Milking digitalization: Spray drying the sustainable way

21 Mar 2023

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Spray drying is a great way of preserving milk and milk-based products as stable, easy-to-use powders that can be stored safely without refrigeration. However, the spray drying process requires a lot of hot air and energy. So here at GEA we have developed a software solution that can help cut overall energy consumption by 5-10%.

Making dairy safe and accessible

Milk is highly nutritious, but while fresh milk and milk-based foods are an important part of a healthy diet for many people, dairy products can quickly spoil at ambient temperatures. Even refrigerated dairy foods and drinks have to be used within a few days. The need for cold chain also adds costs and a logistical burden to transportation over anything but short distances.

One solution is to process milk products into formulations that are stable at ambient temperatures. And one way to achieve this is to remove the water from the milk. For decades industry has used spray drying as an effective method for processing fresh milk and milk-based foods into versatile dairy powders with a long shelf life. These products retain all their nutritional value, and still be stored at room temperature. Additionally they are easy to use either directly as a powder, or by reconstitution in water.

Spray dried dairy products are notably less costly to transport over long distances, not just because there’s no need for refrigeration, but because the bulk of the water has been removed, so there is less volume. So, this can make milk-based nutritional powders more accessible to populations around the world as a potentially life-saving source of nutrition for infants and adults.

Improving energy efficiency

As consumers we take it for granted that our powdered dairy products will taste great and have a long shelf life. But for manufacturers, spray drying is a complex process that must be properly controlled and adjusted for each different recipe and powder formulation so that the exact powder properties are intact. 

Spray drying uses hot air to evaporate water from the liquid product. This is an energy-intensive process, but GEA experts have worked tirelessly over decades to develop sustainable solutions that ensure spray drying plants use less energy. One way of helping to reduce relative energy consumption is to keep the spray dryer working at maximum productivity with a fixed amount of energy input.

GEA’s digital advanced process control solution, GEA OptiPartnerhelps operators run the process more smoothly to reduce the spray dryer’s relative energy consumption. The system continually monitors and fine tunes key working parameters - in real time - to keep the spray drying process stable while running at maximum efficiency. The results is improved efficiency, increased productivity while all the vitals are safe.

GEA OptiPartner process optimization
Gaining 10% productivity immediately

Our customers have demonstrated that installing GEA OptiPartner for the spray dryer can achieve relative energy savings of 5%, by increasing product output using the same amount of energy input. Installing an additional GEA OptiPartner module for the evaporator can further increase energy savings. Evaporators are much more energy efficient than spray dryers in removing water and optimizing evaporator efficiency using GEA OptiPartner means that there will be even less water to remove in the spray dryer. So all in all, installing GEA OptiPartner modules for both the evaporator and the spray dryer can lead to a 10% improvement in process productivity. The benefits may be evident almost immediately. 

Using the GEA OptiPartner module for evaporator in addition to the GEA OptiPartner spray dryer module can further boost productivity, to improve relative energy efficiency by 10%.

Using the GEA OptiPartner module for evaporator in addition to the GEA OptiPartner spray dryer module can further boost productivity, to improve relative energy efficiency by 10%.

Digital tools and automation

The development of process automation and digital tools for both R&D and manufacturing settings has provided many sectors of industry with new ways of increasing productivity, and sustainability, daily. Digital tools can monitor and oversee many aspects of a manufacturing process, from stability and efficiency to inventory management, equipment usage and maintenance scheduling. Integrated digital tools can warn operators in advance when processes may be going awry, so that issues can be identified and fixed before having to stop a production run.  Some tools can even schedule staff training and automate report generation. Importantly, today’s software enables a leaner and greener production by maximizing productivity from valuable ingredients while being environmentally sustainable.    

GEA OptiPartner automates spray dryer optimization, acting like an autopilot that doesn’t just monitor processes, but uses advanced process models to calculate and make real-time adjustments to critical parameters much faster than any person could achieve. Engineers can instead focus their time on other production tasks while still keeping an eye on the user-friendly faceplate that monitors the process.

No capital expenditure

Digital tools are commonly offered as software-as-a-service, or saas, which means there’s no capital expenditure. Rather, customers take out a renewable subscription to the platform.

Minimal disruption

Similarly, GEA OptiPartner is offered as “optimization-as-a-service,” so GEA experts carry out all of the set-up, maintenance and upgrades. In contrast with installing new energy-saving equipment and components into production lines, which can be a lengthy process that requires plant shut down and additional engineering, modern digital tools such as GEA OptiPartner, can be integrated with little disruption. So, production on the spray drying line can continue as normal while the GEA OptiPartner software is being installed and configured. Once integrated into the existing spray dryer, or evaporator control system, there is no further intervention required. GEA OptiPartner will run automatically at start-up, and match the product, process, and recipe specifications.

Digital tools may also commonly be remotely monitored and updated by the vendor. Using OptiPartner, GEA experts can keep track of how the spray drying plant is functioning and provide customers with comprehensive reports. Since we constantly monitor the whole system remotely, we can advise or troubleshoot when needed. 

The GEA OptiPartner is a small but significant way that we at GEA, engineer for a better world. Saving energy little by little goes a long way.


optipartner facility

GEA OptiPartner in an industrial setting

By installing GEA OptiPartner at the milk processing plant in Zeven, Germany, our customer DMK achieved a 4.2% reduction in overall power consumption for its drying line. OptiPartner process optimization has not only significantly reduced energy consumption at the plant but also keeps the spray drying process stable at the highest levels of productivity, so up time has been increased to 98%.
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