When video testing, it’s very necessary that someone hosts the local call to provide an interface between the customer and the process and is also able to act as a cameraman to demonstrate system features while the trial is taking place,” says Kelso.
In order to further compliment remote interactions, and move from the use of a laptop, JBT is in the process of creating a unique solution that will function like a customer on site. This person or “robot” will comprise a tablet and speakers mounted on a mobile, flexible stand, which is able to act as a remote customer, accompanying the team during the course of the trial and even forming part of the group during meetings. “With speakers and video-audio capabilities, the ‘robot’ is able to watch the trial more closely and can interact with us,” says Kelso.
Of course, experiencing the final taste of a product remotely is unachievable, but Kelso emphasises that other key elements of the process can be shared with the customer, namely product colour, appearance, internal temperatures and yield.
Europe-wide customer trials
The FTC has – to date – successfully conducted remote trials with customers across Europe, including demonstrating the benefits of a Formcook Contact Cooker to a leading processor.
In fact, so successful has the solution been that JBT is introducing it to its FTC in Helsingborg, Sweden, and there is now talking of the ‘robot’-guided visits continuing once vaccination is widely available. “Despite the Covid situation, we still want to continue trials and it might be something that customers would like to see as an alternative and do even post-Covid,” says JBT’s Netherlands-based Manager for Coating and Cooking Applications, Bart Kivits. “The other advantage of doing a test like this is you get instant feedback. This is the next step from shooting videos and writing a report.”
Back in Livingston, Kelso believes the solution will impact customers positively, given that it is easier to ship three-four kilos of product to the FTC and log-in to a Zoom call than it is to deal with travel and flights. “We have been able to turn this problem into a solution, and customers have been very thankful of the effort we have taken to do this and very complementary about the time we have spent,” he adds.