Industry 4.0: digitalization in the dairy industry

Industry machine
© A+F

Within the food sector, the dairy industry plays a leading role when it comes to IT-based process management. Despite their complexity, the already extremely automated processes in this industry still don’t represent real “digitalization” – but the potential is there.

Digitalization is increasingly shaping Industry 4.0 in the dairy industry. However, its effects are not very easy to see, because it’s about more than factory or warehouse automation, it’s about tapping large amounts of data and processing it to generate meaningful statements for milk production.

Example of buttermilk: production bottleneck in dairies

Let’s take a seasonal product such as buttermilk as an example. Sales peak whenever it’s hot. Production, packaging, and logistics are booming, and sometimes during the summer months, dairies can’t keep up with production. Up to now, retail and dairy businesses have relied on experience from previous years and have ordered and produced buttermilk ahead of time. Even so, it’s not possible to predict with great precision when the buttermilk business will begin to boom – with the result that sales potential sometimes goes unused.

Potential of digitalization for the entire chain

Empty buttermilk shelves in stores can be prevented by bringing together various information flows. Modern weather forecasts are now so reliable – particularly in defined regions – that their predictions can be used with confidence as the basis for sales planning. Retail IT teams would just need the right algorithm to start the order and production chain in advance – for example, that business number 148 needs at least X packs of natural buttermilk and Y packs of flavored buttermilk on a given day. The aggregation of individual sales forecasts could be used to generate orders for milk production and logistics, with lead time is calculated for the entire chain. And this doesn’t end at the dairy; it also extends to upstream suppliers who deliver ingredients or packaging material. The result is a process that virtually triggers and controls itself and, in principle, only requires people as consumers.

Increasing efficiency in the dairy industry today

We are still a long way from this reality, and some people are even afraid of it. Maybe rightly to some extent – but in that case, we would not be talking about something as trivial as buttermilk. Nonetheless, Industry 4.0 and digitalization are already opening up enormous benefits for the dairy industry. For instance, with the appropriate sensor technology, data mining can be used to filter out indicators for certain operating parameters and enable predictive maintenance – in this case, the replacement of parts early enough to prevent unplanned plant downtimes. This in turn increases the availability of production or packaging lines and increases the overall efficiency of a company.

Digitalization and Industry 4.0 will certainly be among the dominant themes of upcoming trade fairs, including drinktec. It will be interesting to see what the sharpest minds in the supply industry come up with to make milk production ever more efficient and safe.

Roland Sossna

The trained dairy expert, agricultural engineer and freelance journalist Roland Sossna is part of the editorial staff of the trade magazine molkerei-industrie (dairy industry) and IDM International Dairy Magazine. He regularly presents outstanding innovations from the dairy industry on the blog.