WHEN consumers quickly gulp down a cool fresh glass of milk on a hot summer day, it’s unlikely that they appreciate the stresses faced by the dairy manufacturers who bring that milk to the table.
While the pains of Australia’s variable climate and ensuing water shortage issues have been long known, the effect of skyrocketing fuel prices is a more recent phenomenon affecting dairy manufacturers.
Layered above these rising costs are increased government and regulatory pressures in the areas of compliance and safety.
With international competition for both domestic and international food markets constantly intensifying, the imperative for manufacturers to continually find efficiencies in production also remains urgent.
Despite these pressures, the dairy industry is currently successful - it is still worth a significant $9 billion dollars to the domestic economy.
But the crux of the problem facing dairy manufacturers comes back to that simple, cool glass of milk that many Australians enjoy on a hot day.
A wider variety of dairy products
Despite facing rising costs and global competition, the industry is now also under pressure from domestic and international consumers to innovate beyond its traditional offerings.
The humble glass of milk is no longer enough. In addition to milk, consumers are now also demanding dairy manufacturers produce a variety of dairy products for a wider range of uses.
“Meeting consumers’ needs is essential as the dairy market is highly competitive and complex,” Danisco business manager Glenn Sparke said.
“The key for the dairy industry is to supply products that meet the needs of their complex set of consumers - individuals, families, young, an aging population, and commercial customers.”
As a result, there has been an explosion of new varieties in traditional dairy products such as milk, cheeses, yoghurts, and ice creams.
Common examples include the growth in flavoured on-the-go milk beverages, yoghurt drinks, and cheeses ranging from “fun” options for kids to gourmet flavours and more adult-focused varieties.
Also evident is the emergence of completely new products based on dairy ingredients, such as dairy crisps.
Sparke identifies three consumer trends driving product innovation in the dairy category- health and wellness, what he calls “premiumisation”, and convenience.
He says the health and wellness mindset is driving products that contribute to a healthy lifestyle and provide a sense of wellbeing.
“For example - low fat, low sugar, low GI, fortified products, and functional ingredients which offer extra nutritional benefits.”
“Premiumisation” refers to an occasional consumer desire for indulgence.
“In contrast to our healthy options, consumers are also looking for higher fat, high quality, even restaurant-style products that fill this desire.”
Finally, in a fast-paced world, the demand for products that offer convenience is high.
“That means products not only convenient to consume at traditional meal times like breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Sparke said.
“But also in non-traditional occasions such as in the car on the way to the office, or on the bus.”
In particular, the push for functional dairy products has seen the emergence of highly specialised products - in many cases finely targeted at particular genders or age groups.
Dairy products now also offer many meal replacement options including, for example, beverages containing high-absorption protein for muscle development.
Time to automate
These increasingly sophisticated demands by consumers translate strongly into the need for dairy manufacturers to adopt more sophisticated process control systems.
Rising external costs and strong competitive pressures for a number of years have already stressed to manufacturers the importance of plant automation.
“Automation at all levels reduces the cost of human inputs,” FOSS Pacific process project manager Chris Henderson said.
“Increases in scale of manufacture reduces per unit cost of production, and makes management simpler.”
The more recent trend towards highly sophisticated dairy products, and the resulting complexity on the plant floor, not only emphasises the need for automation, but takes it a step further.
Henderson says there is a greater need for real-time measurement of product compositions and direct on-line monitoring solutions that provide measures of multiple properties of products.
“Dairy manufacturers are demanding automated solutions capable of sensing chemical and physical components within food products, such as sugars, fibers, fats, particle size and colour.”
Henderson says such on-line process solutions can reduce production costs significantly.
The precision of on-line monitoring is also believed to increase profitability for dairy manufacturers through reduced safety margins.
When considering or evaluating the cost-effectiveness of process control solutions, Burkert Contromatic NZ general manager Brian McMath urges dairy manufacturers to look beyond initial investment costs.
“The higher capital costs of increased automation will be quickly recouped by lower installation costs from the use of Fieldbus systems and wireless transmissions compared with traditional hard wiring methods, greater plant control which translates directly to higher quality and less waste, and lower maintenance costs.”
Awareness of the non-financial benefits of process control systems is also growing.
Apart from offering greater quality control, consistency, and valuable production documentation, automated systems enable better traceability through greater recipe control and a richer set of production data.
As the focus on food safety spurs greater regulatory pressure in both Australian and overseas markets, these benefits are of significant benefit to dairy manufacturers.
“Traceability of product is one of the fastest growing areas in dairy processing,” McMath said.
“New legislation in Europe this year requires every drop of milk or juice, or every ounce of food to be fully traceable along the food chain in the common market of the European Union.
“This has resulted in increased demand for complex automation systems and new automation technologies have come to the fore.”
McMath sees process solution technology continuing to develop in response to the new requirement on dairy manufacturers to constantly and rapidly innovate products in accordance with changing consumer tastes.
“Frequent processing changes to produce a wide range of products will see the increased use of smart transmitters,” he said.
“With these devices, set points, operating ranges and calibrations can be changed from a central control facility rather than operator control.”
Breakthroughs in dairy
Australia is also playing a leading role in achieving technological breakthroughs for the dairy industry.
Most recently, research conducted by Food Science Australia with support from the Dairy Ingredients Group of Australia discovered that high-frequency sound waves can change the size and shape of molecules in milk.
Researchers are now investigating whether the same technology can also change milk proteins, which could be significant in giving Australia’s dairy manufacturer a competitive-edge in creating heat-stable and uniquely functional ingredients.
Such local technological breakthroughs will provide some relief for dairy manufacturers operating in an increasingly difficult landscape.