KANSAS CITY -- If time is money, then anything that reduces downtime in a dairy processing facility is bank.

There is real currency in solutions that keep things flowing in a plant, especially given recent circumstances. An already-tight labor situation was exacerbated by labor shortages tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rising demand from the retail sector and disruptions in foodservice have impacted processors’ operations and pace of business, sometimes dramatically. And as the industry becomes more consolidated with larger players, greater automation makes sense from many perspectives. 

Amid these challenges and changes, better technologies help curb problems that slow or stop production. Those technologies include improvements to existing machinery and updating previous systems with new automated equipment, all adding up to improved efficiencies that translate to the bottom line.

The fourth wave

The advent of Industry 4.0, with the use of digitally networked machines, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, blockchain, the Internet of Things and robotics that represent the fourth industrial revolution, offers an opportunity to create more efficient, time-saving operations in dairy plants. Industry 4.0 is in action in some global dairy facilities, including state-of-the-art sites in Asia. A dairy conglomerate in China, the Mengniu Dairy Co. Ltd., is building smart factories that are considered Dairy Industry 4.0.

In a recent white paper on the topic, packaging company Tetra Pak highlighted the advantages of Industry 4.0. “Technology is a clear and increasingly urgent focus area for industry investment because there are IT and OT technologies within food manufacturers which are outdated or running on legacy infrastructure. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has thrown up its own challenges as food processing plants are forced to close and the lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus have prevented farmers across the globe from delivering food products to consumer … It makes sense to consider having equipment that is easier to operate or needs less specialization so that quality and productivity do not drop when resources are squeezed,” the paper states.

As part of Industry 4.0 or independent of that concept, the use of robotics is creating a buzz within the food and beverage industry. PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, reports that industrial robot sales for food and beverage now represent the second-largest growth sector behind the automotive industry.

Robotics, which are in place in a growing number of dairy parlors for milking, have gotten attention and some investments in the dairy processing sector. While Grade ”A” dairy plants must meet stringent hygienic design standards and employees must be present and trained on operating robots, there are uses for robotics in facilities that produce dairy products.

Robotics – which can run continually at high uptime rates – are being used more often in packing and palletizing functions. A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp., Tarpon Springs, Fla., is an example of a supplier serving the industry, offering a series of robot palletizers that handle cases, trays and bags with multiple SKUs and feature a range of vacuum and mechanical end-of-arm tooling for gentle handling of consumable products.

Reiser, Canton, Mass., also works with customers in food manufacturing to maximize uptime, including robotic packaging solutions from JLS Automation. 

“I’ve always believed robots were coming, but it’s come on like an avalanche over the past year,” said Reiser packaging specialist Mike McCann, noting that different options are available to future-proof for additional possibilities. “We start with a production line and have the option to ramp up and provide high-speed systems all the way to robotic product loading and robotic case packing.”

More recently, advances in the hygienic design of robots are opening the door to such automatic tools being used to handle unpackaged products. 

In general, digitalization is accelerating in dairy processing facilities as a way to streamline options and reduce downtime. In 2020, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and technology leader ABB Ltd., Zurich, Switzerland, teamed up to offer IDFA members automated solutions and applications, including digital plant assessments, in an effort to help advance digitalization within their plants. 

On an individual level, processors are implementing more digital solutions in their facilities that automate processes and avoid human-related errors. Such solutions also allow for the storage and retrieval of data in the cloud that can be used to keep lines running smoothly and with limited downtime. 

Equipped for efficiency

At the same time, equipment manufacturers are updating their machines to provide greater automation and to boost efficiencies. For example, Eagle Product Inspection, Lutz, Fla., provides X-ray machines that automatically inspect a wide range of dairy products and packages for physical contaminants and perform important quality checks without the need for manual inspection; the systems are powered by advanced software that also provides greater traceability with images and information on each product inspected. 

“The nature of dairy processing poses some unique challenges, given that dairy plants are demanding environments and there is a need for precise contaminant detection to comply with stringent regulations and customer standards,” said marketing manager Christy Draus. “X-ray systems can be put into place at multiple points in a facility and used for everything from bulk flow loose product to sliced, block and shredded cheese to packaged products, automatically inspecting and rejecting products to keep products flowing on the line.” Among other solutions, Eagle offers an inspection system that is compliant with 3-A Sanitary Standards for dairy.

In addition, dairy processors can look to a greater range of options to maintain operational flow. Pneumatic technologies, for instance, offer quick setup and changeover with greater flexibility as manufacturers add more products. 

In addition to equipment type, preventative maintenance is a crucial factor in limiting downtime. Here, too, technology can help dairy processors maintain and troubleshoot their systems to avoid shutdowns and gaps. Proper training is also a key part of keeping systems and lines running.

The human resource

As technologies pave the way for greater automation and alleviate labor shortages that contribute to expensive downtime, there is the perennial question of robots and equipment replacing people. McCann pointed out that such systems can redeploy employees instead of just replacing them. “It allows them to grow into other tasks or it can help you expand your operation at the same time that you are streamlining it,” he said.

This story is featured in the April 2021 issue of Dairy Processing.