Guest Columns

Dairy Research

The next big thing: process improvement opportunities

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

Thanks to advances in science and technology, the dairy industry has access to an unprecedented amount of data and information that can be used to make process improvements throughout the lifecycle of a product. From technology that automatically gathers data on the volume/composition of waste streams to fermentation process monitoring, manufacturers have the tools to oversee nearly every aspect of the production process.

Affordable sensors and automation are among the most valuable tools at a manufacturer’s disposal. In fact, there are now various sensors available to monitor all kinds of parameters including things like the temperature and gas composition in specialty cheese ripening rooms. In many cases these sensors are set to alert employees, sometimes via their smart phones, when there is an unwanted change in the properties of the room. Additionally, sensors can help indicate leaks or cross contamination in processing lines, detect cheese coagulation in order to predict when to cut and much more. There also are technologies available (e.g., various spectroscopy techniques) that can rapidly do inline estimates for product composition and can indirectly predict quality aspects, even alerting employees to possible unwanted microbial activity.

Additionally, approaches such as optical-based biosensors and immunological methods can help with food safety or allergen concerns.

In other words, the process monitoring area is rapidly evolving, so meeting with specialists who can help you to determine which sensors will be beneficial is a great first step. Be sure to discuss how you plan to use the data and what programs are available to help you sort through all of the data. After all, sensors can provide plants with important process improvement data, but it can also be overwhelming and, ultimately, frustrating if the information is not organized and used in a meaningful way.

One option you may wish to discuss with your sales person or specialist is the use of modern Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) type systems, which include software and hardware elements that allow plants to capture and manage data from many processes, valves, sensors, etc. These have become common in larger plants. Remember, however, that this technology is not perfect, so having an employee monitor the data and check the calibration of sensors is essential. It’s also important that new sensors are cleared to be used in a food processing (sanitary) environment and robust enough to handle issues like fouling and cleaning regimes.

Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology is another tool that can potentially help plants with process improvement. A DNA-based identification of microbes, NSG is a technology that allows manufacturers to track the types of bacteria that are in their products as well as the origins of these microbes. In fact, this technology is now being used in research labs to track specific bacteria found in cheese all the way back to their source on the farm, cheese equipment or elsewhere in the manufacturing process. Problem microbes that cause defects can be identified down to the strain, and possible solutions can be identified before the issue escalates. Portable versions of these technologies are being developed that could allow plants to improve their quality (or monitor phage) right in the plant, allowing for more real time monitoring than traditional environmental testing. This opens up the door for improved safety and quality. However, with greater detection sensitivity and faster indicators of possible microbial issues, plants and industry regulatory agencies may need to consider how this will impact safety and quality plans as well as appropriate corrective actions.

Finally, tools that assist with sustainability initiatives should not be overlooked. Customers are increasingly interested in the sustainability efforts of companies and are considering those efforts when making their purchasing decisions. In fact, many dairy companies now produce an annual sustainability report and are part of the Dairy Sustainability Alliance, a broad stakeholder group from across the dairy chain convened by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. As companies look to reduce their use of resources like energy, water and packaging, they need to carefully monitor all types of inputs in order to create robust metrics for improvement to achieve their sustainability goals. As such, more and more companies are using sensors and automation to reduce chemical usage in cleaning and help them convert process streams into useable water.

Technology has allowed the dairy industry to come a long way in terms of process management and sustainability, but developing interfaces, graphics and statistical models that can help manufacturers to correctly interpret and effectively utilize these systems will remain essential. Additionally, plants will need trained personnel to interpret the data and systems that can organize the data so that it can be used to make the best decisions. While steps must be taken to properly utilize these systems and their data, overall these emerging technologies offer hope to researchers who will be able to address more complex challenges and create new products, such as designer milk products that are precisely tailored for unique functional or nutritional purposes. With an ongoing investment in research and innovation, and an open environment where we can share best practices for these new tools, the dairy industry will continue to thrive.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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