The general public probably takes the production of dairy products for granted. But advanced technology and a skilled workforce are required for today's dairy operations.

Today's dairy processing plants have the most advanced, high-tech equipment and processes — with electronic sensors, monitoring instrumentation and electronic controls. This technology includes programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and variable-frequency drives to control motors. Other key technology components include pumps, valves, temperature sensors, intelligent flow meters, and software control.

Sensors such as photo-electric eyes are used on conveyor and filling equipment to check fill levels, proper placement of labels on cheese packaging and the numerical count of the number of products being moved on the machine. And flow meters monitor the rate of flow of liquids being pumped from one tank to another. They have embedded microprocessor electronics and can be monitored remotely over a computer network throughout the plant. Plant technicians and supervisors can just look at the computer screen for status of flows throughout the plant.

Temperature control modules keep refrigeration and pasteurization conditions at the correct level. These units incorporate advanced microelectronic circuits and have embedded software for complete automation.

PLCs (about the size of a shoe box) monitor input process parameters and control machine sequence. They often have keypads and displays that provide diagnostics and troubleshooting information. PLCs monitor inputs such as control panel switches and fill level sensors, and then activate motors, valves and pumps at the correct time.


Skilled personnel required

Industrial machine technicians are the people who have the expert knowledge of these complex machinery and processes. And advanced process equipment enables the highest quality in dairy products ranging from milk and cream to cheese, yogurt and ice cream. So plant managers need qualified machine maintenance technicians to continue successful operations.

Many two-year community colleges and state technical schools have training programs in industrial machine maintenance technology, at both the two-year associate's degree level and the one-year certificate level. Many of the concepts covered in these training programs apply directly to dairy processing technology.

The topics in a community college or state technical school industrial machine technology program typically include shop safety, basic machine shop, blueprint reading and mechanics (bearings, pumps, valves, pneumatics, hydraulics). Also included are PLC programming, electronic instrumentation for process monitoring and control, and PLC software programming.

Training programs for industrial electricians will also include electronic process instrumentation and PLC programming, as well as electric power distribution in a factory or processing plant layout.

Process equipment technicians are the most critical people to dairy operations. Plant managers must give them the recognition they need, and set pay scales at a high level to reflect their advanced technical expertise and skills.

Dairy plant managers also are strongly encourage to have an active dialogue with the industrial training programs at the local community and technical colleges. You must reach out to tomorrow's workforce, today.

For some help here, check out the following groups:

  • Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP), 
  • SkillsUSA, 
  • Association for Career and Technical Education,