A trial run is a step in the R&D process just before commercialized production. It’s a time to test a theoretical process, scaling to larger quantities than a benchtop or kitchen setting. Here are 5 things you can do to prepare and make the most of it.
This article is based on the premise you have a formulation or set of formulations in place, and need to test this formulation's performance at a larger scale.
1. Identify quantity.
Identify how many units you are producing, and further, how many scenarios.
Most things don’t work according to plan, and it’s important to be ready with a Plan B, C, or even D in case the unexpected happens.
Determining how much you would like to produce (considering various scenarios), will determine not only how much of each ingredient you will need, or the number of packaging units, but will be a crucial piece in locating the right facility.
2. Validate trial run facility.
Every facility operates under a different set of rules; some more flexible than others. In deciding on your facility, communicate how many units you plan to produce (and what that translates to in pounds). Many operators have minimum order quantities (MOQs), where they do not accept projects under a certain threshold.
Outside of quantity, a few other questions to ask of a facility include:
a. Is this a free-from facility of any food allergens?
* This is a crucial step in knowing if your end-product is the right fit, or your ingredients. Facilities are commonly peanut-free, and require that ingredients received do not contain peanut products nor be directly manufactured with them.
b. What are your costs per day?
* Costs are not always as clear-cut as a daily rate. Rates depend in part on equipment being used, run time, and the number of employees required; it’s valuable to know the breakdown.
c. What is your schedule lead time?
* Know how far in advance you need to make a decision to secure a place on their calendar, further, in the case you may have to cancel. Some facilities are flexible with a two-week advanced notice (for cancellations) and won’t charge an additional fee. However, every facility operates differently. When securing a date, be sure to give yourself enough time to coordinate the receipt of ingredients and other product orders (these companies also have lead times).
d. Do you offer food grade warehousing?
* Likely they don’t, which means you will have to coordinate shipments to and from the facility. In that case, be sure to ask the facility if they have a loading dock or forklift; these are necessary in loading and unloading pallets of product.
3. Order products.
Ingredient orders for trial runs are often below a supplier’s MOQ, and are sometimes sold at a premium to the customer. Communicate with your supplier the quantity you need, making a note this will be for R&D purposes. Products will generally be shipped via UPS, FedEx, or DHL services. To speed communications, in one email you should be able to communicate:
- Quantity and price per unit (lb, kg, bag, etc.) inquiry
- Shipping rate and carrier
- Shipping account number and billing zip code
With this information, you should be able to generate a P.O. (Purchase Order). This is a pre-invoice document with item(s), quantity, and pricing information, as well as terms and details including shipping address, contact information, shipping account number and billing zip code.
Be aware of lead times for products, and acknowledge they will vary by supplier. Depending on the size of your ingredient/product order, suppliers may need up to 4 to 6 weeks for delivery of items not routinely stocked or in inventory.
For each food ingredient, you will also need to make the following documentation requests:
a. Certificate of Analysis (COA)
b. Safety Data Sheet (SDS)
c. Nutritional information
e. Allergens statement
f. Certifications* may include Kosher, Organic, Non-GMO, etc.
* This ties directly to question 1 in “Part 2: Validate a trial run facility.” Provided the answer from the facility, you will need to make individual document requests for their purposes, as well as any product claims specific to what you’re producing.
4. Communicate with all parties.
The people involved in a trial run can vary, but mainly whittle down to at least these parties:
- Trial run facility
- Freight coordinator
- Quality Assurance
The trial run facility will communicate what you need in advance of product arriving (see documentation requests). As a courtesy, it’s nice to provide a heads up of when product will arrive. You can do this by providing a BOL (Bill of Lading) to the trial run facility after receiving it from your freight coordinator. Lastly, the trial run facility will need a packing slip to double-check product arrival in alignment with its documentation.
The freight coordinator will need to know a few things to generate a quote. Have this information handy:
a. Pallet dimensions and weight
b. What the pallet contains
c. Timeline and address for pick-up, and location details*
d. Timeline and address for delivery, and location details*
e. Contact information* (name, phone, email of key contacts)
* Details for pick-up and delivery include whether an appointment is needed, hours of operation unique to each location, capabilities (loading dock, forklift, how they receive orders, etc.) and a point of contact. Be sure to choose a number where someone will realistically pick-up their phone – that means mobile over office phone, and a heads up to any party that may get a call.
R&D will be attending the trial run, and likely coordinating information between the various parties. R&D’s preparation boils down to formulations and having multiple scenarios ready in the case something doesn’t go as planned, or for simple comparison purposes. For example, when comparing the same ingredient type between suppliers – for improved taste or lower cost. R&D will also make note of which formulations and batch numbers are conducted, when, and in what order (as a record to retrace steps in further problem solving, and to generate reports).
Quality Assurance will handle documentation in the form of fulfilling requests, double-checking documentation aligns with products (by lot numbers), and creating new documentation (records). Quality Assurance may also test for uniformity between batches of the same formulation, and determine a product meets specifications required for sale. QA in the trial run stage is typically within the staffing capabilities of a trial run facility, or may be a third-party destination post-trial run to test products for safety before consumer release.
5. Come prepared.
The time spent in a trial run can range from one to a few days. No matter the length, it’s a time to be alert and make observations. To ease the process, embrace your inner nerd, and be sure to come prepared with these supplies:
- Permanent marker
- Box knife
- Excel sheet print-outs
- Batch form print-outs (these may be provided by your trial run facility)
- Water (hey, it's important to stay hydrated)
When thinking of the sensibility for achieving scale, take note of:
- How many units are produced, and in what period of time?
- What are the hold-ups or bottle necks in the process?
- Is there an obstacle that may be preventative or made into less of a challenge?
- What are the run parameters, and for which products?
* Run parameters should only change by the batch, so one can determine the output is a result of a specific process. Ensure the operator has a good record-keeping handle on this, and/or step-in to help.
It is not a small accomplishment completing a trial run, and when successfully done to plan, may take up to 1-2 months to prepare in advance. If there is a component that exceeds all others in terms of importance, it’s by far communication. There are plenty of opportunities for something to fall between the cracks - largely because the communication between parties takes time, and doesn’t immediately fall in any one role’s list of responsibilities. Like any project, a level of initiative to think and do what no one else has thought of or is willing to do, is key.
MJ is a Food Scientist & Consultant specializing in functional, plant-based product development. She brings a combined knowledge in the B2B and B2C worlds of food industry and a m