By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, WAVERLY, COKATO, MN No one has to say “cheese” to get Cokato’s Advanced Process Technology (APT) employees to smile these days.
After years of waiting, the food equipment company was recently awarded two patents on its state-of-the-art cheese-making vat.
“We’re pretty excited,” said Lester Prairie resident Gary Starkson, APT’s vice president of technical services.
Inventors include Starkson, along with company president Craig Campbell of Waverly and senior mechanical engineer Paul Bokelmann of Fond Du Lac, WI.
The first patent, awarded in late August, is for a horizontal cheese vat with a single agitator shaft that includes a unique arrangement of agitator panels.
“It’s improved the yield, and it’s more efficient,” Starkson said. “Typically, 100 pounds of milk will give you 10 pounds of cheese. With this, we’ve been getting 10.01, or 10.02 pounds.”
Even this seemingly small increase can make a big difference when dealing with high volumes.
Balanced agitator panels provide uniform wear on parts, and they also allow the curds to be cut into evenly sized pieces.
Increased efficiency is important, because it means higher profits for creameries and, ultimately, for farmers, according to Starkson.
The second patent was awarded in early September for an invention that improves cleaning capabilities in a cheese vat.
“A lot of the equipment that’s out there today is very difficult to clean,” Starkson said. “Our design does that really well.”
During cleaning cycles, sanitizing fluid passes through a fluid-accessible cleaning/sanitizing chamber.
“When your inspector comes every six months, the seal is completely clean,” Starkson said. “Our philosophy is, sanitation is more important than production.”
A flavorful journey
APT developed its two recent improvements in 2004, and started the lawyer-involved patent process in spring of 2005. For the past few years, the company has been selling the equipment as “patent-pending” to plants throughout the US and Canada.
“It was a long journey, but we finally got the patent,” Starkson said. “Now that we have it patented, we have a hold on the design for a long period of time.”
The initial investment for the innovations was quite large, but with the ability to sell to numerous cheese plants, it was well worth it, Starkson said.
“About every 20 years, they need new equipment,” he said. Cheese-making plants don’t buy APT’s equipment frequently, but when they do, it is a large capital cost.
Time to make cheese
APT’s vats make all varieties of cheese, and there is a unique method for each type, according to Starkson.
“It’s like making different kinds of bread,” Starkson explained.
Cheddar cheese, for example, takes about two hours and 15 minutes from the time the milk is poured into the vat until the curds are ready to be salted.
In the vat, milk is combined with enzymes, which helps the cheese develop a thicker consistency. The process is similar to the way a person’s stomach handles milk.
“When you feed babies milk and they spit up, you can see that there are more solids,” Starkson said. “Their stomachs produce an enzyme that coagulates the milk and makes it thick.”
Both of Starkson’s grandfathers were dairy farmers, and his father was a cheese maker.
“The dairy industry is a very close-knit group, and it’s very fun to be involved in it,” Starkson said. “This area is truly the heart and soul of the cheese making equipment industry.”
In addition to equipment for cheese plants, APT also designs and manufactures products for other segments of the food industry.
“It’s strictly equipment that’s made out of stainless steel,” Starkson said.
APT was established in 2000, and is principally owned by Campbell and Melvin Briggs of Lester Prairie. The company employs 60 people at its Cokato and Nebraska offices.
“It has been exciting to see the changes and growth over the past 10 years at APT,” Briggs noted.
“We have a lot of great people,” Starkson added. “Our manufacturing shop is very talented.”
To learn more about APT, go to www.apt-inc.com.