Today’s dairy industry faces several challenges. Plant-based products, like almond and soy milk, are altering the traditional product lineup. The varieties of products are growing rapidly, with the explosion of choices in the yogurt, milk, and ice cream aisles. In addition, the dairy industry finds itself dealing with rapid shifts in consumer preferences requiring greater flexibility in processing and packaging. There are also increasing financial pressures stemming from production capacities, the overall farming economy, and labor shortages.
At the operations level, there are several concerns. Dairy processors need equipment that allow them to meet the highest standards of cleanliness. Pneumatics has a long history in the dairy industry, with applications that vary widely from cheese and butter making to yogurt and drink production. On the processing side, a single piece of dairy mixing and blending equipment could have 40 or more hygienic process valves that help control the flow of raw ingredients. In the packaging area, pneumatic devices like piston valves, manifolds, and cylinders are located on most equipment, providing actuation or motion control. In today’s challenging environment, pneumatics technology offers many critical advantages.
One of the most important aspects in a dairy operation is cleanliness, especially in meeting regulatory standards. Pneumatics offers an advantage in helping to ensure equipment meets the hygienic standards of all the regulatory bodies, like 3-A Sanitary Standards Inc. (3-A SSI) in the U.S. and EHEDG, the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group.
Started largely for dairy certification more than a century ago, 3-A SSI now applies to a variety of different food and beverage processes. The 3-A standard is rigorous, requiring that any seals touching the liquid not harbor any pathogen or bacteria. They must be highly cleanable and able to withstand high temperatures. There can be no grooves or crevices, with a maximum allowable surface roughness of just 0.8 micrometers.
Electrically actuated valves would require a specific design change or to be placed in an enclosure to meet washdown requirements, which adds cost and takes up valuable floorspace, so they are not commonly used in the process area of a food or dairy plant. Pneumatic equipment, on the other hand, is ideal for work in hygienic or rugged environments where frequent washdowns are required. In high-temperature, high-pressure washdown applications, some pneumatic directional control valves feature hygienic design, the ability to withstand aggressive detergents and chemicals, plus a high degree of modularity and flexibility for operational benefits. For dust-off or light washdown uses, for example in secondary packaging or handling applications, some companies like Emerson provide air cylinders that meet FDA, NSF, and ISO 6431, 15552, 21287 standards and feature a clean profile design to minimize potential pocket areas where dirt and contaminates can collect.
Dairy processors need equipment that has a high level of modularity so they can react to rapidly changing consumer preferences. Pneumatics offers quick setup and easy changeout, giving dairy operations the ability to upgrade, fix, replace, or quickly change the parameters of their equipment.
For instance, one machine may be used to fill 6-, 12-, or 18-ounce containers with different products. This requires machine components that can adapt quickly to the different container sizes depending on the product being processed. This could be more relevant for packaging operations, where dairy processors can expect a lot of rapid cycling on the packaging line—for example, as single-serve containers change over to club-size containers.
Being able to adapt efficiently with minimal downtime helps increase overall equipment effectiveness. In some cases, by simply changing the machine’s automation program accordingly via the controller interface, the pneumatic functionality can readjust automatically based on the requirements for the new product run.
Because pneumatics equipment avoids some of the complexity inherent in other power technologies, it’s known for dependable operation with less downtime. It’s also easy to fix, keeping maintenance costs low. It simply needs to have clean air. Built to work in a production environment, pneumatic devices also have a long-life expectancy, completing millions of cycles and withstanding high actuation rates.