GEA OptiPartner customer story

GEA digital optimization secures significant performance improvement in spray dryer plant at Michigan Milk Producers Association

Founded in 1916, Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA) is a dairy farmer-owned cooperative with four processing plants in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Ovid, Michigan site operates a GEA COMPACT DRYER with integrated fluid bed for milk production. Since 2021, the spray dryer has been operating at maximum efficiency and productivity, while significantly improving energy efficiency, following installation of GEA OptiPartner advanced process control system.

A high turnover of spray dryer operators at the plant had posed significant working challenges, with the process of training new operators to a sufficient experienced level lasting several months. Variability in operator expertise was causing serious fluctuations in productivity and quality, a situation at odds with management's goal for increased plant efficiency in response to growing demand. At the same time, relying solely on manual control methods had proven to have inconsistent results.

For many businesses the departure of experienced personnel translates to a loss of specific knowledge and highlights the need for continuous and focused operator training to maintain optimum knowledge and skill level. The MMPA plant had been actively seeking solutions that would address these challenges and ultimately enhance operational efficiency. Key goals were to increase productivity and empower operators with more time to focus on critical plant functions, which would also then impact positively on overall performance.

Finding the right advanced process control platform

Recognizing the need for a modern digital solution, MMPA reviewed potential options on the market and selected the advanced process control system, GEA OptiPartner. GEA has been focused on developing solutions to meet just the types of challenges experienced by MMPA. The OptiPartner platform optimizes the spray dryer operation by automatically adjusting setpoints in real time, which can improve process stability and increase uptime, and as a result improve operational efficiency. 

Importantly, OptiPartner relieves operators of the burden of having to make constant adjustment to accommodate process disturbances, and this minimizes the potential for human error.

GEA OptiPartner gives operators a comprehensive overview of spray dryer function

GEA OptiPartner gives operators a comprehensive overview of spray dryer function

“In our search for an advanced control technology for our dryers, there were many different suppliers, but we chose GEA OptiPartner because we believed GEA has the necessary process know-how to understand and implement the right solution efficiently and effectively".

Gasper Calandrino

director of engineering, MMPA

Just like an autopilot in the aviation industry, GEA OptiPartner takes control of the spray dryer during production. The software uses a mathematical model of the process to analyze and calculate the best possible running conditions, and constantly adjust the setpoints to ensure optimal production. This means that “the best operator” is always in charge, day and night.  

The technology underpinning the GEA OptiPartner solution has been known for several decades and different suppliers have introduced solutions to the market. However, unlike general purpose systems offered by vendors that may have limited expertise in the dairy industry, OptiPartner is founded on decades of GEA know-how in dairy processes, resulting in a unique solution that is tailored for spray dryers and evaporators.  

GEA OptiPartner uses a combination of process and equipment know-how, and data from the plant, to design a robust dryer model that is fast to set up and easy to maintain as new product recipes are added, or equipment configuration and customer priorities change. GEA optimization specialists have extensive expertise in dairy spray drying and process control, so they really understand each customer’s process and products. 

“After the implementation back in 2021, the results were significant both in product rate, and specific energy consumption, but also a huge increase in moisture rate”.

Gasper Calandrino

director of engineering, MMPA

Gasper Calandrino, director of engineering, MMPA

Gasper Calandrino, director of engineering, MMPA

Pushing constraints for optimal performance

GEA combines the OptiPartner control software and analysis tools with a performance care program, provided as a subscription service, for long-term performance optimization.  As part of the performance care service an assigned GEA digital optimization specialist works with the customer to explore the concept of optimal performance by pushing the constraints of the equipment, and thereby defining the operation windows for each specific production line. The GEA process specialist then assists in defining constraints and identifying risks, so that an optimized control strategy that still secures product quality can be defined.

“Our job starts indeed after the commissioning. A dedicated GEA process specialist is assigned to the project in its entire lifecycle and joins our discussions with the site manager on what are the best constraints to unlock the process potentials”. Kristina Uhd, Digital Optimization Specialist, GEA

For MMPA, implementation of OptiPartner resulted in immediate gain in productivity, higher moisture load, and improved energy efficiency, which have been fully maintained.

OptiPartner performance chart

Improving key performance indicators

GEA OptiPartner ensures that the customer is running at optimal conditions 24/7 and taps into unused potential for achieving process improvements that, for MMPA, might not have been possible using manual optimization and control. These optimal conditions lead to improvements in the primary KPIs of productivity, process stability, and energy consumption. Long-term analysis of process performance is an important part of the partnership between GEA and MMPA. 

KPI measures are shared and discussed with production management to consider continuous improvement actions. Through the performance care program, MMPA has achieved continuous improvements on all key performance indicators (KPIs), since implementation of the OptiPartner platform in 2021.

“In fact, I have our utility companies looking at the savings. Savings have been significant enough that the utility company is looking over the last year, and are considering giving us a rebate on our energy bills”.

Gasper Calandrino

director of engineering, MMPA.

Digital connectivity enables efficient services to MMPA site

GEA in addition connects digitally to the OptiPartner solution on site, meaning that the MMPA plant is effectively always connected to in depth GEA knowledge. Customers like MMPA can then have confidence in precisely tailored software and support that combines GEA expertise with actual performance data, and operational feedback from the plant. 

Digital connection to OptiPartner sites also supports cost efficient and timely updates, and accelerates activities such as troubleshooting. For MMPA, OptiPartner has transformed the troubleshooting and decision making process, by reducing reliance on assessing symptoms, and guesswork, and instead applying thorough, relevant, and timely data analysis. The secure digital connection is particularly important when a deep dive to historic data is needed to analyze a process event. For MMPA the shift to data-driven decision making has made the resolution of issues much faster.

"In the absence of data, analysis delays and reliance on symptoms left us unable to fix the cause, allowing problems to vanish unresolved". Gasper Calandrino, director of engineering, MMPA

As a direct result of success using OptiPartner to optimize its spray dryer operation, MMPA is now considering extending the contract with GEA to also include OptiPartner modules for their evaporators. 


“The big gain for us is that we've got a resource always engaged with the system and process performance”.

Gasper Calandrino

director of engineering, MMPA.

Kristina Uhd, GEA digital optimization specialist, and GEA colleagues work closely with MMPA

Fact Box

GEA OptiPartner and Performance Care

GEA OptiPartner and the performance care package are offered through a subscription model, which is perhaps unusual, but has huge benefits. There is minimal capital expenditure for the customer, and the responsibility then also lies with GEA to ensure OptiPartner runs flawlessly and meets the customer’s needs and expectations. 
This alternative to traditional capex business models removes customers financial barriers to process optimization and instead introduces a win-win cooperation with a common goal, financial benefits for both parties and a durable, sustainable partnership.

GEA OptiPartner can be installed for GEA and non-GEA process units running any conventional control system. 

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