Here´s to milk! 

The export of Valio, the biggest dairy company in Finland, is equivalent to 26 per cent of Finnish food export. Investing in R&D, the company´s strategy is based on global consumer trends – responsibility, social media, individualism, digitalisation, climate change and ageing.

Valio ranks among the most valuable brands in Finland. Products made of pure Finnish milk reflect, at the same time, traditions as well as technological, healthy and responsible innovations like lactose-free Valio Eila® technology, Valio Gefilus® products containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG lactic acid bacterium, Valio ValSa® products with less sodium, snacks with less sugar, as well as organic cheese and quark. 

Owned by dairy cooperatives, Valio Group net sales stood at EUR 1,6 billion in 2016. Valio is seeking growth through international expansion into new consumer markets and by developing new value-added products. Last year Valio launched 126 new products and invested EUR 26,5 million for research, product development and quality assurance. The company holds 351 patents.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary, Valio´s research laboratory has been using LabVantage laboratory information management system (LIMS), provided by Software Point, already for over 10 years.

Mifu and mastitis

Valio is performing laboratory research for internal customers – product development and manufacture – and for dairy farmers. 

Last year the milk producers delivered altogether 1,9 billion litres of milk to Valio. Valio´s regional laboratories are superintending the consistency and quality of the milk arriving from the farms. Antibiotic tests are taken from each milk load arriving at a Valio production facility, and assays of bacterium, cell and consistency are taken from each milk route at least once a week. With its analysis operations Valio ensures that its products are safe, fulfilling the requirements, and traceable: the milk used for the products can be traced all the way to the farm. 

The regional laboratories are located next to the two biggest production facilities – measured by the amounts of milk received – in Seinäjoki and Lapinlahti. The altogether 60 experts of the regional laboratories are performing 30,000 monthly quality assurance analyses for Valio production. 

”We are inspecting the consistency and microbiological quality of the end products: for example, of cheese, whey and milk powders, butter and spreads, cottage cheese, quark, and friable cooking crumb Mifu. Moreover, we are analyzing environmental and cleanliness samples from our production facilities”, describes Timo Latomäki, Group Manager at Regional Laboratories.

In addition, the regional laboratory in Seinäjoki conducts sample analyses that the farmers need for their dairy cattle´s health care, milk quality control, and planning the feed.

”For the milk producers, the mastitis and feed sample analysis are the most numerous. The feed analysis result indicates how well the silage has succeeded: its consistency and preservation quality from the cow feeding viewpoint.”

”Furthermore, we offer a kind of maternity clinic for cows: we do gestation tests from milk samples. To be as productive as possible, a cow should calve annually. From milk it is possible to discover the gestation rapidly.”

”We have also centralized Valio´s production facilities´ pathogen analytics – for example analysis of salmonella and listeria – into the Lapinlahti regional laboratory. It is not necessary to set up readiness for them into every production facility.”

Valio´s R&D laboratory´s Research Analytics team in Helsinki is supporting product development.

”Our Research Analytics team examines more time-consuming special analyses, about 25,000 annually”, Research Scientist Milla Meriluoto relates.

”We are also in continuous interaction with the production facilities: their staff can call us and ask for advice related to chemistry and microbiology, and we also arrange trainings. In addition, we inspect preservability and problem-solving samples, as well as environmental samples from Valio´s production facilities.”

Millions of analyses 

Valio is using LabVantage Enterprise laboratory information management system (LIMS) in production, in the regional laboratories, and in R&D. 

”As the Seinäjoki regional laboratory examines 250,000 samples from milk producers yearly, and we typically make 5-10 analyses of each sample, we report already millions of analyses through the LIMS system”, Timo Latomäki exemplifies. Additionally, the Lapinlahti and Seinäjoki regional laboratories report 450,000 annual analysis results to Valio manufacturing. 

Valio built up its first LabVantage LIMS in the beginning of the 2000´s for the regional laboratories´ milk farmer services. Along with Timo Latomäki, the project group consisted of two specialists from both regional laboratories and from R&D, as well as project managers from Valio IT and Software Point. 

Our goal was to get the analysis reports to the farmers as fast as possible.

In the beginning, R&D and the regional laboratories´ farmer service had separate information management systems. Later on, R&D´s LIMS was extended to the manufacture´s needs. The regional laboratories´ manufacture service needed a flexible system in which different systems can communicate, and for reporting to the factories.

In 2011, the farmer service´s LabVantage LIMS was integrated into R&D´s and manufacture´s LIMS, and this common whole was named ValioLIMS. 

”We wanted our LIMS to be our laboratory ERP, including also other important tasks like quality control charts, deviation reports, customer report processing, rosters, device register, maintenance documents, as well as interfaces from analyzers and scales.”

”In the production facilities, samples are registered in the MMC production system and samples are labelled with MMC bar codes, and this information is sent to LIMS with the same tag. The quality plan created in the LIMS informs which analyses must be taken from the sample, so that it is not necessary to recall it case by case amidst enormous amount of samples. Now it goes always correctly.”

The system is further developed continuously. The LIMS development team led by Meriluoto assembles every or every other month. 

”We are pondering how to make LIMS even more user-friendly, and which new functionalities to include. We receive proposals for improvement from the daily work. They are prioritized, scheduled, and the most urgent ones are compiled into development packages for Software Point to implement. In acute situations we contact directly our project manager at Software Point.”

”There are always challenges when a Windows or an operating system change is going on in Valio; the changes must be tested also together with LIMS. However, LabVantage LIMS is easier as it is browser-based. Furthermore, interfaces are interesting: some have succeeded pretty nicely while some others may need more effort”, Latomäki states.

Feedback is rewarding

According to Timo Latomäki and Milla Meriluoto, the biggest benefits of LabVantage information management system are traceability, fast reporting, diminishing registering, and most of all, better customer service. 

With LabVantage LIMS results can be reported as one analysis gets ready, and it is not necessary to wait for all of them. ”For example, from a milk powder sample a huge amount of consistency and microbe assays are done. A notice of a deviating result transfers directly from LIMS to MMC which alarms the right person immediately.”

Moreover, the pre-entry feature speeds up work. ”Mastitis was inspected from 120,000 samples last year. Based on the producer number, LIMS searches all basic information, and we only need to add further details like sampling day and alternative analysis.” 

The pre-entry feature is used also by R&D, for example by developers. They can register the data related to the samples directly to LIMS, choose which analyses should be done, when the results are needed, and to whose email the results will be sent. In the end of the pre-entry, the sample receives a dispatch note number. Then the specialist brings the tagged samples to the Research Analytics team. 

”The next big change in ValioLIMS further development might be if our customers could register their samples directly into LIMS in the web. The optimal way for a milk farm is in our thinking cap. The farms already have mobile services but all producers don´t yet have IT in use, and the cowhouse conditions are also different. It would be desirable to cut down registering work, and it should be easy for the milk producer.” 

During the last five years all Valio laboratories serving the primary production have been renewed, their operations automated, and the information system adapted accordingly. Customer satisfaction shows among the milk producers and consumers alike: Valio Facebook account has whopping 238 500 followers, and Twitter account over 18 400. 

”Our service level is now higher than ever before – even the milk producers´ Facebook group has given us feedback that now this comes up roses!” Group Manager Timo Latomäki smiles.

More information:    Valio
                           Software Point
Photos:                      Valio