Major dairy industry players such as Bega and Saputo have joined forces with Monash University to utilise new drying technologies to extend the life and improve the quality of powdered dairy products.
The Melbourne-based university has created a "smart drying program", in which major manufacturers can work with Monash to test how a product would dry and how long it would last under various conditions at a small scale prior to investing in and rolling out the new product or process at a commercial level.
"We have been developing dairy products for over 100 years, advancements in technology and investing in new ideas ensures that our products and processes are always improving," Bega group research and innovation manager Karren Bathurst said.
"We have a state-of-the-art facility but are always looking at new and emerging technologies that will improve our processes. Our investment in research and development allows us to support universities to build capability within Australia, and we are currently supporting Monash with a study on milk drying. "
In the five years to July 2016, dairy exports from Australia to China increased by 46 per cent, according to Dairy Australia.
In the past year demand from China has slowed, suggesting that the market is maturing and causing analysts to suggest manufacturers target other south-east Asian markets.
Spray drying has been commonly used by the sector for decades to make popular products such as powdered infant formula, but Monash's use of a small-scale drying machine, X-ray diffraction and infra-red technology allows it to not only significantly cut the cost of trialling the spray drying of new products, but also to monitor fundamental changes in the properties of the powdered products during storage, caused by things such as heat or moisture.
Monash has also developed modelling algorithms to let it test how the materials in a powder will react in different conditions.
Professor Cordelia Selomulya, who has led the project at Monash, said a more targeted approach to spray drying helped manufacturers produce higher-quality powders, as well as leading to energy savings.
"We're the only university in Australia doing this, but we have international partners in China, the US and France. Research is always collaborative," she said.
"When working with a completely new formulation which has never existed in a powder form, we can use our single-dropper dryer to see if you can dry the material, what happens when it's dry and what conditions need to be applied."
The industry partnerships have also extended outside of the dairy industry, with other companies and organisations such as Treasury Wine Estates, Simplot, the CSIRO and Meat and Livestock Australia also working with Monash.
Treasury Wine Estates is experimenting with a grape-derived antioxidant, while Singaporean-based business Nutrition Innovation has supported a graduate research industry partnership position at Monash in exchange for access to the university's resources to help develop a powdered protein, which is sweet (thanks to sugar cane juice), and can be added to foods and drinks.
Nutrition Innovation chief executive Matthew Godfrey said protein was usually bitter in taste, so food manufacturers were forced to also add sugar to their products, but its powdered protein had less sugar and was rich in antioxidants.
"There hasn't been a product like this before and it's on the cutting edge of food innovation," he said.