The decision to set up spray drying facilities in Waikato is paying off, says FoodWaikato's outgoing chief executive Stuart Gordon.
FoodWaikato operations manager Dave Shute says the plant had been running at full capacity all year around was expected to continue doing so. The spray dryer, upgraded at a cost of $5.7 million a year ago, switched to mixing and drying formulated dairy cow, goat and sheep milk products after the fresh milk stopped flowing.
FoodWaikato is a subsidiary of the Hamilton City Council owned Waikato Innovation Park.
Shute says the upgrade meant the Waikato Innovation Park spray dryer probably had the highest utilisation rate of any spray drying facility in New Zealand.
It is being used to make high value powder for dairy companies for use in diverse value added products. It is also being used to powder non-dairy products such as avocados. Much of the work it is engaged in is in the research and development space.
The dryer produces half a tonne of high value powder per hour which sell for between $10,000 and $100,000 per tonne, depending on the product.
"We were always optimistic that the recent upgrade would attract more business however we have been overwhelmed by the level of enquiry," Shute says.
"Our greatest challenge currently is juggling the schedule to accommodate as many clients as possible.
"The plant processes fresh milk from five different suppliers. At the times fresh milk is not being processed, the plant mixes formulated product and spray dries into infant formula base. It also uses unutilised days for one-off product development trials."
The first stage of the plant, a $12.8m spray dryer facility, was funded by the government and Innovation Waikato Ltd and was opened in May, 2012. It is available for the use of any organisation.
Since then upgrades to the facility enable the originally liquid-to-powder plant to now wet blend dairy products, vitamins, minerals, oils, and other ingredients into high value dry powders.
"The most recent upgrade, beginning in June 2014, was largely funded by a $3m equity injection from Callaghan Innovation."
Callaghan Innovation is a government agency that helps businesses succeed through technology and research and development.
"It allows specialty ingredients such as vitamins, minerals and oils to be 'wet blended' with milk or other dry powders prior to being spray dried to powder in the facility," Shute says.
Waikato Innovation Park's chief executive Stuart Gordon says the dryer had helped facilitate the export growth of many of its clients.
Gordon says expanding the facility was all about helping more companies take their innovations to new export markets.
"It's all about growing business sectors in New Zealand to increase the value of our exports," Gordon says.
"We want businesses to arrive with an idea, take it through to commercialisation with FoodWaikato, and once they're up and running, head off to build their own spray dryer as the Dairy Goat Cooperative did.
"We look at that as a three to five year developmental cycle. If customers are here for more than five years we'd be questioning whether we're doing the right thing with them."
Gordon says there was no other open access facility of its kind in Australasia where companies could manufacture smaller runs of their first commercial batch of a new product.
"The only option for them is to build their own plant, which is cost-prohibitive for most companies – especially new market entrants. FoodWaikato offers a unique solution to eliminate this major innovation barrier."
FoodWaikato is also the Waikato component of the Government-sponsored New Zealand Food Innovation Network.
More information about Waikato Innovation Park can be found at www.innovationwaikato.co.nz