A year-and-a-half ago Swift & Co., Greeley, Colo., one of the nation’s largest beef and pork processors, opened the doors of The Summit Customer & Innovation Center, a place where the company could bring its customers to work on product development initiatives. Today, the roster of food companies cutting the ribbons and opening the doors on similar facilities is getting longer, and features names like Hershey, Wrigley, and Wayne Farms.
"We wanted a facility where we could work hand in hand with our customers," said Pat Huebner, senior vice-president of business development, about why Swift made the $8 million investment. "In all of the other R.&D. facilities I had worked in we shipped samples back and forth. We wanted to create a place where we could be more collaborative with our customers."
The decision to build the center was significant for Swift executives, because it represented a strategic shift. The company had been known as a processor of commodity beef and pork. The center’s focus is on getting away from the commodity mentality and focusing on developing more value-added products.
Mr. Huebner said the company averages two customers per week who visit the facility to work on new product ideas.
"If you look across the food industry, all customers rely on their suppliers for expertise," he said. "We’ve taken it one step further."
Swift’s Summit is designed to be warm and inviting. Large windows allow natural light and the facility features a demonstration kitchen where meat cutting and cooking demonstrations may be videotaped, a meat case for merchandising ideas, and a pilot plant.
The creation of the Summit has integrated Swift’s product development efforts throughout the company and ideas flow back to the R.&D. team rapidly.
"We prioritize the ideas based on our capabilities," Mr. Huebner said. "Our goal is to kill ideas that won’t work quickly. We work everything out on paper, and if the economics aren’t there we kill it. If it is an external request from a customer, we let them know quickly; the worse thing you can do is lead them on."
Since the Summit opened, Mr. Huebner said the company has learned much about how to improve the product development process.
"Personally, I learned the power of co-development with a customer," he said. "I have learned how strong communication is to a relationship. Human beings rely on sight, sound and touch, and by working together it improves the development process."
Owning the cocoa bean
In early May, The Hershey Co. announced the establishment of the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition. The center directs research to develop products and technologies that provide consumers with health benefits in the areas of heart health, weight management, and mental and physical energy. The center builds upon the science, clinical studies and research work already under way at the company.
The creation of the center was a recommendation of Hershey’s Health & Wellness Advisory Board, a panel of scientists and analysts established in 2005. The board comprises experts who provide the company with insights in a variety of areas, including weight management, cognitive and brain function, nutrigenomics, plant nutrients and metabolism, children’s nutrition, and eating behavior and personal wellness.
"The board has been looking at the health and wellness trend the last couple of years, and since Hershey is a market leader in chocolate and cocoa we realized we wanted to own the cocoa bean and know everything about it," said Debra Miller, senior nutrition scientist for The Hershey Co. "We wanted to get down to the chemistry and how it acts in the body after it is eaten."
The center is designed to be a source of new-product innovation as it draws upon clinical studies and scientific analysis of the health benefits of cocoa, nuts and other natural ingredients. The center utilizes the company’s internal scientific capabilities as well as partnerships formed with other researchers and institutions.
"Our goal is to redefine the future of snacking by offering consumers products that provide proven health benefits and the superior taste they expect from Hershey," said Tom Hernquist, senior vice-president, chief global growth officer for the company. "Our research is validating the significant health benefits of cocoa and snack nuts and, combined with our ability to develop and commercialize new products, provides an immense capability to meet the growing consumer demand for healthier products."
Ms. Miller said the center provides the company with direction.
"We want to see what some new forms snacks can take," she said. "At the center, we provide analytical support by investigating the chemistry and doing clinical research."
The introduction of the center has changed the company’s product development process. Before, product developers would work on a product by product basis.
"With the research center we are looking at some things from 30,000 feet," Ms. Miller said. "We look at the benefits of cocoa powder, for example. We look at the product across a number of different product lines. We are in the business of developing benefits across product lines."
Speed to market is a critical component of success in the confections business, which features a number of limited edition and seasonal lines of products. However, Hershey’s transition toward health and wellness means it has to approach product development in a different way.
"Speed to market is still important," Ms. Miller said. "But the center helps step us back a bit. We can look at the long-term impact of research and get an idea of where it might be going. We start at that phase of the process and work with product development and marketing. Our role is to find out what are a product’s benefits that are important?
"We had to step back and understand that when it comes to making healthy snacks, we are getting into a different area for Hershey. We understand that longer leads and research are a part of the process. There are some products that can be cranked out quickly, but something that is truly innovative will take longer, require greater support and greater scientific validity."
Chewing gum central
The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., Chicago, opened its Global Innovation Center on Goose Island this past September. The center is designed to serve as the company’s "nerve center" for its R.&D. efforts around the world. The 153,000-square-foot main building houses laboratory and office space to maximize collaboration and the ability to support new projects and equipment as needed; immediately adjacent to the east is a 40,000-square-foot pilot plant.
"As a company, we have established a track record of innovation as a key driver of our success," said Bill Wrigley Jr., chairman, president and chief executive officer. "For us, it’s not just about how many new products we launch — it’s about delivering products and solutions that truly add value, create excitement in the marketplace, and have long-term sustainability."
The unique design of the building is intended to change the way Wrigley delivers new ideas and products to its customers.
"It puts the right people and the right resources together under one roof and gives them the ability to reach out to colleagues and advisers around the globe," Mr. Wrigley said. "The overall layout facilitates communication and sharing among R.&D., innovation and other related teams, and the highly flexible working space provides the freedom and encouragement to try new things and to work together in new ways."
Like The Hershey Co., Wrigley also has established the Wrigley Science Institute to explore the potential benefits of its products as tools in total weight management, stress relief, increasing alertness and concentration. The institute is headed by Dr. Gilbert A. Leveille, who is charged with leading an advisory panel that will focus its efforts on unlocking the health potential of chewing gum and other products.
"Chewing gum is a simple act many of us do every day, yet we rarely think about its potential benefits," Dr. Leveille said. "Not long ago, the same could have been said about drinking water, but today we know how important and beneficial it is to overall well-being. Chewing gum may be similar, and it could help people achieve multiple health and wellness benefits."
The beat goes on
Wayne Farms L.L.C. is a poultry processor based in Oakwood, Ga. Earlier this month, the company cut the ribbon on its new Innovation Central, a product and concept development facility that focuses on helping the company’s customers build their brand.
The new center more than doubles the size of the company’s R.&D. capability and allows technicians to move pieces of equipment in and out as needed.
"The main goal is for us to be able to serve our customers more effectively and meet their expectations," said Larry Eisenberg, vicepresident of product and concept development. "In the old facility we made samples by hand. We did not have the ability to scale up as we would have liked. Now we can run hundreds of pounds per hour."
Mr. Eisenberg added that the central facility also helps the company protect its trade secrets.
"With everything here we can keep our projects as confidential as possible," he said. "The center gives us a level of control we did not have in the past."
As a result, Wayne Farms, which is primarily a chicken processor, is branching its R.&D. efforts out into other parts of the protein market.
"Chicken is the predominant part of our business," Mr. Eisenberg said. "Still, we are working on some turkey and pork products. It is our focus to get into other proteins. This facility has expanded our capabilities and allows us to consider broader product development concepts."