Every manufacturer wants to optimize uptime, maximize profits and increase production, but both planned and unplanned downtime can take a toll on those goals.

Dairy processors can help ensure operations stay up and running by using predictive maintenance and equipment that is easily cleaned.

Sanitation in focus

The three most common causes for downtime at a dairy processing plant are equipment malfunctions, cleaning and sanitation, and labor issues, said Zack Olson, manager of growth strategy and innovation at BAK Food Equipment, Burr Ridge, Ill.

To prevent unplanned downtime, BAK Food Equipment simplifies the cleaning process by making its equipment 100% washdown proof, meaning workers don’t have to move control panels or cover electrical components prior to cleaning, Olson said. The company also ensures spare parts are readily available for processors while also performing predictive maintenance on larger machines and supporting smaller equipment with remote maintenance.

BAK offers bowl choppers and mixers for the dairy industry, and these pieces of equipment are designed with a dead zone between the motor and where the product is being mixed. This ensures that if there is a problem with the motor, no fluids or grease will get into the product, thereby avoiding a shutdown and costly loss of product. This process also prevents products from leaking into critical components of the equipment and causing equipment issues.

Designing a process that reduces the need for cleaning is one of the biggest ways companies can optimize uptime, said Martin Skanderby, senior sales manager with GEA. To that end, GEA considers what temperatures can be used in processes to optimize runtime. After all, using high temperatures can kill unwanted bacteria but also damage products and create chemical or technical scaling on the equipment at the same time. Overall, GEA designs equipment and processes to prevent the buildup of biofilm that can harbor bacteria.

“In your planning of cleaning, have a predictable overall process setup, meaning not stretching the process characteristics to the limits and not stretching the runtimes to the limits as there will sooner or later be sudden stops, which will cause unpredictable cleaning,” Skanderby said.

GEA offers a spray dryer that allows for one part of the equipment to be out for cleaning while still running with the remaining parts, and Skanderby said this allows for processing of products to continue while still performing routine cleaning.

food safety dairy processing cheese plant manufacturing worker safetyPhoto: Seventyfour - stock.adobe.com 

Van der Graaf is a manufacturer of drum motors, which are conveyor belt drives with all driving components enclosed and protected inside the drum. These drives are engineered to operate continuously for 80,000 hours without maintenance, reducing downtime. Drum motors drive modular profiled belts without using sprockets, eliminating areas where byproducts accumulate, requiring less time and water for cleaning, further mitigating downtime. The company’s founder and president, Alex Kanaris, said that while the drum motor’s all-enclosed design is the most hygienic conveyor belt drive, many processors aren’t accustomed to seeing a conveyor without an external motor. The company is working to change this paradigm of thinking.

Proper training of employees is critically important, and Olson said training should involve not only the employees who are on hand when a piece of equipment is installed, but also the employees that come on board later to work with the equipment.

“We’re currently focusing on building out a training program that our customers can have on hand when new employees come on or the equipment moves throughout the facility and touches different hands,” Olson said.


Reading the situation

Instruments that provide key data on machine health are critical in knowing when maintenance will be needed.

Krohne, Beverly, Mass., offers Coriolis mass flowmeters that provide data on mass and volumetric flow along with density of the product and temperature readings. The meters send that information to the control system to create a whole picture of what is happening, said Neil Stringer, sales manager.

Paying special attention to machine health during pasteurization is also important, as it can be a somewhat violent process that causes machines to shake and vibrate. Consequently, Stringer said running pasteurizers correctly with the right instrumentation is important for uptime. With the growth of extended shelf-life products and their use of ultra-high temperature processes, more care must be taken to prevent damaging protein and fat during the pasteurization process.

Alfa Laval offers a condition monitoring system that analyzes temperatures and vibrations from equipment like pumps to reduce unplanned maintenance, and Russell Jones, the company’s commercial sales manager for pumps, said monitoring vibrations is key to understanding equipment health. The company then takes data from this monitoring and makes it actionable for processors.

“We have launched a way to gather data into the cloud, where we can now interface with the data, analyze it and send back to our customers some very simple reports that are very usable, and hopefully timely, so they can do some planned downtime to avoid unplanned downtime,” Jones said.

With the help of artificial intelligence (AI), these reports have exceeded the level of what workers can do on their own. 

“AI is learning and analyzing levels of data that are beyond human capability,” Jones said. “AI is going to be critical to making the data more useful and more understandable and specific to the customer. The customer just gets notifications that something is wrong with the machine, and that is not a lot of use for that customer. They want to get more specific, and that’s where the AI comes in.”

The company also offers its ThinkTop control units for valves to help reduce water usage and waste and maximize product output.


dairy processing automation milk bottle plant facility operationsPhoto: Parilov - stock.adobe.com

Analyzing the entire line

Dairy processors can integrate automated machinery together to create an end-to-end operation in which all aspects of production run together smoothly, thus preventing downtime. 

“If you can do that in an end-to-end automated fashion — which some people are already doing — you mitigate downtime, because you’re controlling the whole process and those systems are very good at telling you where an issue happens,” Olson said.

Unscheduled and frequent stops and restarts accelerate wear on mechanical components over time, said Tom Wiersma, business development manager for Integrated Packaging Machinery (IPM), Rockford, Mich. Besides the abrasive wear on machine centers and conveyor systems when a packaging line in a dairy processing plant goes down unexpectedly for any length of time, it’s likely the product will need to be manually removed and hand packed. Any unplanned shutdown usually has the effect of requiring the filler to be cleaned, extending the unplanned downtime and associated costs still further, Wiersma said.

Eliminating unplanned packaging line stops and restarts at dairy plants is key to mitigating downtime and reducing food waste and packaging material waste, Wiersma added.

“The right series of integrated OEM-neutral technologies and expertly designed control solutions are imperative when it comes to compensating for microstops and eliminating full stops and abrupt restarts and therefore essential to mitigating downtime,” Wiersma explained.

A properly engineered high-volume and high-speed secondary packaging system designed to preserve food safety, protect brand quality, ensure packaging accuracy and maximize uptime needs to be conceived as an integrated ecosystem, Wiersma said.

“The uptime performance of each machine center and function on the line in the ecosystem is interconnected with, interacts with and is codependent upon all the others,” Wiersma said. “Therefore, to mitigate downtime, the intended performance of each machine center must be specified, expertly integrated, installed, and automated in such a way as to optimize the performance of it and the other inline machine centers and intermachine functions (i.e. accumulation, metal detection, check-weighing, date-coding, etc.) upstream and downstream on the line,” Wiersma said.

Overall, he said unplanned stops and starts are frequently caused either by newer machine centers being inserted into an older line, overworking older machine centers or operators trying to increase the output of individual machines without considering the impact that will have on the balance of the line.


Looking to the future

Increasingly, the industry is moving toward a model of predictive maintenance by allowing software and AI to determine when maintenance will be needed.

“This will reduce the parts our clients will have to store on hand and decrease the cost they have to spend up front to accumulate those parts because AI will be extremely well-versed in predictive capabilities of maintenance, parts and repairs,” Olson said.

Moving to digital communications inside plants is another way plants will improve efficiency, Stringer said.

“Wired digital communications is the wave of the future for plants,” Stringer said. “Whether it be just from an inventory status standpoint or live plant monitoring, putting that information up on the cloud so it’s globally visible to product or inventory planners so they can make smarter decisions on where they’re distributing the product.”

Through it all, processors will be looking for machines that can tell them when maintenance will be needed.

“I think the evolving landscape of predictive maintenance is going to be skyrocketing in the next few years because of the integration of AI and machine learning,” Olson said.