Two Monash University undergraduates are seriously considering a tree change after spending three months on an industry placement at Saputo Dairy Australia in South Gippsland.

Bachelor of Engineering student, Georgia Katsaros, and Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Sciences student, Afra Yu, were part of the Monash Industry Team Initiative (MITI). The program places small multi-disciplinary student teams in industry to solve a company challenge over a 12-week period.

“It was very different to Melbourne, you walk down the street and everyone says hello and asks how you’re going – in the city, people tend to keep to themselves,” Georgia said.

“When I went into this placement, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, where to take engineering or whether to do something else. This has helped me better understand what I can do.”

“I really enjoyed working in dairy, the problem-solving involved was quite different to what we study, plus, I got to combine my love of food with engineering.”

The project Afra and Georgia worked on focused on mapping and quantifying milk solid losses across three key plants within the site. Saputo Process Engineer Christopher Roziel supervised the students during their placement.

“There are losses in every step of the milk journey – milk floor, milk storage tanks, butter plant, UHT plant, separator,” Chris said.

“Georgia and Afra produced a dynamic scrap factor model for each of the three plants. It is comprehensive and outlines the various points of product loss and the most significant areas of concern.”

“This analysis will provide valuable insights for the finance team, operators and engineers establishing a baseline for future strategies devised by the engineering team.”

Chris said a large part of the project was interacting with internal staff day to day, which enabled Georgia and Afra to develop their people skills on a site that could often “have a lot of balls in the air at the same time”.

“During this experience, we delved into the intricate mechanics of dairy product processing, gaining hands-on experience across various processing plants and appreciating their designs with regard to their functions,” Afra said.

“At points, we had to catch a certain volume that’s going down the drain and were working on equipment we had never seen up close or operating on before.”

“Everyone was happy to help us out. We had some people adjust or replace milk pipes to help us collect loss and fit buckets, sometimes in very challenging conditions.”

This was Afra’s first industry experience while completing a degree heavily focused on science and research. Afra said after this placement, she was considering a career in the food industry.

Attracting and retaining skilled people in the dairy sector is crucial to maintaining the development of dairy manufacturers’ engineering and other capabilities. This skill gap has been identified as an impediment to the future productivity and competitiveness of the industry.

Gardiner Foundation, a self-funded philanthropic organisation with an aim to benefit the dairy industry and dairy communities, has taken a proactive approach to overcome this challenge by investing in MITI. Since 2014, Gardiner has supported over 200 students, providing them invaluable exposure to relevant learning opportunities and practical experience in the dairy industry.

The 2024 MITI cohort consisted of seven different teams that worked across Victoria with industry partners such as Fonterra, Bega, Lactalis and Campaspe Shire Council.

For each project, teams made up of students like Georgia and Afra worked to find solutions to improve productivity in logistics, track and visualise temperature and flow data, reduce water consumption and help design a community precinct.

Bachelor of Civil Engineering student Cameron Reynolds undertook a placement with three other students at Campaspe Shire Council to complete a design and feasibility study for the Echuca riverfront.

“This was a great opportunity to develop a range of skills such as project management, working with a multidisciplinary team with strengths in different areas, stakeholder consultation and exposure to the design process,” Cameron said.

“It also opened my eyes to the potential careers that council organisations have to offer. Being able to complete a rural based project provided me with unique insights into project considerations for rural communities.”

For Georgia, it was the tranquillity of country life that became the biggest perk while on placement at Saputo – as well as the cheese.

“I was initially drawn to the idea of working in dairy, I like cheese, so I was excited to see how it’s produced. The site is also in Leongatha so the idea of being close to beaches and working in that kind of environment sounded quite peaceful,” Georgia said.

“It really whet my appetite, I’d love to do something like this again or consider living in a regional area, to see those sunsets, the stars and be closer to nature.”