A leading food producer leans on GEA to help transform the Qatari dairy industry

In 2017, the government of Qatar together with the country’s dairy industry leader Baladna Food Industries WLL undertook one of the most ambitious dairy projects the world has ever seen. In an effort to boost the country’s self-sufficiency in fresh milk and dairy production, they began transforming over two million square meters of desert into a massive dairy farm complete with barns, automatic parlors and production lines. 4,000 cows were flown in from the US and in just 6 months, the state-of-the-art farm was up and running. At the same time, Baladna began work on a huge milk and juice processing/bottling plant – and by mid 2018, the factory was shipping its popular products to retail stores, hotels, restaurants and cafes across Qatar.

Today, Baladna’s vast facility houses 24,000 cows and processes 400,000 liters of milk per day to generate a wide range of products – from fresh and long-life dairy products, to fermented products, cheeses and juice products. Thanks to automated processing and bottling, more than 250 plus different dairy and juice products are produced daily and transported to store shelves within hours. In just a few short years, Baladna not only helped Qatar achieve self-sufficiency in dairy, but is now exporting its popular products to countries throughout the region.

The GEA difference

Tank storage
Tank storage in the process hall.

“From the time the first contract was signed in September 2017, it was clear this was a special project,” says Caroline Siemen, GEA TDS, who was on the ground in Qatar for over 6 months from 2019 to 2021, first as project engineer and later as project manager involved in the installation and commissioning of the milk and juice processing plant. “The scale of the facility is not something you see every day; neither was the ambitious timeline. Baladna had a clear mandate. Because of the embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states at the time, they were in a hurry to get it done.”

Given the high bar they set for the project, Baladna recognized the advantage of an “all in one” solution. Indeed, GEA supplied not only the latest milking equipment for the farm, but also a wide range of equipment needed for the milk and juice plant, including GEA’s own valves, separators, homogenizers, vacuum mixers and aseptic standards (for UHT), as well as the process tools and knowledge to bring it all together – from design through commissioning.

A job for GEA Codex®

Conducting the orchestra of GEA equipment at the Baladna facility today is one of the largest arrays of GEA automation and process control solutions. “The system needs to juggle over 225 different dairy and juice products on a daily basis – everything from fresh milk and UHT milk, to fermented products, juices and desserts. This requires very complex automation systems with numerous functionalities,” explains Eduardo Vega Nájera, Lead Automation Engineer, GEA Spain, who was part of a four-person team that logged more than 12,000 programming and commissioning hours before the final factory extension was completed. The GEA Spain team installed one of the largest applications of GEA Codex® Process Control at the time – a flexible, multipurpose and open access automation framework – as well as GEA Codex® MES, a suite of applications that cover the variety of requirements for manufacturing execution systems.

The tailored solution for Baladna includes GEA Codex® HMI for ease of use and maintenance, GEA Codex® Historian for recording and visualizing all available analog and digital information, and the GEA Codex® Recipe system, which enables the sequencing of phases that can also be configured to run in parallel.  Taken together, these applications allow Baladna operators to control processes, gather and monitor data, and interact with the countless devices (e.g. valves and pumps) in real time. “The project certainly confirmed how powerful GEA Codex® really is – its versatility but also how scalable it is from the smallest project up to an operation of this magnitude,” says Francisco de Borja Gonzalez Molina, Group Manager, GEA Spain. “With GEA Codex® we were able to provide the customer with a complete engineering solution.”

A unique challenge and achievement

Team Baladna
Project team from GEA & Baladna during FAT, 2021. Project Manager Caroline Siemen, staying at the left side. Lead Automation Engineer Eduardo Vega Nájera, blue mask, sitting at the left side.

From initial construction of the dairy farm in 2017 through to completion of the final factory extension in October 2021, a total of seven GEA offices contributed to the end result. “From the beginning, Baladna expected the best – the flexibility to accommodate new ideas and changes, and the ability to execute fast. Being able to provide the customer with such a wide range of solutions and services ‘under one roof’ certainly helped achieve the speedy implementation,” says Siemen. There were challenges along the way. COVID restrictions, including quarantines in Qatar, slowed progress. While installing the extension of the existing plant, Siemen and her colleagues faced the additional challenge of implementing new lines and connections while 24/7 production was already up and running. “We stayed focused on the goal, stuck together as a team and ultimately achieved the desired result. We knew we had to get the best out of each of us, and it was great to see everyone pushing beyond their comfort zone and growing,” says Siemen. 

And we were motivated by the extraordinary nature of the job. This was a project that helped create a national dairy industry from scratch in Qatar – a project that allowed Baladna to make a huge contribution to food security in their country. It’s certainly not every day that you get to be part of something like that.” Caroline Siemen, GEA TDS