Virtual customer trials

3, 2, 1, and action!

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many countries to impose strict travel restrictions. This put Bühler experts from the Nutrition Application Center in Switzerland in a challenging position, since customer requests for product trials continued to soar. Plant-based meat alternatives are booming, and extrusion technology is in great demand. What could be done? Those responsible decided without further ado to offer virtual trials.

  

Since April 2021, the Nutrition Application Center at Bühler in Uzwil, Switzerland, looks like a TV studio. Several cameras are set up around the extruders and driers. Cables connect them to a vision mixing switch board, and professional microphones with noise reduction are standing ready. A laptop is installed to send images via Microsoft Teams to all corners of the world where customers connect to watch their trials virtually.

“An increasing number of customers were already cutting down on the amount of travel, for cost or environmental reasons, but it was really the pandemic that caused us to set up our virtual trial solution,” explains Robert Mitchell, Extrusion Technologist at Bühler. “We had several cases where a customer would have had to cancel trials, and we had to find a solution to make sure that they wouldn’t have to wait six more months to find a new slot.” Robert Mitchell and his colleagues are now almost permanently in action. Raw materials are sent to Uzwil by customers, and the extruders are customized for each individual session. This was also done previously. But now, the food technologists also learned how to operate the cameras and microphones. “At first it was of course quite new, and we didn’t know how to connect all the cables, but we had great support from our audiovisual experts,” Mitchell recalls.

Customers decide what’s on their screen

Today, Mitchell uses the cameras and the switchboard like a pro. “It is a very handy set up. We have a switchboard where we can click on a button for each camera, so we can always show the view the customer wants.” In the virtual meetings, the team usually shows a view of the extruder panel, for all technical specifications and trending graphs, and one of the cameras according to the customer’s wishes. “I am a tech geek at heart. I love everything digital,” Mitchell explains, who is enthusiastic about the new set up. “It’s just so cool that a customer is on the other side of the world during the trial, and we are still able to show them live what’s happening.”

 

The virtual trials offer three different main camera views: close-ups to see the product when it leaves the machine, a separate view of the drier when relevant, and a top-view camera to focus on product samples placed on the table. In addition to the installed cameras, Mitchell even sometimes uses the Microsoft Teams mobile app on his phone to show customers the specifics that were not set up for view beforehand. 

Customers can decide for themselves what they want to see on the screen. Customers can decide for themselves what they want to see on the screen.

   

It’s just so cool that a customer is on the other side of the world and we are still able to show them live what’s happening.

Robert Mitchell, Food Technologist at Bühler

It is no coincidence that the team around the Nutrition Application Center initiated these trials. Extrusion technology is booming, particularly as more companies are racing to get into the lucrative plant-based meat alternative market. Time slots for product trials are rare, and the Application Center is booked months in advance.

    

RemoteCare

When it comes to remote services, not only are product trials high in demand, but the need for remote support has also increased. Bühler has therefore set up RemoteCare, a service package fully aimed at supporting its customers anytime, anywhere. RemoteCare is a service solution that provides customers with remote troubleshooting services for technical, automation, and digital incidents. It adds the possibility to support customers in times of unplanned breakdowns, increases uptime, and secures operation 24/7. RemoteCare is a flat-fee based service contract and is available in three different packages, starting with business hours support (Light), 24/7 support (Anytime), and finally, dedicated expert support (Pro). All packages guarantee a fast response. Bühler’s regional specialists support customers on the first level within a maximum of 2 hours’ response time. In case escalation is needed, business headquarter specialists will be involved quickly and provide specialized support on the second level. Bühler has 500 remote support engineers worldwide, all highly trained, each of them attending 15 days of training every year.

    

More information in less time

One customer who has already conducted virtual trials is France-based Nutriset. The company produces fortified products made with grains, pulses and vegetables to fight malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa. With 18 partners in 11 countries, Nutriset aims to build a sustainable agriculture industry in emerging countries that supplies high-quality food made with local raw materials, produced in local plants. “We cook these raw materials through extrusion technology to improve digestibility, and to eliminate harmful bacteria,” says Aurore Frixon, Food Technologist at Nutriset. The extruded flours are used later as an ingredient for their finished products, which are enriched with various macro- and micronutrients. The company has its own pilot extrusion line from Bühler in the French region of Normandy. For a new, still confidential project, they did the first tests in their own facilities. “But we wanted to validate the feasibility of this project, and therefore had planned trials in Switzerland to see if that specific local raw material would also work in a scaled-up environment,” says Frixon.

 

 

Due to the French travel restrictions, she and her team decided to conduct the trials virtually. “We know that Bühler always sets the bar very high, but wow, we were really impressed with all the technology Bühler installed to make us feel like we were there.” According to Frixon, next to seeing different angles and parts of the production process, it was also essential to not just rely on web cams. “If you look at extruded products it is very important to see the details. So, we really appreciated the usage of high-resolution cameras and the additional pictures the Bühler team sent us.”

Frixon emphasizes the efficiency of this set up, since it saves travel time and costs, and it makes it possible to start writing a rough draft for the report during the online session. Still, she missed one thing a lot. “The taste of the product, of course. It is so important for us, since our consumers are small children in the first place, and to be sure that kids will eat our products, they have to be tasty,” she says. 

 

Of course, the Bühler technologists tasted the product instead and described all of its organoleptic qualities, and after the virtual trial, the product was vacuumed and sent to France. “This all really worked perfectly.” Still, Frixon enjoys the personal interactions: “We are all passionate extrusion experts, so I really appreciate being with the Bühler team, to have this exchange and discuss details,” she says. For the next project, Frixon and her team would like to travel to Switzerland again.

Since the start of the virtual trials, 25 percent of the customers who booked trials have opted for the online version, and well over 200 products have been tested. According to Mitchell, the reactions were positive throughout: “Another benefit they indicated to us was those members of the customer’s team, or from top management, who would not necessarily have to be part of the trial session, could join for specific parts, or for a summary, without spending too much time on it,” he says.

We were really impressed with all the technology Bühler installed to make us feel like we were there.

Aurore Frixon, Food Technologist at Nutriset

After four months, the virtual trials have become part of the Bühler Food Technologist’s daily routine: “It’s no longer new and scary. And we have many new ideas such as using smart glasses. These would also help to improve the customer experience,” Mitchell says. And, he knows that there are plans for more digital connectivity. “We had some customers who were so impressed that they actually want a similar setup in their plants in order that we can give them better remote support. We’re also working closely with other Bühler Application Centers to offer the same installation for further business branches in the future.”

 

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