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This is a guest post by a fellow food scientist with ample experience in various categories of new product development: Nathan Silva. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.
So you have a food or beverage product that you want mass produced. Maybe you’re a mom-and-pop bakery already churning out hundreds of your famous cookies in your bakery, but want to bring them to retail stores. Or you’re an entrepreneur who has a great idea that you came up with in your home kitchen. Or maybe you’re just curious about what it takes to mass produce food!
Scaling up a food or beverage product in order to bring it to the masses is a scary thing. Regardless if you are a mom-and-pop operation doing it for the first time, or a food scientist with years of experience, the process is no less nerve wracking. I mean, with all of this money on the line and the future of the product riding on a successful scale up, who wouldn’t be nervous! But with the right preparation and knowledge of your product, you can definitely make things a tiny bit easier on yourself.
There already are a bunch of great articles regarding the scale-up process on this website, from understanding batch vs continuous processes to how to convert your recipe into grams and percentages. Within this article, I will give a holistic overview of the process as a whole. I will explain everything involved in commercially scaling up a product, divided into three sections: before, during, and after the scale-up. This will help to tie all of the different articles together!
The most important thing before scaling up any product is being an expert in that product. Sure, the factory/operation may churn out millions of cookies a year, but they’ve never made YOUR cookie before. Every product is different at the end of the day, and it’s up to you to be the expert on your product to ensure that it comes out exactly how you want it to.
If you want to scale up your recipe it cannot be volumetric. You will have to convert it into grams and percentages (you can read more here) to ensure manufacturing equipment can be set up properly. You will also have to make some decisions on your process (which is discussed here in more detail).
Other than your recipe and process, the facility may ask you to sign some other documentation, most likely including a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and a co-packing agreement. The NDA ensures that any trade secrets involved in making your product stay between you and them. The business side of things regarding payment and lead times is part of the co-packing agreement.
Next up, you need to prepare everything regarding your ingredients. Depending on where you’re starting from, you may currently be getting your ingredients through a grocery store or foodservice distributor. Large scale manufacturers do not typically purchase through these avenues, so you’re going to need to find a different way to handle this. The easiest way is to use the ingredients that the facility already purchases. But what if they don’t buy the pink Himalayan salt that provides the wow factor in your signature cookie? And what if none of their suppliers carries it either? Or if the ingredient that they have just doesn’t taste the same (more about choosing flavors here)?
This is when you need to source the ingredient for yourself. Now procurement is a whole other discipline within itself, so I won’t get too in-depth on it. But the most important things to know when sourcing an ingredient for yourself is the following:
- Does the ingredient itself, from a taste and texture point of view, meet your needs?
- How much does it cost, how much do you need to buy, and how often do you need to buy it?
- Is your facility willing to work with the supplier and order the ingredient on your behalf?
If you’re able to check all of these boxes, then you’re good to go!
Prepare for the unexpected
You’ve got your paperwork, you’ve got your ingredients all squared away. So what’s left to prepare for? Well, what are you going to do if something goes wrong during the scale-up?
This is where the “being an expert on your product” comes into play. Hopefully the facility will allow you to be present during the time that they’re working on your product and, since you’re the one paying for everything, you do have some say in what’s going on. So you need to be prepared to give recommendations if something goes wrong!
Maybe you’re not a food scientist, and maybe you don’t have any experience in this sort of thing. That’s OK! There’s some simple things that you can do on your own to help better understand your product. I’ll continue using a cookie as an example for this section. Here’s some common things that may go wrong when scaling up a cookie recipe:
- The cookie dough is too wet or dry
- The cookie is too hard or soft after baking
- The cookie is spreading out too much during baking
Let’s take these issues one by one, and explain how you can tackle each of them on your own beforehand.
The cookie dough is too wet or dry
This usually has to do with the ratio of the ingredients, and is common during scale-up due to ingredient or processing changes.
You can easily do some trials at home by adding more dry ingredients (typically flour, when your dough is too wet) or adding more wet ingredients (typically dairy or water, when your dough is too dry). Increase these ingredients in varying percentages (something like 1%, 2%, 3%), and make notes of what changes you notice in the end product. That way, when you it is not turning out well on the line, you nkow what to change and by how much.
The cookie is too hard or soft after baking
This usually has to do with the time and temperature of the bake. I’m sure that you’ve heard the phrase “everyone’s oven is different” on various cooking shows, and that still applies with industrial ovens.
To address this issue beforehand, try baking your cookies at various times and temperatures. Make sure that you only change one thing at a time, so if you’re testing different temperatures, make sure that the times are consistent. Again, make notes of what changes that you notice in the end product.
This type of testing can apply to all of the different foods and beverages in the world. While you may not be adding more flour, or testing different bake temperatures, there are certainly minor tweaks that you can test within your recipe to better understand what each ingredient is contributing. With this understanding, you will have a greater knowledge of what things you can and can’t change (that is, to keep your product the way you want it) if issues arise.
So you’ve prepared all that you could have, had a few sleepless nights, and now you’re on your way to scale up your product. You’re scared, nervous, and maybe a tiny bit excited. It is the big day after all! But what kind of scale-up are you going to? Is it a pilot trial, plant trial, or production run? Not sure? Well let me explain the differences!
This is the smallest of the three, typically in the hundreds of pounds/kilograms size. This is when you are running your recipe in a “pilot laboratory”, where there are smaller versions of the full-scale equipment available to use. This type of run usually costs less, as both the overhead and cost of ingredients are cheaper due to the smaller size of things.
If this option is available to you, I would highly suggest utilizing it. A pilot trial allows you to address any potential issues with the product, as you’re running on industrial equipment utilizing industrial ingredients, while minimizing the cost.
The typical downside of a pilot run is you usually aren’t left with a finished product that you can sell to the public. You might have to throw all your products out, as pilot labs usually don’t adhere to all the food safety regulations necessary to sell to the public.
Next up is a plant trial, which is typically in the thousands of pounds/kilograms in size. This is when you are running your recipe on the exact equipment that you will be producing on. The equipment is full size, and thus costs much more than a pilot trial. You will be using a higher amount of ingredients and have more overhead costs.
A plant trial is typically done after a successful pilot trial, or in place of a pilot trial if the facility does not have a pilot lab. The good thing about a plant trial is, depending on the success and how it was organized, you could end up with a product that is saleable to the public, or at least some product for things like sales samples or shelf-life studies.
Lastly is a production run. You’ve completed all of your trials, have a successful end product, and are ready to begin making product for the masses. There are no more issues, and no more things left to test. During a production run, you are simply producing stock to then sell to the public, whether that be through channels like e-commerce or grocery stores. This product will be packaged into your finished packaging, put into a warehouse, and then distributed to their respectful destinations. This is the last step in the scale-up process!
During the Run
So you’re now inside of the facility, have completed all of the introductions with the people that you’ll be working with, and have gone over the plan for the day. I won’t get into too much detail on this topic, as the structure of each scale-up run is different for each person and product. However, I will provide some tips that may help you have the most successful run possible.
- Stay cool, calm, and collected – something goes wrong at nearly every trial run, and you can work through it. Make sure to take a minute to think about the problem, discuss it with the people around you, and make an educated decision on how to move forward.
- Be friendly, but firm – you always want to maintain a good relationship with the people at your facility. However, make sure to stay firm on any decisions that you make. The facility will always try to find the most efficient (cheapest) way to run your product, so make sure that you stand firm on anything that may jeopardize the end product.
- Ask questions – the more educated you are about the process, the machinery, and the facility, the better! This knowledge will help you with any future work that you may collaborate with the facility on.
After the Scale-Up
So you’ve completed your pilot or plant trial – now what? The following points pertain specifically to post-pilot/plant trials. These points are critical in the preparation for your first production run, so make sure that you double-check every box!
This is done in collaboration with your facility. You will go over the run, review what went well and what issues arose, and discuss what improvements can be made for production. You may also work with the quality department of the facility, who may provide you with any analytical measurements taken throughout the trial, as well as work with you to create a specification sheet for your product. The specification sheet is vital, as it dictates what finished product is acceptable and what is not. Make sure to document this entire discussion, just in case!
Final Product Tasting
You’ll probably be taking home some finished product with you after the trial. Now is the perfect time to try it! While the product may not be approved for sale/distribution to the general public, you can certainly have your internal team and friends/family taste it. This is a great time to get feedback, and suggest any minor tweaks necessary.
Lastly, now that you have a commercially produced product, it is time to review (or create) your packaging. I will touch on a few things that are specific to the product that you just made.
- Nutrition Facts Panel – now that you’ve successfully completed your trials, you should have some fairly concrete information regarding the composition of your product. This includes the ingredients used, any loss during processing (moisture or other), and final product weight. Whether you are personally completing your Nutrition Facts Panel, or are having a third party complete it, this information is vital to have an accurate label.
- Shelf Life – with the product produced at your trial you, hopefully, came out with a finalized product in some sort of final packaging material. As your packaging will contain an expiration/best by date, and shelf-life studies are best done with commercially produced products, now is the perfect time!
- Minute Details – this can include everything from product photography, allergen statements, and ingredient lines. Make sure all of these things are complete, and double-checked with the facility/final product.
With the completion of these points, you can be sure that you will go into your first production run ready to go!
There is no singular way to complete the scale-up of a food or beverage product, and different people go about it in different ways. While this article outlines the process that I have found to be successful through my experience, that does not mean that deviating from this process will mean your scale-up will be unsuccessful. Please use this outline as a guide to find what works best for you and your company, and good luck!
Nathan has written another article for us, all about how to choose and decide on using flavors in your food and drink.
Other helpful links
CRB, 12 dos and dont’s when scaling up food production, link
FoodDive, Going from small-scale to large-scale food processing, Feb-8, 2018, link
GFI, Turning a home recipe into an industrial-scale process with Melissa Facchina, Oct-15, 2018, link
Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center, From Scratch to Market: Commercializing a Food Product, Apr-16, 2019, link