From reducing the amount of labor required to run a dairy processing facility to connecting plants with the farms where they source their ingredients, automation is playing a key role across the dairy supply chain to increase efficiencies, profitability and transparency.
While automation was becoming integrated into the supply chain well before the pandemic, the events of the past two years have sped the rate at which such technologies are being adopted.
Managing the labor issues
“The Great Resignation” has made finding enough labor a challenge for numerous industries, and the dairy industry is no exception. According to Ryan Mertes, chief solutions officer for Dairy.com, Frisco, Texas, the insufficient labor force has caused dairy plants to minimize the number of unique SKUs and specialty products they produce. Instead, companies are focusing on products they can produce in larger volume with less labor.
“Labor constraints have become the great bottleneck for a lot of the supply chain,” Mertes said. “Now that we don’t have enough people, we’ve had to rethink our facilities.”
Much of that rethinking has come through automation. To this end, Mertes sees automated packing, remote access to facilities and the linking of data systems as three labor-reducing efforts the industry is adopting.
Mertes said instead of manual packing in facilities, many processors are using palletizers and robotics to reduce the amount of labor required. Plants have also updated their remote technology systems so experts can have access to their floors without having to travel. Additionally, plants are consolidating their data flow by obtaining information directly from the floor and combining it electronically with their systems, so labor is no longer required to obtain data. The result is a source of real-time information, and back-end staff can spend their time analyzing the data instead of preparing it.
The global market for service robotics is projected to reach $110.4 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 21.2%.
Mertes also said automated milking systems at farms are becoming increasingly cost-effective and more widely adopted, and the process for milk haulers to collect their data is even becoming paperless and leading to additional real-time data.
Workers in plants are often more inexperienced than before and require training, and the training process is becoming more automated with the help of augmented reality. Visual systems with glasses are often being used to offer these new employees training through instant access to videos and informative materials that instruct the new hire while they are on the job.
Managing facilities remotely
Instead of having numerous staff members walking the floors of processing facilities, a big focus for dairy plants in the future will be integrating technologies that enable remote monitoring of the operation, according to Jim LeClair, fluid handling commercial manager with Alfa Laval, Richmond, Va. This switch to a central, control room style setup will allow management to instantly look at the state of operations and be informed of the facility’s output in real time.
“Instead of manually inspecting the equipment on the line, you would have someone monitoring the system virtually and deploying maintenance staff or other resources if a problem is identified by our technology.” LeClair said. “Instead of always having someone walking the line making sure something is running, it’s all in a centralized area.”
Alfa Laval also offers products that alert staff when preventative maintenance on pumps is required. The company’s condition monitor is a vibration and temperature sensor fitted to pumps, and by establishing a baseline vibration level and setting alarm levels, it allows maintenance staff to identify trends that can lead to pump failure. If it detects a potential problem, maintenance staff can be directed to the precise problem.
“With this technology, dairies can focus more on preventative maintenance cycles and gather performance characteristics that will help avoid reactionary “break and fix” operational conditions which they may have experienced in the past.” said Zino Lappas, US segment manager for sanitary equipment at Alfa Laval. “This enables the processor to have some predictive maintenance automation installed so they can perform maintenance in a much more planned and controlled fashion.”
Josh Kleckner, director of sales with Alfa Laval, said the company currently has the capabilities to indicate trends that lead to a failure and plans to include predictive analytics that will allow users to pinpoint the cause of the malfunction and information time duration before a failure occurs in the near future. This will allow plants to plan for maintenance in a more efficient manner.
The company also offers ThinkTop sensing and control units for hygienic valves that helps reduce overall water and energy usage as well as a robust automation portfolio.
Connecting with ingredients
Given the recent challenges in the supply chain, automation has helped communicate disruptions, but Mertes describes the current ingredient supply situation as still being “a bit of a wild west.” As a result, some suppliers are carrying extra inventory, which results in less efficient use of capital. Overall, processors are working to forecast out what their demand is going to be, he said.
“(The industry) is doing a better job of risk management in terms of pricing by getting out in front of commodity risk…but we have not necessarily solved the shortness of the ingredient supplies,” Mertes said.
Mertes said in the future it will not be sufficient to just to know the source of milk or ingredients. Instead, processors will need to establish how the animals were fed and raised and if this was done in a sustainable manner. He said being able to offer tracing from a finished product all the way back to the animals and livestock that were involved in its creation is becoming standard for the industry – something he dubbed as “dirt to fork” traceability. After all, consumers increasingly want to know the story of how a product came from the field all the way into their hands.
“We are convinced that big-picture wise, the connection of the farm to the plant is going to be required,” Mertes said. “It’s one of the things that’s going to allow us to stay ahead of other industries.”
Jorge deMacedo, automation specialist with Tetra Pak, said its automation system enables connectivity of the entire supply chain. The Plant Master manufacturing information and execution system provides traceability of all operations on the factory floor from the reception of raw materials to the packaging of the final product. It can be connected to the customer’s ERP, making all the information available in real time for managerial decision-making. When new product is executed, the entire stock of the product in the ERP is updated in real time, enabling for better inventory management, deMacedo said.
“The use of robust integrated automation systems allows the storage and correlation of data from different sources, from the different suppliers of raw material through the different lines and production parameters to the packaging of the final product, making this information available both to the producer and for managerial use supporting decision-making, as well as the end customer to support the transparency of the brand,” deMacedo said. “By reading a code printed on the package with a smart phone, the end customer has access to all relevant product information and gives product traceability.”
To further develop this traceability as industry standard, automation systems at all levels of the supply chain – ingredient suppliers, transporters, processors and retailers – will increasingly need to become compatible with each other.