article

Sustainability in process technology

Posted: 1 June 2009 | Jasper Peters, Mars Nederland BV | No comments yet

The process technology landscape in the chocolate industry has changed markedly over the last decade. Following the key business trends, research and development in most organisations has incorporated all the key ‘buzzwords’, with focus given to terms such as efficiency, speed, low cost, flexibility, trade secrets, patentability, open innovation and so on. The sharp minded amongst the readers will have noticed that some of the keywords are, in fact, exact opposites. Efficiency and flexibility seem impossible to combine and secrecy seems to be the antithesis of open innovation.

The process technology landscape in the chocolate industry has changed markedly over the last decade. Following the key business trends, research and development in most organisations has incorporated all the key ‘buzzwords', with focus given to terms such as efficiency, speed, low cost, flexibility, trade secrets, patentability, open innovation and so on. The sharp minded amongst the readers will have noticed that some of the keywords are, in fact, exact opposites. Efficiency and flexibility seem impossible to combine and secrecy seems to be the antithesis of open innovation.

The process technology landscape in the chocolate industry has changed markedly over the last decade. Following the key business trends, research and development in most organisations has incorporated all the key ‘buzzwords’, with focus given to terms such as efficiency, speed, low cost, flexibility, trade secrets, patentability, open innovation and so on. The sharp minded amongst the readers will have noticed that some of the keywords are, in fact, exact opposites. Efficiency and flexibility seem impossible to combine and secrecy seems to be the antithesis of open innovation.

Although the new winds started blowing in the process technology area in the late 1990’s, sustainability has always been key. The term sustainability is probably best known by consumers as the environmental and human impact of a business, although within the commercial world it means this as well as business longevity and should be key to a successful business. However, what if ethics and mutuality are already integrated in the development process? In the particular case study in this article, it is meant to put some gravity on a combination of all the earlier mentioned points but also the way of working and approach to achieve durable processes with regards to environment, speed, cost and ethics. How can we make a line or a machine that can make all kinds of products, at a wide range of speeds, with a low running cost and with minimal impact towards the environment and the planet?

It often seems to be an easy task to put up with a new process for a new product. The very basic approach of new product development is often that the product designer collaborates with consumers to start understanding needs and preferences. Then, he or she will make samples by hand and show these to one of my colleagues or myself to start formulating the technologies that deliver specific product properties. Obviously, this development process is carried out in a more hand-in-hand system but ultimately the technology guys have to come up with pure novelty in process development. Thus, looking at the above stated boundaries, it starts to look like a real challenge. A project brief in black and white will look somewhat like: “Develop a process that can make this exact product and in the meantime meets all demands in environmental impact reduction, high speed, low cost and the desire to run different sizes on one and the same line. The line should be designed to produce no more than (…) per cent waste and will require minimal maintenance. New technologies in development will be subject to an assessment for future design protection or they will be incorporated in a typical trade secret system.” The actual project brief is far more detailed than what is stated here but the highlights seem to form a predictable pattern; a pattern that requires the process designer’s creativity and flexibility.

Having said that, the real difficulty often lies within the apparent opposite of achieving the highest quality standard whilst also having the availability of high and flexible production capacities. Alternatively, if you like, combining the things that initially seemed to be each other’s antithesis.

It often seems that things get even more exiting and challenging when more stakeholders get involved. At certain times, the development of said product and the aimed process technology of choice will exceed the R&D boundaries and needs further support from a variety of departments. Engineering, logistics, supply, food safety, legal departments and so on also need to provide their input and thus either limit or expand the frame in which technology development can do its job in meeting quality demands. No doubt that this will guarantee challenges enough that will need the process technology departments’ attention.

So, what could be a specific problem that needs a specific solution?

When I first started at Mars Inc, I found that the communication and work styles did not fully match the methods that were taught at school or university. Moreover, that understates it quite severely. The starter’s vocabulary uses terminology such as problem and issue, whereas at the moment of entry with the new employer, these words seem to be replaced by, respectively, opportunity and challenge. This was one of the methods at the time to approach projects and systems. The means of resolving opportunities and challenges was very much based on group exercises where each other’s input was not to be ‘killed’ but it was to be encouraged and embraced as if it was the best idea ever, even when it wasn’t.

Typical problems for the chocolate industry could be captured in the following list:

  • Shape: making rectangular blocks within required precision causes issues
  • Weight: weight control is important for legal aspects but also for efficiency aspects. Considering the first point, the weight is the result of the size, so density is also key
  • Density: this determines eating properties, piece weight, texture and so on
  • Texture: might be even more important than flavour
  • Flavour: connects to density. Together with texture, the key driver for consumer’s preference

Common design topics to cover, one might think, but each one of them introduces specific problems to overcome. Especially when precision is required, it might be a touch game to, for example, cut bars with caramel into the right width and length without caramel sticking to the cutting tool.

By now it seems to be easier and at least clearer, to just approach all design topics as problems that require solutions.

Several options are available to achieve the challenges in the above case, but in all matters, the solution comes from either an individual with insight or actively seeking the input and/or cooperation with others, within the company or outside. In particular, the latter is a powerful new development. More and more companies and institutes (in the broadest sense of the word) seem to be seeking partners in development outside their normal and closed environment. Open innovation proves to be a powerful tool to attract specific knowledge and accelerate development.

As an example, the car industry can be highlighted. There, it seems that producers have gained tremendous achievements with co-development of platforms and engines. It required a strong marketing approach but now, the majority of the consumers accept that their car shares a chassis or an engine with that from other brands. Consequentially, the car development cost will go down, whereas the technical advancement increases. The combined development power of these collaborations often pays off.

A collaborative approach of designing components or equipment to make filled chocolate bars could also aid the development of chocolate products. Obviously, there is a level of interaction with suppliers, yet in many cases, the complete development cannot be discussed with the supplier because of intellectual property reasons; this more or less leads to the situation where ‘off the shelf’ equipment is purchased for a production line. Consequently, the product that is formed will in all likelihood not be too radical in its design. This used to be a circle that was difficult to break through.

Now, more collaboration is desired and companies have begun to realise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Cooperative groups contribute so much that the ultimate outcome can be achieved quicker or cheaper. The main problem to resolve here is channelling all information streams into useable portions and sections. This will offer a nice challenge for the near future.

A more individual approach of moving towards technical answers outside ones normal thinking with high innovation potential could be found in classical approaches such as TRIZ or TRIZ-like methodologies. In a number of cases, the approach of reverse engineering a system to understand the problem and working via a generic solution towards a specific outcome helps in achieving the high standards of development that are required in modern technology development. The full-on TRIZ methodology seems to be very complex and offers a methodology in which many people either contributed in development or in which people gained skills in the use of it. I like to see myself as the latter. I have developed bits and pieces too, but only to make the methods fit my personal preference. Essentially, a strip down of TRIZ is used to get to the root cause of a problem. The methodology allows zooming in and out on a system to find where the conditions for a problem are created and where the manifestation of the problem becomes noticeable.

By now, after a few full problem solving sessions, it proves that the methodology can be used in many cases. It can be used in pure technological cases, design cases, food chemistry cases and even in human resource cases. Obviously, it is required to adapt and modify the method to the circumstances but after achieving that, it is fast forward all the way.

One of the typical themes in TRIZ is a model in which one goes from a specific problem to a generic problem, and then from a generic problem to a generic solution. Although time consuming, these first three steps seem to be easy to perform. From this moment on though, things become tough. How to come from a generic solution towards a specific solution? I have to admit that this step often puts off product developers. The generic solution might look somewhat like: “Need to stop deformation of a component? Solution: perform preliminary action.” As an informal trainer here in TRIZ methods, even I have trouble in getting the product developer to understand that this is what it comes down to. This is the difficult part.

In my current world, a problem is a problem again and an issue is an issue. In lots of cases, there is no need for inventing the solutions yourself. TRIZ-methodologies show that someone else might have already faced your problem. What needs to be realised is that it just appeared to be in another shape. Why not apply technologies from the ceramics industry to the chocolate industry? There is no reason to assume that confectionary plants could not adapt a mixing technique that is used in a paint factory, so to speak.

This is why it is believed that a combination of the two approaches will form one of the most powerful tools for the near future. Other companies or institutes might have just the answer on the specific solution that was derived from the ‘individual’ problem determination session. It will pay off to start using individual brainpower in combination with the sheer force of a larger thinking-tank. The future, therefore, will require tools and methods to be able to keep track of all the information that will be generated.

Related topics

Related organisations

Related people