Case Study

Cheese producer welcomes automation

Automation helps Ashgrove Cheese increase output, ensure consistency of its products and reduce labor costs.

In 1983, Tasmanian farming brothers Michael and John Bennett founded Ashgrove Farms. Now as Ashgrove Cheese, the family-owned operation produces fresh milk, cheese, butter and cream for the Tasmanian market and has won numerous awards.

The dairy company recently had the opportunity to expand its production output and automate aspects of its production. This would allow greater consistency of product, ability to scale up production, and reduce the physically demanding stirring and cutting processes. In the first step toward this solution, Ashgrove Cheese purchased two large cheese vats, block formers and control system equipment. 

Being experts in cheese-making but not in automation, Ashgrove sought SAGE Automation, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), to help. The challenge for SAGE was to design, test and implement this new equipment within less than three months. 

SAGE developed a recipe management solution that Ashgrove could alter to make any kind of cheese it wanted, allowing greater production flexibility. The design components included a full batch recipe system with batch reporting, automation of the service equipment for the site, and an HMI design with an innovative recipe management system to handle hundreds of unique recipe parameters.

“The project began with a comprehensive, functional description with a flexible recipe sequence that also covered the other functional aspects of the facility, such as the site services and clean-in-place (CIP) sequences,” states Matthew Scavone, a system engineer with SAGE Automation.

In addition, a non-SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) solution (HMI only) had to be implemented due to the facility’s setup, scale and budget. “We chose to use Rockwell Automation technologies, in particular, Allen Bradley PanelView 1000, Allen Bradley ControlLogix PLC, Allen Bradley SLC 500 PLC,” says Scavone. 

The end-to-end solution included: estimation, cost planning and procurement, safety assessment and management, risk mitigation planning and management, environmental assessment, HMI and programmable logic controller (PLC) system design, PLC networking, HMI and system integration, factory acceptance testing (FAT) and site acceptance testing (SAT), commissioning, documentation/user manuals, and ongoing service support. 

“As a family-owned business, we really valued SAGE’s approach,” Ashgrove Cheese General Manager Richard Bennett states. “We had little experience with automation, and so they clearly outlined the project and made allowances for us in the final commissioning stages when we wanted to make changes.” 

Ashgrove Cheese has increased its production output and reliability and enjoys a consistent product thanks to the automated vats, block formers and recipe management system. The facility has increased production by 50,000 L per day, improved production reliability, increased throughput by 350 percent and is experiencing consistency between batches.

The new equipment was installed with no interruption to cheese production. Ashgrove’s new vats have a capacity of 17,000 L of milk with automatic heating, stirring and cutting. The cheese tables perform automatic stirring of the curd once it comes out of the vats. From there, the product is vacuum-pumped to block formers that shape and press the cheese into 20-kg blocks. Previously, a staff member would have to stir and cut by hand. Today, thanks to automation, the staff works with the equipment to produce the cheese, while the machinery does the hard, physical work. 

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