From delivering the right percentage of protein and fat in products to adhering to the latest standards of food safety and traceability, dairy processors face a wide array of considerations to ensure the products they produce are of the highest quality.

Automating processes, advances in inspection technologies, and using advanced moisture data are all important tools in meeting these challenges, and related innovations are becoming standard in the dairy industry.

The root cause

The dairy industry needs to move away from a focus on end-of-the-line inspections and develop a more holistic approach to problem-solving throughout the production process, said Robert Rogers, senior advisor of food safety and regulations, Mettler-Toledo, Columbus, Ohio.

“When we inspect at the end of the line and find a problem, we throw everything away,” Rogers said. “We are throwing away the raw materials, we are throwing away the effort and energy to make that product, we are throwing the packaging material away. All that ends up as waste.”

Alternatively, inspections throughout the process alleviate many of those issues, Rogers said. Frequent inspections allow for more sensitive devices to be used, because such inspections are smaller in scope and conducted in more controlled areas with fewer factors involved. Such inspections easily pinpoint exactly where problems occur while also helping protect equipment.

“An inspection for a foreign material right before a filling device is a smart thing to do, because a contamination that could clog or damage the filling mechanism could cause other problems and inefficiencies to the process, whereas you can identify (those issues) through a very simple inspection,” he said.

Rogers said Mettler-Toledo’s products, which include checkweighers, metal detectors and X-ray inspection systems, should be seen as notification devices and not non-conforming product elimination devices. The goal of these products is to alert when non-conforming items are identified.

“Identifying the root cause and implementing the proper corrective action so that it doesn’t happen again should be the goal,” Rogers said.

The company also offers software called ProdX that collects information and events recorded on devices, giving processors the ability to generate reports and create a full picture of what’s occurring on the production line. Rogers said the company is focusing on continuing to improve its capabilities, including innovations in X-ray and metal detection technologies that improve performance while also making them more user-friendly and easier to set up.


Embracing digital

A fully integrated digital system that connects the production process from beginning to end is necessary to achieve the next level of quality, said Jim Bresler, director of product management for Plex, by Rockwell Automation, Troy, Mich.

To that end, Plex offers modules designed for ice cream manufacturers to ensure compliance with HACCP, SQF and BRC standards, as well as modules that check the quality of arriving products. Checks for milk solid percentages, as well as viscosity and moisture content, are another focus. The company’s system is also able to communicate with all the sensors on the shop floor equipment and gather information automatically.

Additionally, Plex offers a maintenance management solution and an asset performance management solution designed to detect problems before they occur, and they do so by taking feeds off machines, analyzing machine health, and determining root causes, Bresler said. Yield reporting and lot management are other capabilities the company offers.

“Because of the integrated nature of the system and the comprehensiveness of it, clients are able to achieve a level of control over their processes that they struggled with prior,” Bresler said. “That’s really because of the breadth of not just directly the quality management system, but even things like inventory accuracy.”

With that, the digitization of records is increasingly becoming the standard to improve quality.

“It’s a single source of data and the fact that all your data is contained in one area and your team has access to it,” said Brian Martensen, product manager. “Now they’re making better decisions, because nobody’s looking for that random file on somebody’s computer that has all the information. It’s in one spot. That’s really where the big lift comes as you have a single source of more accurate information.”

Making systems more user-friendly is becoming increasingly important, given the staffing challenges businesses today are having. To that end, Mettler-Toledo is focusing on devices that are easier to set up and more intuitive, with faster training times, and Plex is offering more instructional materials and ensuring its systems are standardized regardless of who is working. Martensen said there will still be employee variation with some performing tasks better than others, but having such a standardized system helps everyone get largely on the same playing field.


Analyzing moisture

Finding ways to safely reduce costs while also producing a larger volume of high-quality products is another win for processors. To that end, including as much moisture as possible in products allows a company to produce more products for less cost. But skirting around the upper end of safe moisture content in milk powders and cheeses can become a safety and quality management issue.

To solve this challenge, Aqualab by Addium, Pullman, Wash., formerly known as METER Group, offers automated water activity meters and moisture analysis instruments that help processors use as much water as safely possible in cheese and powders, meaning more money for the company.

“Taking a lot of the human element out of decision-making on the dryer goes a long way in making a more consistent product,” said Brian Nyquist, process engineer. “Generally, operators who do this repeatedly are going to err on the side of caution. They would rather have an overdried product they can send out the door safely rather than try to manually float along that upper limit of moisture content and occasionally going above that and having the product rejected.”

When the company’s SKALA Solo software is used to establish moisture levels, companies can maintain better control of moisture content, in turn increasing yield and profits without sacrificing quality.

“I am able to show processors real-time data that shows a reduction in standard deviation and an increase in yield,” Nyquist said. “That’s not something they had generally thought about.”


Saving money

As the industry is moving beyond the pandemic and returning to a focus on just-in-time inventory, more pressure is being put on testing processes at dairy plants to ensure plants are getting clean releases, said Ryan Mertes, chief solutions officer at Ever.Ag, Frisco, Texas.

Mertes said having documented processes and being able to test traceability plans is essential, and Rogers also agrees with this idea.

“It’s said in our industry, ‘If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen,’” Rogers said. “Having the ability to document it, store it, and maintain it in an electronic resource is much easier to do, and you are able to analyze that data much more easily and make it usable than it is in a paper-based system.”

Ever.Ag offers a Lab Information Management System that has modules for each segment of the dairy industry. The program can perform functions like checking the weight of milk gallons to ensure product is not being overfilled or checking the fat and solid percentages of ice creams to make sure they are within specifications.

“Those are the things that save a lot of money over the course of a year that can save up to six-figure savings without really changing my product or operations,” Mertes said. “It’s just a matter of having strong testing, strong process controls and using that data to achieve better results.”

Lab testing and lot management capabilities are also important features of Ever.Ag’s software.

Mertes said two innovations still needed in the industry are additional solutions to help ensure consistency in sampling methods and more interconnectivity between testing and enterprise resource planning systems. Such interconnectivity between systems is becoming necessary to meet increasingly stringent FDA regulations.

“The industry as a whole should be more focused on risk management and being able to identify what traceability risk (an organization is) willing to employ and investing in the people and the tools that are there,” Mertes said. “If you do it right, QA can help save money in operations. It’s not just a cost center – if you employ best practices, it can help improve your operations, as well as reduce your risk, which reduces your business loss risk.”