Although restrictions on movement are gradually easing, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to throw up challenges for JBT customers when it comes to the testing and validation of equipment, including the sterilization and pasteurization of sensitive products and packaging. To overcome travel restrictions for JBT technicians and customers alike, JBT’s Process Technology Center (PTC) in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium has introduced a new, virtual testing service, which allows customers to view their products being tested at a safe distance.
Utilizing a high-definition camera attached to large viewing windows at the Technology Center’s new pilot retort installation, customers can remotely inspect the effects of high temperature and pressure on products and packaging during testing, helping identify how and why problems might occur.
“We have simulators to replicate sterilization and pasteurization processes at JBT Belgium where we also build continuous and batch sterilizers,” explains PTC Manager, Jo Suys. “Customers often bring their products to us for testing or we do it on-site with their own machines, as well as carrying out validation of sterilization processes.
“Obviously with the pandemic, we cannot travel outside Belgium unless it is essential and even then it is still very limited to countries around us like Germany and the Netherlands. However, it isn’t always practical or easy to keep two metres apart when you are next to a noisy machine and need to speak with a customer. Also, testing in-house at our technical centre with a customer has become problematic because we cannot travel out and they cannot travel to us, making the process very difficult.”
The solution has come in the form of attaching a camera to the exterior of the pilot system and filming the process, so the customer can watch what is being done and view the result online.
Most recently, filming was carried out for a Netherlands-based processor of corn on-the-cob who wanted to identify why damage was occurring to some areas of the corn during pasteurization and work out how this could be avoided. “During pasteurization, corn kernels become darker in color, but if you have damaged areas on the cob, these become very dark very quickly, so the customer wanted to see when this happens to find out if there was a way of preventing it,” says Suys.
“The retort at our new pilot installation has big viewing windows, so you can really see what is happening. As a personal visit from the customer was impossible, we used the camera to film every stage of the test and sent it to them. This approach was so successful, they have now asked for a second day of testing.”
A second successful example of the new system was when a customer from Saudi Arabia requested help in identifying a problem with the sterilization of plastic bottles filled with ready-to-drink milk formula for newborn babies. As Suys explains, pressure differences during the process were causing some bottles to lose their shape between heating and cooling, leaving the packages unsuitable for sale.
“Using the camera, we tried to find out at what exact moment the plastic became hard again and whether this caused any deformations in the bottle, and this helped us to find an effective solution for the customer,” he says. “Of course, you can already do a lot with simple photos through before and after evaluations, but this is a great approach if the customer needs to find out what is happening during processing, but – for whatever reason – is unable to travel or receive an on-site visit.”