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Smart Controls Help Increase Efficiencies for Tabletop Processing

Food manufacturers rely on benchtop machines to perfect new food formulations during the R&D phase. Today’s equipment has evolved to produce more accurate recipes at a higher speed for a faster scale-up to production.

Modern tabletop processing equipment gives R&D teams unprecedented control over formulations before scaling up. Here, a food technician creates a small batch of guar gum.
Modern tabletop processing equipment gives R&D teams unprecedented control over formulations before scaling up. Here, a food technician creates a small batch of guar gum.
Silverson Machines

Many food facilities encompass several thousand square feet under one roof, designed to house processing lines populated by enormous pieces of equipment interconnected to mass produce products for the marketplace. But within many of these plants is a smaller, parallel food processing system, where formulas and recipes are tested in minuscule batches until the right combination of ingredients is perfected and ready to scale up to commercial production. 

Nearly every type of processing can be performed on a specialty tabletop R&D machine today, from small batch mixing and blending of powders and liquids to extrusion of solids, and more.Nearly every type of processing can be performed on a specialty tabletop R&D machine today, from small batch mixing and blending of powders and liquids to extrusion of solids, and more.Silverson MachinesThis experimentation happens in R&D labs using tabletop equipment designed to mimic their larger counterparts on the plant floor. Mixing, blending, emulsifying, extruding, and much more can take place here using a fraction of the materials needed for large-scale manufacturing, resulting in micro-portions of products to sample.

As the industry continues to grow by adding niche food and beverage customized with functional ingredients or catering to dietary preferences, so too has the need for more sophisticated and accurate tabletop machines to perfect recipes before those foods are scaled up on the plant floor.


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“Tabletop equipment has been around since the industry began, but it has evolved as a result of customer demands for more hygienic and sophisticated equipment. Advances in manufacturing equipment and engineering techniques, as well as materials like plastics and electronics, have helped the equipment to evolve,” says Matt Smith, sales director for Silverson Machines.

“The origin of benchtop instrumentation started in chemical laboratories and scientific institutions but then increasingly entered other market sectors like food science laboratories and culinary technologies,” adds Cameron Rambone, global product specialist, analytical sales for IKA Works. “In food science and nutritional research laboratories, as well as high-end kitchens, scientists and culinary leaders are constantly looking at benchtop laboratory equipment to replace standard kitchen equipment [for R&D].”

While tabletop equipment has a long history in the food processing industry, today’s machines are equipped with features that make them more practical than ever for operators. Here, we’ll take a closer look at how today’s benchtop R&D equipment excels at efficiency, saving time, resources, and ultimately, improving the bottom line for processors.

Small batch benefits

Tabletop machines can be applied to nearly every type of processing today, depending on what product a manufacturer makes. A benchtop high-shear mixer, for example, is built for “blending liquids of varying viscosities, particle disintegration, homogenizing, emulsifying, dissolving, hydration, deagglomeration, and powder/liquid mixing,” notes Smith. 

Today’s benchtop R&D machines like this one come with advanced instrumentation and monitoring for precision processing of recipes, ensuring unprecedented accuracy before scaling up production to full-sized machines.Today’s benchtop R&D machines like this one come with advanced instrumentation and monitoring for precision processing of recipes, ensuring unprecedented accuracy before scaling up production to full-sized machines.IKA WorksBefore a processor decides to invest in tabletop equipment, they should first consider whether it’s cost-effective based on the number of SKUs they produce. “If somebody wants an extruder to make a half pound of product, for example, it can be built for them, but it has to be worthwhile,” explains Joby Ferary, vice president of sales for North American Process, the parent company of Infini-Mix. “When you only have one product or a couple of products among your offerings, then testing batches on regular equipment might not be a big deal. But when you have multiple recipes or differentiations of a similar product, that’s when investing in R&D equipment really makes sense.”

Matt Maddox, senior regional sales manager, sanitary, for Scott Mixers, adds, “Using a tabletop mixer allows the customer to not waste a great amount of their material and money formulating/perfecting recipes in comparison to doing their R&D on full-scale equipment. If those big batches go wrong and do not pass quality control, that big batch may need to be thrown out.”


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Resource savings is one of the primary benefits of small-batch processing. Tabletop machines use less power than full-sized equipment, and they use fewer raw materials, which leads to less overall waste. “One of the big advantages is the flexibility you have inside an R&D lab to add or remove ingredients,” says Rene Medina, executive vice president of Gericke Group. “Whatever results you have, you can scale up from there. You don’t have to stop your main production for one or two weeks to run test batches just because that’s the only option you have in your facility. You get to keep it in a small sample size and develop formulas faster without jeopardizing your production or other areas of your company.”

Advanced instrumentation

Perhaps the biggest difference between benchtop equipment of years past compared to today’s machines is the advanced instrumentation and controls now available that can improve accuracy and speed of testing beyond any previous versions. 

Many of today’s tabletop machines—like this double-shaft mixer—are exact replicas of their larger counterparts on the plant floor, ensuring a seamless transition when scaling up if a processor has both pieces of equipment in their operation.Many of today’s tabletop machines—like this double-shaft mixer—are exact replicas of their larger counterparts on the plant floor, ensuring a seamless transition when scaling up if a processor has both pieces of equipment in their operation.Gericke Group

These innovations include “features involving the electronics, such as the ability to monitor, record, and control the mixer more accurately and being able to download that information onto spreadsheets for analysis,” Smith says. “Advances in design and manufacturing techniques have allowed us to refine our laboratory equipment to the extent that we have small-scale equivalents for each of the different mixers in our product line. This means our lab equipment matches the performance of larger machines as closely as possible, which takes a lot of guesswork out of the scale-up process.” Real-time monitoring of viscosity, density, temperature, and other parameters while mixing is also available on today’s machines.

Customer demands for benchtop R&D equipment today include advanced controls for ease of use, hygienic design, and practical construction for easy disassembly and reassembly for cleaning.Customer demands for benchtop R&D equipment today include advanced controls for ease of use, hygienic design, and practical construction for easy disassembly and reassembly for cleaning.Scott MixersAt IKA Works, one area of innovation the company has focused on the past few years has been “the ability for laboratory benchtop equipment to be remotely controlled and also output important experimental data,” explains Rambone. “[Our] software allows multiple devices to be connected to a single interface on a PC and programmed and linked together to create a fully functioning system. Also, the output data from all the instruments in the system—stirring speeds, temperatures, pH, or other metrics—can all be captured in real time. Process scale-up engineers and systems engineers can use this data to build the same process in the pilot and manufacturing scales.”

Incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into benchtop equipment is another innovation that is still evolving. “I can see where it could come into play,” Ferary says. “A lot of things right now are done on the PLC [programmable logic controller], where it might try to maintain a certain pH in a product dose until it hits another pH level. I do see down the road where, instead of that being a control loop, that can be something a machine can learn to do as opposed to it all being programmed. We’re not there yet when it comes to tabletop equipment, though.”

Maddox also notes that the future of benchtop machines “will be in the controls and how they continue to evolve. I can see AI having a role in the future with tabletop R&D equipment.”

Customer demands

While companies that make benchtop equipment are working to build detailed, sophisticated machines that closely reflect their larger counterparts—right down to the controls and design—those companies also say they are not losing sight of what customers request in the day-to-day functionality of that equipment.

“The main demands we hear are that the equipment needs to be easy to assemble, easy to disassemble for cleaning, that they are hygienically designed, easy to operate, of course, that they offer flexibility for all kinds of recipes. For us, we’re replicating a smaller version of our double-shaft mixer. The full-sized version is very large, so we’ve been asked by customers how they can have that same machine with the same features, but in a compact size for their R&D rooms,” says Medina. 

“Simplicity and safety are key focuses for tabletop R&D equipment,” Rambone says. “Regulations in safety push benchtop laboratory equipment forward, making a much safer environment for the individuals in the lab. Also, ease-of-use features where equipment is intuitive and aesthetic and has very little learning curve to gain the benefits of using are requested.” 

Siverson’s Smith adds that customers are requesting increased accuracy in formulations, scale-up potential, and overall versatility. The company’s high-shear mixers are engineered to feature a high degree of geometric similarity, reducing variables when scaling up to their larger production equipment. “Anything that can be achieved at laboratory scale can also be scaled up to full production without the need for reformulation,” he says.

More tabletop machines in the market?

A look around most industry tradeshows today will reveal what appears to be more benchtop R&D machines on display than ever before. Many are prominently displayed at the front of booths by manufacturers as important pieces of equipment that attendees should see. But are there really more companies manufacturing tabletop equipment, or has the end-user market transformed to where they are in higher demand?

Tabletop R&D machines are evolving alongside innovations in the food industry, formulating for vegan and plant-based foods, dairy-free alternatives, and most recently, cultivated meat, for which this benchtop bioreactor can be used.Tabletop R&D machines are evolving alongside innovations in the food industry, formulating for vegan and plant-based foods, dairy-free alternatives, and most recently, cultivated meat, for which this benchtop bioreactor can be used.IKA Works“The food processing industry is booming and companies continue to look for high-end laboratory and processing equipment. Some areas of growth in recent years have been vegan and plant-based food production, dairy-free alternative products, and most recently, cultivated meat alternatives,” Rambone says.    

“There is a focus on eating better, healthier, and more functional customized foods, and those drivers are creating new competitors in food to fulfill the lack of those products in the market,” explains Medina, who describes this as the “atomization” of the marketplace. “Those companies have to create recipes and test them. Having more competitors means more labs and more research in creating these foods, and that’s why maybe we see more demand for tabletop equipment today.”

Maddox adds that “the food and beverage industry is always going to be growing. There are always new discoveries in food science that lead to the formulation of new recipes and products. With new products comes the introduction of new players in the industry, which leads to more manufacturing companies making the equipment needed.” 

Market demands and expansion can help drive tabletop equipment innovation and proliferation in the marketplace, but Ferary observes that from a supplier standpoint, prominently displaying benchtop machines at industry events can also serve as a visual gateway for processors to assess all the turnkey options available to them from one company. 

“Most suppliers realize that big food producers all have R&D facilities, so if you can get those producers to test recipes with your tabletop equipment, they’re more likely to use your larger equipment when they scale up to production,” he says. “I think most suppliers have caught on to that. It can be an easier entry into a food producer’s facility when you’re working with the R&D people first.”

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