Tips on Formulating from Bench-Top to Scale-Up

Last week, I did a 6-product trial run at a local protein bar manufacturer. Talking with the R+D Technologists at the plant, they said the formula was super easy to run. I made a snarky comment about how formulators can be a pain to to work with and they told me I am one of the easiest people to talk to.

As a product developer, there are good ways and bad ways to not be a pain to your manufacturing counterparts.

If you’ve never had the grueling pain of experiencing manufacturing before, then you’re in luck. I’ll share all of that for you so you in your comfy lab can work with the manufacturer to make amazing products more easily.

So here are my three tips for scaling up your formula from bench top to formulation

Make Your Formula Flexible

Most beginning formulators want to be exact. Maybe it’s their perfectionist mindset, whatever.

For me, it’s much more realistic to build in flexibility within your formulas.

In the factories, I worked so closely with the line workers, I made a batch of granola bars all by myself once and it was really tough. After studying how line workers do things for year, here are some observations:

  • Line workers are usually not exact, but know when too much is too much (Over time, I calculated if they are 10% over, they will adjust the amount they put on the scale)
  • When pressed for time, line workers will even be less exact
  • If there are processing problems, you have to add 1-2% more or less ingredients anyways. For example, if something doesn’t “flow” correctly, you need to add 1 to 2 lbs of liquids to make it run better.
  • Food can change lot by lot in terms of functionality. Starches and cereals in general can have different ratios of sugar and starch depending on the season which can be extremely frustrating when on the line and nothing’s working. Oh, and weather and humidity can be a hidden factor on what can go wrong in processing as well.

This is why I’m a huge fan of clean label philosophy. I can use less ingredients and be more flexible when it goes to commercialization. Of course, I’m in the minority. If you know your stuff and know how to convince your clients that your formula is clean label, then you should have no problem.

Point being, the more flexible you allow your formula to be, the less troubles you’ll have at the scale up stage.

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Communicate with your Manufacturing R+D people

Having good communication with your processing technologists can improve bench top to scale up by 10 folds. It cuts down costs, communication errors, and formulation disputes.

These guys are smarter than you. They know the machines better than you, the types of bars better than you, this is their life. Though you may oversee the formulation, you are not an expert of the process. Even if you’ve worked in a factory before, once you realize all factories are different, then you need to listen to the technologists.

I worked with a formulator who thought he knew everything about bars. He was lecturing about making bars to the VP of R+D in the plant. In all honesty, he was just a guy with a lot of money and a lot of company political power.

When I talked to the VP of R+D about his advice, she just rolled her eyes.

The biggest thing is that you must earn plant R+D’s trust to work with them and it can be very tricky especially if you are in over your head. I’ve acted cocky before and thought I knew everything about let’s say protein bars, and it’s made me look like an idiot.

The best way to communicate with an R+D Technologist in a plant is to act like you’re impressing a technical person.

That means keep on listening to the R+D Technologist first, and keep on asking smart questions. When they send bench samples, evaluate them using data such as a sensory test, or a texture analysis. When you report the data back to them, ask what they think they should do. Technical people are usually rational, so it’s great to have data on your side.

It helps a ton if you have general knowledge of the food subject at hand. This means you should either research on your own (which can be hard because everything is a trade secret) or convince your company to invest in your technical expertise and go to the factory to learn a bit.

Better is Better than Perfect (Sometimes)

The client (marketing, CEO, rich dude) perceives what the consumer wants. Shares his vision to the formulator, who shares her vision to the manufacturer.

Breaking it down, it’s a huge game of telephone and there are points where the formulation can be very hard to run because one of the people in this communication chain is super stubborn. Don’t be the weakest link!

It should be your job to work with the manufacturer to get a working product and then convince the client that this product is something the target consumer will like,

You will actually be surprised about how flexible the consumer is. Remember, taste is king.

This is why sensory data is important. When using the results right, it can convince the client that your formulation (which is easy to run and tastes delicious) that this will work.

Sometimes the features that marketing or the client wants can be so absurd, it won’t be worth it. Does it really matter if a protein bar has 20 grams of protein or 21 grams of protein even though the competitor average is 15 grams? Are people really going to care? If 21 grams of protein will ruin the taste, texture, and supply chain of the product, this is something you have to convince your client that it’s a bad idea.

Understanding your manufacturing partner’s capabilities will make you a more rational developer and you will be respected by your manufacturer, and in turn, look like a rock star in the corporate world.

Because you know your stuff.

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