During the height of the pandemic, interest in automation accelerated. Companies used automation to lower the density of workers on the plant floor and create a healthier environment. Now dairy companies are automating for high assured output, lower waste and the capacity to meet rising demand and changing market tastes.  

As a July 2021 article written for Dairy Foods (https://www.dairyfoods.com/articles/95122-artisan-cheese-yogurt-producer-modernizes-to-captures-competitive-edge) reported, “Unprecedented interest in unique and artisanal offerings has spurred dairies and cheesemakers to explore new product lines. And as demand for specialty products ramps up, many turn to their equipment suppliers for more efficient ways to manage production — and expand capacity.”


New automation developments

Automation components are becoming smaller and lighter. This means control panels are shrinking or being eliminated by mounting washdown-resistant components on the machine. This trend is leading to smaller-footprint machines, which frees up space for additional capacity.

Utilizing the latest “smart” components such IO-Link enabled devices — devices that cost basically the same as last generation components — an operation’s personnel have their fingers on the pulse of the equipment. Predictive analytics through smart sensing ensures optimum overall equipment effectiveness.

The new generation of systems enabled by the Industrial Internet of Things can be monitored anywhere and at any time, making better use of staff resources. Team members can be at various locations while working collaboratively. They will be able to coordinate with equipment suppliers in real-time. Automation is basically reengineering workflow while systematically increasing output.

New-generation machines might feature components optimized for the application; for example, valves and cylinders with the latest in sanitary design. There are now pneumatic cylinders engineered specifically for pneumatic cheese presses. These new cylinders provide more precise pressure and longer service life than non-optimized cylinders.

New proportional pneumatic valves and controls deliver extreme accuracy and flexibility so that the right pressure is automatically applied at the correct time and duration for the cheese recipe. These piezo-electric proportional pressure valves also consume less energy.

The cheapest energy is the energy not used. The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) delivering the machines outlined above should have employed smart design criteria to lower system energy use and to create systems that alert operators when greater than expected energy is consumed. For example, there is a new smart module for compressed air systems that reduces air pressure when a machine is not in use, warns when there is a leak and collects data that can aid in continuous reduction in energy usage on a machine or process.


Start by automating a pinch point

Begin by identifying a productivity pain point and then envision what kind of process control and supporting data would be valuable to have from an automated system in that process. Envision how that data will be presented and accessible. Then talk with OEMs — automated cheese press manufacturers, for example — and ask how they not only control the process, but also convey that data.

Are they incorporating components designed for the application or other new developments highlighted in this article? Are key components off the shelf and readily available? What data are the machine capturing and how are those data presented? It should quickly become clear whether the OEM is current with today’s technology.

Contact community colleges to find those that offer automation training and certifications. Community colleges can be a good source of energized tech-savvy people. The dairy world is changing the way it works, and those that change with it will have the greatest opportunity for success.