Dairy processors know all too well that pressure reveals faults and flaws. We’re all probably imagining equipment failures here. But today’s persistent labor pressures expose critical issues and gaps in dairy plant operations—perhaps nowhere more than in clean-in-place (CIP) programs.

Yet pressure can also be a force for positive change: We’re seeing accelerating adoption of a new breed of digital CIP solutions and analytics tools that will push the entire dairy production industry forward.

Staffing challenges exposing food safety and quality vulnerabilities

The last decade saw CIP move from the end of the dairy production chain to the front—from a necessary evil at the end of the day to a critical first ingredient for high-quality, high-performance production.

The thing is, the “at the end of the day” part hasn’t changed. Most CIP happens at night. Higher-level managers naturally want to see product going out the door during the day (when they’re there). This leaves nightly CIP processes to the more junior operators.

This all worked just fine when “junior operator” meant four years’ experience. But it’s decidedly more precarious when today’s junior operators may only have four days’ experience. Plants across the country are feeling this knowledge gap, and broader workforce trends suggests it’s here to stay.

Plants want mechanisms to provide more consistent guidance and oversight. And this demand is reinforced by the massive shift toward embracing remote monitoring technologies. Production, quality, and food safety leaders expect to be able to see everything that’s happening, in real time, from anywhere.

A quick history of digitization in dairy production

Food and beverage production organizations (and dairy producers, in particular) have an unwarranted reputation as lagging tech adopters. Starting around 2000, dairy plants really started moving toward digitization—leveraging early tools to convert paper records and spreadsheets.

Of course, the first wave of these tools just created the classic Big Data problem: overwhelming plants with a torrent of data that they couldn’t make sense of. But dairy plants did an impressive (and relatively early) job of solving this problem. Over the last two decades, most dairy plants have leveraged more advanced digital platforms and analytics tools to transform raw production data into more actionable insights to optimize performance.

Shifting role of CIP brings new crop of digital tools

Yet as dairy processors matured digitally on the production side, they still had a big gap on the CIP end of their operations. While production-focused digital tools could be used to cover CIP, plants typically had to custom develop their own CIP metrics and workflows. And in a lot of cases, they just didn’t.

As CIP took on elevated focus in the industry over the last decade, the tech naturally followed this shift in prioritization. Around 2015, the first wave of digital CIP platforms started popping up. But much like the first wave, these tools left dairy plants swimming in enormous data lakes. At best, plants saved some time and accelerated reporting. But they still struggled to figure out what and where to focus.

From digital reporting to prescriptive CIP insights

Today we’re seeing a new breed of digital CIP tools closing that insight gap—using directional analytics to hone the signal and provide actionable information for more focused, proactive measures.

The simple premise is to find the anomalies in CIP processes—the specific instances where things don’t go the way the plant thinks they should. This new breed of digital CIP tools compares the real-time data on CIP processes to SSOPs to see what’s going as intended/expected, as well as what’s changing over time. For plant leaders, that means they (or their staff) don’t have to wade through all the processes that went fine. At a quick glance, they can see specifically which washes had issues.

Perhaps more importantly, the leading edge of digital CIP tools now brings prescriptive analytics to answer the all-important question: Why? Is there an equipment issue—a pump that’s lost efficiency? Programming that needs change? User error that requires additional training?

Marrying comprehensive, real-time visibility with focused, actionable insights not only dramatically reduces the manual time spent investigating quality and safety issues—it enables plants to move away from relying on the luck of random spot-checks. Because let’s face it: Your staff can only do so many of those, meaning problems can persist for a long time (at a high cost and high risk) before you find them. 

Plants need partner expertise to make the most of advanced CIP insights

The level of insights provided by modern CIP platforms is actually exposing another gap for many plants: a lack of CIP expertise from their cleaning and sanitization partners.

In practice, many plants now find they’re getting a fine level of detail on CIP performance that their vendor partners aren’t sure how to act upon. We’re seeing some plant leaders misconstrue this as the digital platform not giving them actionable insights. But we’re increasingly seeing others properly diagnose the expertise gap—and seek out new partners with the knowledge to fully leverage the detailed insights these modern platforms can deliver.

Bringing CIP out of the dark

The broader storyline here isn’t just about labor or tech. Just as dairy plants used digital tools to get a much more sophisticated understanding of production—and completely redefine the parameters for optimization—we’re now seeing that same sophistication coming to CIP.

These modern digital CIP platforms are effectively bringing CIP processes that typically happen at night out into the light. They’re providing guide rails for the less-experienced junior operators responsible for executing and overseeing CIP protocols. They’re providing visibility to production leaders and quality and food safety managers. Rather than leaving CIP fixes and decisions up to junior operators in the moment, these digital CIP tools put those decisions in the hands of more senior, experienced staff—enabling more proactive and strategic decisions to drive measurable outcomes.