The sweet spot: Inside Penn State's Berkey Creamery

A lot goes into making the delicious Penn State Creamery's ice cream—milk, cane sugar, nuts, chocolate, fresh fruit and more.

But an unexpected ingredient is essential to the Berkey Creamery’s ability to churn out some 750,000 cones per year: a generous dose of state-of-the-art technology.

Milk may come naturally from cows, but it takes human innovation and technology to transition the milk from the cow, through the processing plant, and into a scoop of yummy "Mint Nittany" ice cream.

On the north side of campus is the University’s Dairy Production Research Center, where 200 bovine beauties start each day at 5 a.m. They are led into fully automated milking stalls for their day’s first milking, followed by a second daily milking at 5 p.m. Each cow produces approximately nine to 10 gallons of milk per day—only half the milk necessary to meet the Creamery’s demand. The other half comes from two family-owned farms in Bellefonte.

The dairy facility has come a long way from its modest beginnings in 1855. Like any modern workplace, the barns are networked with high-speed Internet access. Attached to each cow's back foot is a pedometer and a transponder. The pedometer keeps track of how active a cow is, with a dramatic increase in activity indicating an optimum time for breeding.

The transponder aids in efficient milking. It transmits the cow's identification number to a computer as it enters the milking stall. The computer documents the amount of milk produced at each session, as well as gathers and reports the flow rate of the milk. Once the milk flow decreases to a predetermined rate, the milking machine turns off automatically. By looking at the stats, the herdsmen can tell if the cows are being milked properly.

The software also keeps a detailed history of each cow’s general health and productivity levels, including a record of vaccinations, illnesses, fat and protein content of produced milk, and breeding information. This is important to help already busy staff members. “We have 450 animals in our herd, 200 of those we milk twice a day," said Nadine Houck, Penn State dairy barns' assistant manager. "It would be an impossible task without the technology to keep them healthy and producing.”

Once the milk has been collected, it is sent to the Berkey Creamery processing plant on the first floor of the Food Science Building. Individuals passing by the Creamery windows might notice the towering, stainless steel vessels and the pipes connecting them. These are used to store, pasteurize, refrigerate, and mix the raw milk into tasty ice cream.

Less obvious to passersby, however, is the large networking cable which enables the system’s computers to communicate with and coordinate the facility’s inner workings. In fact, the cables and Ethernet switches at the Creamery are the very same found in a typical campus computer lab and each piece of monitoring equipment in the plant even has its own equivalent of an IP address.

At the heart of all this is the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), which communicates with sensors and switches to ensure that everything works as it should. This device sends signals to energize valves; turns on motors for pumps; and reads data for temperature, fluid flow rates, and pressure for tank levels.

Despite all this technology, the system is not fully automated. Located throughout the plant are computer terminals equipped with “Human-Machine Interface” software. This allows operators to control the entire ice cream making process. Screens provide an overall view of the different plant operations. Operators can control the start and stop functions and monitor levels and temperature readouts for tanks.

“In the highly automated world of ice cream making, we use technology to make our product safe and consistent, but the human touch is still needed,” explained Creamery manager Tom Palchak. “It requires a knowledgeable person to decide when the mixture becomes the finished product.”

So even though technology is playing an increasingly expanding role at the Creamery, there will always be a need for people with a passion for ice cream.

“The reason for the Creamery’s success is people,” said Palchak. “We have great staff and faculty—a first-rate facility, thanks to our alumni and friends—and almost immediate access to new discoveries by Penn State researchers.”

For more stories about IT at Penn State, go to https://current.it.psu.edu/. To learn more about Food Science and the Creamery, visit Stream magazine at stream.it.psu.edu/feature/v1/i3.

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Last Updated April 30, 2013