THE digital age might be dawning slowly on some WA dairy farms but at the other end of the industry a milk processor is about to enter a second generation virtual world.
The digital change started at Brownes, WA's oldest dairy processor, five years ago and it has since led the way in adopting and adapting new technology.
For the past five years Brownes has been successfully running in a virtual world.
Information technology manager Brad Flintoff said it was the first company in WA, and possibly in Australia, to digitise all of its processes and use what is known in IT terms as VBlocks off-site.
VBlocks are pre-configured bundles of computer hardware, networking and storage in a dedicated data centre run and maintained by somebody else.
There are no computers on or under desks in Brownes' Balcatta factory and administration offices, or its Brunswick Junction plant.
Employees have thin screens and keyboards on their desks and a myriad of small terminals throughout the plant and offices relay information to and from the data centre's computers.
From raw milk delivery, through processing of the various Brownes' products, contract processing for clients, packaging, warehousing, dispatch, quality auditing, production estimating, product planning, supplies ordering, purchasing, invoicing and accounts, the operations are managed virtually.
The plant is controlled by staff using iPads or phones to log onto their virtual desktop anywhere in the factory, even off-site using the internet if required.
"In the first three months of getting the system up and running we must have had 20 of the biggest companies come through to see what we were doing," Mr Flintoff said.
"For us it's worked very well, we've been running the VBlock for almost five years and we haven't had a single second of unplanned outage." Reliability is one of the attractions of the virtual world.
"If the computers are down we can't do anything, can't do receivals, can't do processing, can't do packaging, which makes it extremely critical and is why we put investment into this area.
"If we can't run milk through the factory for some reason, whether its mechanical or an IT issue, it only takes a few hours and we have tankers lined up.
"The cows keep giving milk so it keeps coming, you have to be able to do something with it."
Other advantages have been simplified software upgrades pre-tested at the data centre and no laptop or desktop computer replacements.
It has also enabled Brownes to run with only four IT staff.
Brownes was in a unique position to enter the virtual world, Mr Flintoff said.
Its computer system was obsolete and integrated into the larger New Zealand-focused Fonterra IT system when Archer Capital took over, he said.
An entirely new stand-alone Brownes system had to be implemented, so the decision was made to use the very latest technology then available.
The VBlock system was mated to the existing automated production plants' supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, but the way the multitude of data from the factory was processed and analysed has enabled efficiency improvements to be made.
For example, when a2 milk was processed later in the day, as happened previously, the plant had to shut down while milk lines were thoroughly washed to remove traces of other milk.
Mr Flintoff said rescheduling a2 milk to the start of the day had resulted in a considerable saving in water, cleaning chemicals and plant shut-down time because it removed the requirement for an extra clean.
"On the software side we've put in a lot of new technology around our planning and forecasting, predicting demand volumes for particular products that might be influenced by particular events or times of year - more cream sold at Christmas time for example.
"We can plan how much and what type of product we need to make in advance and that feeds straight into the system looking at how much milk we need for orders based on past performance.
"We are taking less milk this year than what they did last year by a fair amount.
"It's all about doing more with less."
The next step, likely to be implemented in the next 12 months, will be to move to the next generation, "a more cloud-based model", which will make even better use of the SCADA data.
The big decision will be whether Brownes buys or leases upgraded VBlocks for purely its own use or whether it buys or leases capacity on VBlocks it shares with other users.
"The new system is more about getting into the SCADA system and using some of the data that is collected but is not fully utilised at this stage," Mr Flintoff said.
"We will look at refining reporting systems in the factory performance reports."
Dairy farming may still largely be a fairly traditional rural industry, but processing is the pointy end when it comes to technology.