New technology helps grant dairy pioneer’s final wish


Thanks to technology and a team effort a Kiwi dairy pioneer has been granted his one wish for his twilight years — the chance to see what his life's work has led to in a modern processing plant.

Imagine if someone from the past came back for a visit – If Kate Sheppard stopped by and found out that not only do women still have the vote but that a new mum is the Prime Minister of New Zealand while her partner is a stay at home dad, or if Alexander Graham Bell was able to see that his ground-breaking telephone is now a tiny handheld device used for so much more than just talking. 

The way we live now would blow the minds of those who paved the way for us. Obviously figures from the past won’t be coming back for a flat white any time soon, but for 86-year-old dairy pioneer Don King, today’s technology has allowed him to get a rare glimpse of how far we have come since his heyday.

Don started working for the New Zealand Dairy Institute in Palmerston North (now Fonterra Research and Development Centre) in the 1950s. 

During his career he pioneered many dairy innovations, including a lot of the foundations and processes used in the production of Fonterra’s protein products, many of which are still used today. He was also instrumental in the development of mechanised cheese making and spray drying.

He was also ahead of his time when it came to sharing his passion with others, playing an active role in recruiting graduate engineers into the industry.

Today Don’s 86. Failing health and a massive stroke means he is now in a rest-home, but his curiosity of New Zealand’s dairy industry and its innovations hasn’t left him. One of the things he wanted to do was take a final look inside one of Fonterra’s plants to see how far the industry has come.

Unfortunately a visit to a plant wasn’t possible due to his health, but the Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC) team realised they could use cutting edge Virtual Reality technology to allow the dairy pioneer to feel like he was inside the factory.

Don said he was touched by the efforts on his behalf.

"One has to feel a bit chuffed that people are willing to do that for me. The virtual model was so realistic I felt like I had to watch my step around the plants heavy machinery.”  Don says he marvelled at the massive spray dryers which can dry 30 tonnes of milk powder an hour – a far cry from the 2-tonne dryers of the early days. Something that was made possible by his work in automation and control processing.

​He says he feels a lot of pride in his work and seeing how far the industry had advanced.

Some of this we'd foreseen, but only some of it, not all. It's a different world... so much was light-years ahead of where I left off.

Don King

Don couldn't help but wonder what he could've done if he'd had this technology when he started. "A lot of things [in my plant] were held together by clamps and wire. Everything at the plant is now  much more sophisticated than that."

Fonterra’s Chief Science and Technology Officer Jeremy Hill says scientists like Don are the reason the Co-operative is where it is today.

“We stand on the shoulders of the great scientists who have gone before us – much of what has been implemented across Fonterra is because of great people like Don.”

“It’s awesome for members of that generation to be able to see how we have progressed. It’s quite exciting to see their responses, he was really blown away by where we have got to.”

Don’s daughter Sally says the visit meant a lot to her Dad. 

“It was just so amazing that Dad could have this opportunity. I’m so grateful to the team at FRDC. Dad was so happy afterwards. The few hours certainly stimulated his memory and gave him an inkling of what has become of the processes he helped pioneer.” 

Don King, one of our great dairy pioneers who certainly embodies Fonterra’s meaning of ‘Dairy for life.’