An interview with Bob Schumann, Director of Product Management and Marketing at Unity Scientific, discussing the major analytical challenges faced by food manufacturers and the development of a flexible NIR spectrometer that is enabling analysis at the production line itself.
How is vibrational spectroscopy used in the food industry?
Vibrational spectroscopy is a great technique because it's very quick, it's non-destructive, and it doesn't use any dangerous chemicals. It's great for at-line and in-process testing, as it can provide rapid compositional information about a food sample.
Several different techniques are currently used in the food industry, and each of these comes with specific advantages and disadvantages, but overall, vibrational spectroscopy is a great tool for obtaining high quality, accurate, and precise data.
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What are the main analytical challenges that manufacturers face in the food industry?
One of the biggest issues in the food industry is being able to obtain accurate, reliable, and precise information at-line and as early in the manufacturing process as it is feasible. For food manufacturers, it's all about repeatability and making your product as consistent as possible. You also need monitoring techniques that will allow you to respond quickly if something isn’t right.
How can the SpectraStar range help alleviate some of the challenges that scientists face?
One important thing about the SpectraStar is its setup, which is in a sealed case. It's designed to be in an at-line process environment where there are temperature swings and potentially dusty environments. This means it can be as close as possible to the production line, enabling you to provide immediate feedback as to what's happening in your process.
A second key feature about this instrument is that the technology that we chose for the SpectraStar is a scanning monochromator. It's the most accurate technology you can get in the NIR analyzer space.
Generally, these instruments will be almost as accurate as a reference lab while also being much more precise or reproducible. This is exactly what you need for both a production or lab environment. You're getting fantastic quality data in 30 seconds, right next to the production line.
Which food products can the SpectraStar be used to analyze?
Near-infrared instruments must be calibrated to the specific product type. To make things easier, we have developed a library of starter and mature calibrations for most common ingredients and many products that are commonly found in the food industry. However, we also understand that every manufacturer will have a slightly different finished product. This is why we customize our starter calibrations for many customers.
Unity Scientific take pride in developing instruments that are fast and flexible. Why do you think flexibility is important in the food industry?
These days, scientists need to analyze so many different food stuffs – oils, slurries, powders, and even snack foods. Sample cups need to work with all of these ingredients, so designing a cup that’s easy to clean was a high priority for us.
Flexibility implies usability too. For example, if you're analyzing 50 or 100 samples a day, a process that reduces the clean-up time by 10 seconds or more per sample is huge. This is why all of our instruments are designed with the end user in mind.
If you could send one message to food manufacturers who are thinking of switching to the SpectraStar NIR, what would it be?
I would tell them that we understand what they need. We know that consistency is key and I’d say "Imagine if you could have a laboratory at-line in your production providing almost real-time data and feedback to your production line, what would that be worth?".
We know that for many manufacturers, switching to a new piece of equipment is a leap of faith. People are often afraid of this technology because of the sheer number of possible calibrations, but when you are presented with the right expert, it's very easy to implement.
What’s next for the company?
In a couple of months, we’ll be releasing a networking software which will allow you to manage the instruments remotely. This capability means that local support of the instrument will be reduced to a routine operator who will scan samples and run a diagnostic test, but nothing more.
You can train somebody in 10 minutes to operate this instrument, and all of the configuration and data analysis can be performed by a technical specialist elsewhere. Whether it is an internal resource or a Unity expert, networking allows companies to leverage NIR expertise and get the most out of their NIR program.
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About Bob Schumann
Bob Schumann has been involved with NIR technology for 30 years, first as a user but then in various product management, development and marketing roles for NIR manufacturers. He is currently Director of Product Management and Marketing at Unity Scientific and Process Sensors, both part of KPM Analytics. Bob can be reached at [email protected].
About Unity Scientific (A KPM Analytics company)
With industry-leading expertise in near-infrared (NIR) technology, Unity® Scientific products are used for quality control applications within production processes and laboratory environments. Unity’s premium analytical instrumentation serves a wide range of end markets such as food & dairy, agriculture and environmental. Headquarters are in Milford, MA, USA with additional offices in Weiler Bei Bingen, Germany.
Unity Scientific is part of KPM Analytics, a group of operating companies that have come together because of their industry-leading application expertise in the food, agriculture and environmental sectors. Unity Scientific, Process Sensors Corporation, CHOPIN Technologies, AMS Alliance and most recently, Sightline Process Control, Inc. & Sensortech Systems Inc. now stand together as a strategic group with a common passion for providing solutions and solving our customer’s most challenging problems.