“Dairy Industry 4.0”: the future is now

Mengniu joins hands with Siemens to become the first to achieve information management of quality control in China’s dairy industry

“Dairy Industry 4.0”: the future is now

Mengniu joins hands with Siemens to become the first to achieve information management of quality control in China’s dairy industry

Safeguarding food safety

In a clean and bright quality control lab of Mengniu Group, Zhang Huiping wearing a white lab coat and a sterile cap was meticulously checking various test instruments and samples. Mengniu is located in the southern suburb of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

“At Mengniu, quality control has undergone radical changes. The job has become easier while the efficiency and accuracy have increased in leaps and bounds,” said Zhang, with a smile. “For example, in the past, test data were all transcribed manually, which resulted in a lot of overtime work. It was very tiring for the hands and eyes. Now this can be done with just a click.”

The dairy giant is experiencing a significant digital transformation. It is gradually building intelligent and efficient digital factories, leading the new trend of “Dairy Industry 4.0”.

Mengniu was founded in Hohhot in 1999, with a dilapidated rented room of 53m2 as its office space. The then small workshop has now emerged as a leader in China’s dairy industry.

With the rapid development of the company, the growing productions and strict quality standards have put heavy pressures on the quality inspectors. Mengniu has long been aware that there is an urgent need to upgrade the traditional manual quality control to a digitized system. It is within this context that Mengniu’s cooperation with Siemens got on the fast track.

Data: a new ingredient of milk

Quality inspector scans the barcode of a bottle of raw milk

In 2013, Mengniu began to implement Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) via Siemens’ Simatic IT Unilab platform. As of 2015, the system had fully gone live, covering the company’s 34 labs at production factories and two R&D-oriented central labs.

From raw material warehousing and processing to delivery and circulation, a bag of milk goes through 35 steps involving 105 test items before reaching consumers. In this process, the “sharp-sighted” LIMS verifies the identity of each raw material or semi-finished or finished product and stores the complete identity information.

In a typical test in the past, a quality inspector needed to transcribe the test results on an original record paper, calculate them with formulas and artificially determine if the samples are qualified. In addition, massive data were entered and summarized manually. At present, test instruments are highly integrated with LIMS. After the quality inspector completes a test, the data is automatically collected and transmitted to the LIMS for automatic calculation and determination in compliance with national standards. This can not only reduce the workload of staff but also avoid errors caused by human factors, thus making quality control more scientific, accurate and efficient.

Thanks to the LIMS, Mengniu has achieved quality data traceability across the industrial chain. For each batch of products, any quality problem can be traced to any step of production such as raw milk receipt, warehousing, pre-processing, filling, packaging or storage. Such intelligent full supply chain management ensures that each finished product can be thoroughly tempered like a special force to achieve stable and reliable quality.

With the LIMS, Mengniu has realized digital documentation and calculation of about 1,400 quality test methods, with more than 90% of test data collected and uploaded automatically. This enables test time savings of 10%-25%. Moreover, the LIMS has greatly streamlined the quality control process, thereby improving the efficiency by more than 15%.

Intelligent and automated operation

Siemens’ Totally Integrated Automation solutions are applied in production lines of Mengniu factories.

A digital factory is empowered by not only a “smart brain” like software systems but also “strong muscles and bones” like intelligent hardware. At Mengniu, Siemens’ Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) solutions have made a great contribution to stable operation of the production lines.

In pre-processing, Siemens’ programmable logic controller (PLC) precisely regulates such parameters as fluid temperature and pressure by controlling pump valve and dairy liquid flow. In addition, Siemens’ flowmeters are widely used in such equipment as filling machines, sterilization machines and boiler rooms for measurement of pure and soft water flow. On the filling production line, precise positioning of filling boxes, liquid flow and filling capacity are controlled by Siemens’ PLCs and driven by 1LG0 motors. An operator can monitor the system’s operating parameters and give orders through Siemens’ HMI.

Boxes of packaged products are carried with a conveyor belt to a robot palletizer. Siemens’ PLC controls conveying speed and steering, and sends task signals to the robot palletizer in a timely manner to ensure that cargos can be neatly and efficiently stacked and quickly transferred into the warehouse.

Mengniu’s stereoscopic warehouse has truly achieved fully automated logistics. Through intelligent control with Siemens’ PLC, the flexible stackers can accurately store goods in the specified location and fetch goods therefrom. On the track next to the warehouse, the delivery wagons operate in an orderly manner, keeping a safe distance from each other to avoid “rear-end collision” or “crashing”. The Profibus is used for communication between various equipment. Meanwhile, with powerful data management functions, Simatic WinCC archives large amounts of operation data of the warehouse.

Road to “Dairy Industry 4.0”

Pre-processing section of a production line at Mengniu’s factory

The rosy vision of “Industrie 4.0” has a profound impact on all sectors. In the dairy industry, Mengniu is the trendsetter. It is the first company to put forward the concept of “Dairy Industry 4.0”.

Mengniu hopes that a factory of the future can achieve connectivity among the five major systems – Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), ERP, Manufacturing Execution System (MES), production automation and logistics automation. Only in this way can the entire industrial chain be optimized, and this is the basis to reach the goal of “Dairy Industry 4.0”.

A factory of the future enables dialogue among the major systems, self-learning of the management systems at different levels, rational arrangement of the processes, flexible production of customized products and predictive diagnosis of the production equipment, as well as pre-warning of the quality control system during the production process.

Just imagine a scenario of the future. When a Mengniu factory receives an order for a customized product, the ERP system will automatically send the customer’s needs to the R&D department and ask the relevant departments to get ready. The R&D department will pass on the R&D results and production requirements to the production department via the MES. The MES will provide a summary of information of special materials required to the suppliers. Then the MES will release a production order and bring the production lines into play. Highly coordinated and automated field devices support flexible production through standardized control. Massive data flows between the systems at all levels, which maximizes the resource efficiency and ensures product quality.

Batches of customized dairy products will reach the consumer via an efficient logistics system. Prior to this, the consumer can monitor online how the order progresses and when he can receive the product.

The dream of such a scenario may come true soon. On the road to digital factory of the future, Mengniu is moving forward hand in hand with partners like Siemens.