Sealing the Deal

by Lynn Petrak
Filling and capping technology sends product on its way faster, cleaner and more efficiently.
Like a superhero, today's manufacturing suppliers are trying to do things better and faster. While they may not be able to help processors leap across production steps in a single bound or fly their products from one point to another, they are making headway in helping dairy customers boost throughput, increase efficiency and become more flexible.
Improvements are being made across the production chain, including filling and capping technology, as dairies and suppliers together make adjustments and invest in upgrades to accommodate new products and operations. Filling and capping equipment and materials can be considered the last bridge between products and packaging, used to fill and seal many types of products in an increasing variety of package styles.
Capping and filling suppliers share the view that their equipment and materials must change with the times. "Customers want everything now, and without being too cliché, they really want their expectations exceeded," reports Peter Perkins, national sales manager for Osgood Industries, Oldsmar, Fla. "They want the latest technology, 100 percent efficiency of operation, at the best price with above-average service response time, and they want it now."
Nick Manley, media and marketing manager for Autoprod Inc., Clearwater, Fla., agrees equipment innovation often stems from dairy customer demand for getting more out of less. "Many innovations have been developed from the needs of our customers, which include higher speeds, higher efficiencies and more flexibility," he says.
The need for speed, specifically, has been a driver of filling and capping technology in recent years. "On the dairy side, especially with all the consolidation going on, the big dairies want a couple of plants to do all the production," says Rich Szyperski, manager of technical services for Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Evergreen Packaging, a division of International Paper. "We are getting asked about machines with requirements of 600, 700 or 800 bottles a minute."
Different package styles naturally affect filling and capping, too, says Szyperski. "A lot of changes are more along the lines of new product development or new package formats. With blow-molding capability and bottle-making capability today, there are a lot of different companies wanting different shapes of bottles to be unique," he says.
Such an interest in being distinctive is also leading to more customization. "Other than meeting our long-term customers as well as new customers, we receive requests asking us if we would consider supplying fillers with certain features," says Otis Cobb, president and general manager of Milwaukee-based Federal Mfg. Co. "We have noticed that these people who are making special requests are usually the leaders in the industry. We pay special attention to the requests of these people and make every effort to accommodate their ideas."
Fill 'Em Up
Filling machinery is an example of how technology is keeping pace with demand. Lately, many equipment makers have unveiled new models designed for broad dairy product applications.
One particularly active area of development has centered on fillers that work with extended shelf-life (ESL) products. The development team at Federal, which has sold dairy fillers for more than 40 years, found the demand for flavored milk bottles ultimately was linked with ESL capability. "There started to be an increased interest for filling and capping systems to extend shelf life," reports Cobb, adding that the company developed additional support equipment for its 10 ESL lines for fresh milk and juice in recent years and was ready to move to the next stage. In October, Federal rolled out a 30-valve ESL net-weight filler that is now being prepared with the company's new bottle sanitizing system and all support equipment necessary for an ESL filling and capping line.
Cobb says the ESL system was built with several features that help ensure efficient and reliable operation, including the latest load cell and communication technology. "The system primarily fills by weight using load cells. However, during the filling cycles, the system gathers data on the time required to fill the bottle at each station," explains Cobb. "Should some problem occur with any one of the load cells, that particular station can be switched to time fill using the historical data that has been collected."
Evergreen Packaging Equipment has also seen interest in ESL-capable models increase. "It seems to be pretty wide open there," says Szyperski. "A lot of people are asking for different configurations and different levels of technology, from basic cleanup to as close to aseptic as you can get it without calling it aseptic."
Evergreen's latest entry in this area is its ESL-60 Gable Top Filler for fresh milk and juice, which forms, fills and seals paper gabletop cartons at speeds up to 6,000 cartons per hour in sizes ranging from 6 ounces to 38 ounces. ESL features include enclosures, HEPA, auto sanitization, self-contained clean-in-place (CIP) features, low-level H202 carton sanitization with ultraviolet light and self-contained chemical sanitation.
Evergreen offers other equipment and supporting features designed to meet ESL requirements as well, including ESL rotary bottle filling equipment using volumetric electronic filling systems (EFS). The company's Unibloc fillers offer rinsing, filling and capping capability and can be adapted to a variety of bottle sanitation needs, while its Monobloc fillers allow for filling and capping. "For rinsing, filling, and capping, we've been able to put them all together utilizing one single-drive motor," explains Szyperski. "It's integrated equipment that is run off the same motor under one platform."
With more demand for CIP features, manufacturers are working to enhance other sanitation aspects of their filling systems. Last fall, Evergreen launched its advanced hygiene filler, the BFAH-30. The model includes several new features, such as a belt drive, externally demountable fill valves, auto sanitization, HEPA, enclosures and an optional automated CIP system, and is equipped to fill up to 100 gallons, 150 half gallons and 180 quarts, pints or half pints per minute. "It's taking jug filling to the next level. We're putting clean features on standard jug fillers to add security and to keep the outside environment from getting inside the bottle," says Szyperski.
The fact that the Evergreen's BFAH-30 uses an electronic control reflects another trend toward more powerful machines. Perkins says that Osgood has also shifted some emphasis to this area. "The biggest change for Osgood over the past year is the increasing use of servos to operate our systems. We have a great deal of experience now with these," he says. "The shortcomings have been addressed and we have isolated a brand that is capable of meeting the rigorous environments these systems operate within."
One of Osgood's latest introductions includes full servo capability. "The most significant upgrade we made in 2003 was for our Model RF-S-100 rotary 56 and 64-ounce ounce ice cream filler. The full servo operation of this system now allows us to achieve operating speeds of 80 containers per minute while maintaining ever tighter weight controls through the patented use of a servo to actually measure resistance and correlate that to a specific weight of a filled package," explains Perkins, adding the rotary filler was designed for straight-walled round packages.
Other recent filling equipment innovations address the ongoing demand from dairy customers for accuracy. Autoprod recently upgraded several filling systems with the latest technology to improve the fill accuracy of its systems. "The upgrades have made the filling systems approximately three times more accurate than the previous version," says Manley, adding that efficiency has been boosted as well.
While suppliers are regularly working on new and improved fillers, they are aware that some dairies are using older models that must be maintained or replaced with different parts. "Federal has fillers that were manufactured in 1952 that are still in operation," says Cobb. "Improvements and new developments for our current models are normally designed so that they may be adapted to most older fillers. Older filers may be upgraded to fill different types and sizes of bottles as well as converting capping systems to handle a wide variety of different closures."
Capping Capability
Other equipment and material innovations are taking place on the capping side of operations. Some manufacturers that supply filling machines also provide container closing lines, such as Osgood, Autoprod and Evergreen, among others. "We offer capping equipment for flat caps, sports caps, press-on caps and screw-on caps. Any capping you can think of, we have a solution available," says Szyperski, adding that Evergreen is also set up to handle heat-sealing for aluminum foil caps commonly used for ESL beverages.
As with filling equipment, capping machines are now geared to be faster, more powerful and designed for superior sanitation. Lebanon, N.H.-based packaging company NJM/CLI, for example, has developed a new line of heavy-duty stainless steel rotary cappers in a variety of multiple head configurations. The RotaCap Capper can handle up to 800 containers a minute in sizes ranging from 30 ml to 5 liters, and is run by a PLC-controlled variable speed operation.
San Jose, Calif.-based Portola Packaging, which supplies both caps and closures and capping equipment, also pursues the latest technology for its products and services. In addition to its conveyance systems, application systems, feeding systems, assembly systems, cap labeling systems and foil and foam insertion machines, the company also redesigns support features for various systems. "We are working with a big customer right now to design new equipment with a floor hopper, to dump a case of caps into a floor hopper rather than having someone go up a ladder to do it," explains John Borrelli, director of sales for Portola's dairy division in New Castle, Pa. "This saves time, allows for more efficiency and is also a safety feature, because you don't have people going up and down a ladder."
Capping systems are increasingly designed to accommodate a greater variety of caps and closures that are used by dairies today, as well as a more diverse array of bottles. International Plastics & Equipment Corp. (IPEC), New Castle, Pa., offers 28 mm and 26.7 mm sport and flat closures intended for the new generation of "light finish" bottles currently being used in some non-carbonated markets, including by some dairies. IPEC's
38 mm snap-on/screw-off, snap-on/snap-off, and screw-on/screw-off flat closures also can be used for many types of resins, from HDPE to PET.
Meanwhile, many suppliers have been busy creating advanced caps, some with multiple pieces, designed for consumer convenience, safety and security as well as for greater protection against leakage. Portola recently rolled out a new tamper-evident pull ring with an easy-open closure, the ASC III, along with a new Alpha 5, an advanced snap-screw closure. According to Borrelli, the ASC III is similar to what the company supplies to orange juice makers for their cartons. "We've incorporated that with a new sealing technique," he explains. "It's a culmination of a couple of things. The molded-in membrane creates a much better seal than anything on the market today and the equipment can still run through standard feeding equipment, with a press-on plate to press the cap onto the bottle. It's very complementary to capping equipment."
Indianapolis-based Alcoa Closure Systems International (CSI) also has carried over technology from juice to dairy. Alcoa CSI's Seal-MAX™ closure was designed to prevent leaks and provide tamper evidence for packages ranging from single-serve bottles to gallon-sized high density polypropylene (HDPE) containers. Used for screw tops, the cap features Alcoa's Extra-Lok™ tamper evident band for a two-piece closure that is easily separated by the end user.
Diversifying Their Portfolio
As recent mergers and acquisitions within both the equipment and dairy industries have demonstrated, operations are growing more centralized across the board. Integration has also impacted companies that supply filling and capping technology, as manufacturers recognize the need to diversify their own offerings and perhaps even expand into other specialties.
Last year, for example, Osgood introduced a new form-fill-seal thermoforming system. "Osgood decided to get into the thermoforming business due to ever-increasing amount of flexible packaging in the marketplace," says Perkins, "and also to capture additional opportunities that we couldn't pursue before."

Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.