Excellence in Plant Trial Management
Why is it so important to ensure that plant trials are well run and well documented?
If your company is attempting to achieve or maintain certification with a Global Food Safety Initiative such as SQF or BRC, plant trials are a required component of the standard and must be run effectively to validate new products and processes. If your company is applying for SR&ED tax credits, well-recorded plant trials are crucial to proving the validity of the product development work and ensuring that the maximum credit is obtained. More to the point, well-run plant trials can save a company from the enormous costs of product failure due to process errors that can be easily identified in plant trials where staff is focused on answering the right questions.
What should a plant trial attempt to determine?
For every plant trial the answer is different. But this is exactly what companies should spend time on during pre-trial meetings. Organize your pre-trial meetings by gathering staff from each department within the plant, including management, marketing, product development, engineering, quality assurance and production. Ask the team what questions that they believe need to be answered within the plant trial. For example, “What is actual range of the final colour of the filling in the product?” Perhaps your customer has some questions that need to be addressed. Make a list of all of the suggested questions and ensure the team agrees upon the list. Then ask the team to clarify how the answers to each question should be determined and by whom. If you don’t have a clear idea what you are planning to determine, and how you will discover it within the plant trial, is there really any point in running the trial at all?
Are your batching sheets and processing instructions accurate and sufficiently clear?
During the pre-trial meeting, review the batching sheets and processing instructions. How are they organized? If this is a multi-level product with numerous components or sub-formulas, make sure you have batching sheets and process instructions, ideally with photographs, for each component and for the finished product too. Discuss and confirm the formulas and then give approved copies to purchasing so that they can order enough of the correct ingredients. Who will take responsibility for overseeing each component and what is to be measured at each stage? How many product samples are required for customer and in-house evaluations, and who will collect these? Make sure that employees who are responsible for overseeing each stage have the specifications and checklists they need to collect sufficient quantities of the right data.
Finally, appoint one person to remind all members of the plant trial team when to arrive for the plant trial and what they are responsible for.
The plant trial begins…
Remember that during the plant trial, the team is there to make observations and collect data, not to chat about last night’s ball game. As a minimum, for each sub-formula you will want to measure and record the batch weight, the time to complete, the number and ranking of staff involved, new equipment and/or new processes used, and portioned weights. Make sure you collect sufficient data to accurately determine the real cost of producing the product. Compare the processes to the most similar current HACCP plan. Are there any differences? Are there any new food safety or quality risks that should be considered? Take some samples back to the laboratory and do some analysis. Can the product be tasted at this stage? Would pH or water activity be important factors to measure? Make a written record of all observations.
Sub-formulas are assembled to create the finished product
Where is that useful photograph of the target product? Make sure it is available along with the finishing instructions. Along with recording actual data for each process, make a record of any difficulties staff have in following the written instructions. Are the instructions written in large enough font for legibility in a busy plant? Above all, this is the time to assess whether the finished product adequately resembles the intended target. Physical tests to check the size, shape, colour and overall assembly of the product are most valuable at this stage.
Packaging the product
Check, check and check again that employees have the correct packaging materials. It is a really great idea to include the UPC code on production paperwork for staff to reference against the UPC on the package label. Watch how staff record lot numbers and keep track of production data. Are there any practises that can be improved upon? Do all of the packaging components work together adequately? Keep writing your observations. Take measurements of the weights of a stream of finished packaged product. Check your weights and measures regulations to determine the number of packages to weigh in order to determine whether the product weights for the batch acceptably match the weight declared on the package. Ask the quality control team to collect and test samples of the product as they would for other similar products. Make note of any problems they encounter as well.
Post-trial meeting time – all is well that ends well
Get the team back together to discuss the observations, review the analysis of data collected and, ultimately, to determine the answers to the list of questions posed in the pre-trial meeting. What was learned, what documentation should be adjusted and who should be informed? Ideally, for each physical, chemical, microbiological or sensory specification within each sub-formula you can now determine the initial allowable ranges. Appoint one person to record the actions to be taken and due dates for each. Appoint a second person to follow-up on the completion of each task and to report back to all team members on the progress. And finally…congratulate the team on a job well done!
Carol Finlan is Research & Development manager at Dealers Ingredients. Contact her at Carol.Finlan@sympatico.ca, or at (905) 299-1959.