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Data-driven decisions at Kemin Industries R&D

Data-driven decisions at Kemin Industries R&D

When Gregg Schieffer decided as a university student to become a chemist, he signed up to take all the chemistry courses he could. He had no idea that he would end up working as a food scientist, working specifically with pet food.

At the time, he thought he’d likely end up working as a chemist for a company in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. But his focus shifted when one of Schieffer’s professors mentioned that he might make a good researcher.

“One of my professors convinced me, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good with research instruments. Why don’t you consider graduate school?’” Schieffer says. “I don’t know if that’s their favorite thing to say. I’m sure I would’ve had a fine job somewhere in the Twin Cities. There are a lot of great companies up there. But I decided to continue on to graduate school and try to pursue mass spectrometry. That prepared me to work with instruments and to understand the value of the data that you can collect from them.”

After graduate school, Schieffer’s path eventually led him to Kemin Industries, a food manufacturer in Des Moines, Iowa. 

“Before that, I worked within corn wet-milling,” Schieffer says. “And I had a short stint trying to see if I fit well within the drug discovery industry, something on the medical side, but it wasn’t quite the right fit. For whatever reason, I’ve hit my stride within the food industry, even though I don’t have a food science or food engineering background. I’ve worked my way in … [by] learning on the job.”

Gathering Useful Data

The skills Schieffer learned in graduate school—specifically how to use the tools that provide useful information to food manufacturers—have helped him immensely in his career. 

“I primarily work with serving our pet food customers,” Schieffer says. “And one of the ways that I do that is by operating instruments to collect meaningful data. … Having a strong instrumentation background, it was a natural fit.”

Schieffer consistently uses water activity and isotherms in his work, but that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until he and his team faced an odd phenomenon that they started looking for a long-term solution that would help them better understand the processes their food was undergoing. 

“We would be mixing two powders, and you’d expect a powder to flow,” Schieffer says. “But as we were mixing a couple of these powders, it formed a concrete. We didn’t add any water. So that brought us down the road of trying to understand how we could characterize our materials to better understand them.”

Initially, the team thought they would need to partner with someone from the academic world—someone with experience collecting isotherms with saturated salt solutions. While they knew instruments existed that could help their problem, they didn’t realize that purchasing one could provide a significant return on investment.  

“[Isotherms became appealing to us] after we learned to relate the plot of the isotherm to the physical changes happening within a bulk solid,” Schieffer says. “Once we were able to make those connections, then we were able to make the decisions that we wanted to make.”

Discovering the AQUALAB Vapor Sorption Analyzer

One of the tools that have made a significant impact on Schieffer’s work at Kemin Industries is the AQUALAB Vapor Sorption Analyzer.

“We’ve had the privilege to have this within our assortment of analytical tools for a little over a year now,” Schieffer says. “We’re interested in trying to understand how our powders may react, or how they may adjust as the water activity around them changes or depending on their warehouse. It’s a far cry from what I was thinking when I was first studying and deciding to become a chemist.”

The AQUALAB Vapor Sorption Analyzer gives Schieffer and his team information that interests them as scientists. But it’s also valuable information that helps Kemin Industries make important business decisions. 

“As we’re working with different ingredients, … we’re able to take samples,” Schieffer says. “We understand what its loss on drying value is, and we can enter that within the instrument. And then we can understand … how changes in humidity, or the moisture content of that material may change. And that’s what we measure to get our moisture sorption isotherms.”

Complex Calculations Made Easy

Taking measurements is undoubtedly essential to the food manufacturing process. But gathering data is only half of the solution—food scientists must also interpret that data correctly. Unfortunately, analyzing data often involves complicated, time-consuming calculations. But not with the Moisture Analysis Toolkit, a software product that works with the AQUALAB Vapor Sorption Analyzer to make valuable calculations. 

“With some of the other instruments that we were looking at [before choosing the AQUALAB], we would test these analyzers and then look at the results and say, ‘Well, now we have giant Excel files full of data,’” Schieffer says. “And we didn’t have something that could do some of the calculations for us. Then we tested the Moisture Analysis Toolkit, and we were able to make some of those predictions so we could understand shelf life and how package characteristics or warehouse conditions may affect it.”

With tools that can both measure and analyze data, complex Research and Development processes can move much more quickly than ever before. 

Shaping the Future

With these tools on their side, Schieffer and others at Kemin Industries are moving forward with confidence.

“Kemin is always moving forward and figuring out the best ways to serve our customers,” Schieffer says. “We are making use of the data that we can get. … These ingredients are being characterized so that we can provide the best solutions for our customers.”

This process makes Schieffer truly happy, which is the best type of job satisfaction.

“Thinking back to what drove me to chemistry, [it was] the wonder of doing reactions and experiments,” Schieffer says. “What kept me going within graduate school was being able to collect useful data from instruments. I’m not saying that this is something that drives joy for most people, but it certainly brings me joy.”

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