Turning Up the Volume
by Lynn Petrak
Filling technology expands and improves, mirroring dairy productivity.
Volume is critical to success in the dairy industry, but so too are the mechanisms that control product volume itself.
Filling equipment has evolved in form and function to meet dairy processors’ needs, which include speed, versatility, durability and hygiene. Filling machines and their accompanying sealing and capping systems are increasingly sophisticated, reflecting collaborations between suppliers and their customers to create the necessary features in today’s demanding manufacturing environment.
Indeed, what was once a fairly straightforward process is now affected by new production methods, products and packaging, from aseptic bottles and boxes to varying product viscosities to operators’ desire to keep costs low and productivity high. As a result, there are more fillers on the market with refined technology; the most basic rotary fillers are complemented by extensive multi-lane systems with all the proverbial bells and whistles.
Those who supply filling equipment and services to dairy customers understand those myriad demands and have continually worked on solutions. “Everyone is looking for reliability and ease of operation. It’s all driven by higher speed, lower labor costs, higher productivity and higher quality,” says John Rooney, general manager for Evergreen Packaging Equipment, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa division of International Paper.
Peter Perkins, national sales manager for Osgood Industries, Oldsmar, Fla., cites a similar list of “musts” when it comes to modern filling equipment design. “It’s about competitive pricing, highly reliable performance and increased flexibility in operation,” he says. “And you’d better have people ready to address technical service and parts needs on a quick-response basis.”
Flexibility is also a key factor mentioned by Jim Dahlke, president of Holland, Mich.-based Fogg Filler Co. “There is a wide variety of products now, including different flavors and container sizes. Also, there is a need for an ability to change quickly,” he says.
Going with the Flow
Perhaps some of the most evident changes in modern filling equipment are related to efficiency. “Everything running when it is scheduled to run is critical,” says Rooney. “It’s about getting it (product) out in trucks and away it goes. Any glitch in the system can affect that.”
Efficiency was a core factor in the design one of Evergreen’s latest filling machines, the EH3 extended long life (ELL) unit for filling specialty dairy products such as yogurt drinks, buttermilk and reduced-carbohydrate dairy-based beverages. “That is a high-speed machine that fills up to 140 cartons a minute for half-gallon sizes,” Rooney explains.
Engineers at Osgood also kept output top of mind when creating the company’s new high speed, servo-operated rotary ice cream filler, which can fill 80 round containers per minute. “Speed and efficiency requirements of our customer base are seen up and down our product line offered to the dairy industry,” says Perkins. “The machine also includes servo weight control, where each container is weighed individually by measuring the resistance against the servo during filling.”
In addition, Osgood was first to the market with a single-lane scround filler capable of speeds over 65 cartons per minute, according to Perkins.
Meanwhile, Fogg targets processors in need of high-volume filling capacity with its Fill Pro Line. Those filling systems are now available with Fogg’s proprietary container-handling technology called Acculift™. According to Dahlke, the system eliminates traditional carousels used to transport bottles as they are filled and includes advanced controls and integrated safety guards.
Tied into speed, of course, is the ability to save time. Gram Equipment, a Danish company with U.S. offices in Tampa, Fla., has helped dairy processors reduce production time by offering an innovative “bottom-up” filler for ice cream. “The main feature is its ability to go directly from a continuous ice cream freezer into a mold cup without a hopper. That eliminates the step of a hopper, and gives the ability for bottom-up filling of a mold cup,” explains Herb Fish, regional sales manager. “It also gives you an extrusion-tasting ice cream out of a mold.” According to Fish, Gram’s filling equipment can accommodate any type of vessel, from traditional packages to cups and cones.
Cleanliness Counts
Quality and safety are always top-of-mind concerns. Hygiene becomes even more important as processors venture more into extended-shelf-life and aseptic production. To that end, many new filling systems include features designed for sanitation purposes. According to Rooney, the “E” in Evergreen’s EH-3 model stands for “extended long life.” “The other main feature with that machine is microbiological performance,” he says. “The folks using it may have a longer distribution cycle.”
Evergreen continues to promote its BFAH-30 filler, a system that includes easy-to-change HEPA filters, full machine enclosures and automatic sanitizing. Also about a year ago, Evergreen rolled out a new type of filling machine for ESL products. The Evergreen ESL-60 gable top filler features a machine enclosure and self-contained CIP capability and sterilization, among other features.
HEPA enclosures are commonly requested by Fogg’s customers as well, according to Dahlke. He says more customers are looking for ways to extend shelf life. Fogg is accomplishing this by incorporating HEPA enclosures, automatic sanitizers, bottle rinsers, ultraviolet lights and advanced CIP systems.
In response to growing customer demand for sanitation and hygiene features, Fogg introduced an all-metal dairy valve in late 2004. Made from stainless steel, the new Tri-Line® filling valve offers the precision of an I-line valve/bowl seal with a more easy-to-use tri-clamp configuration for CIP.
Milwaukee-based Federal Mfg. Co. recently introduced its N-W series designed for non-contact, ultra-clean filling. According to company information, the design meets 3-A standards and features a fully-enclosed stainless-steel clad base, with CIP features integral to the filling carousel.
Flexing their Muscle
Flexibility, for processors’ equipment requirements, boils down to a system’s capacity to perform a desired type and number of functions. According to Dahlke, expanded product lines have a lot to do with the changes in filling equipment. “The number of products and containers is so different. For shapes, it used to be that you had it covered with gallons and half gallons. Now, each dairy has its own,” he says.
In fact, several new types of fillers on the market address the flexibility issue. Osgood, for example, has a new multilane system designed so different sizes of daisy-chain heat-sealing material can be run on the same machine. “This allows the customer to run two different diameter cups on the same filler,” says Perkins.
Another example is Osgood’s introduction a few years ago of a patented servo-operated volumetric piston. “This new design provides our filling technology with greatly increased flexibility through the versatility offered by servo technology,” Perkins says. “That, in turn, provided our fillers with the ability to fill many more different SKUs than before on the same filler, because you can program the piston to compensate for different densities and viscosities.”
Changeover is also essential these days. ATS Engineering Inc., Toronto, has developed a three-lane filling machine, the SP1X2-3. “On two lanes, we can run 8 ounces to 32 ounces of product, and on a single lane on the same machine, we can run 2-, 3- and 4-pound containers. This one machine replaces two filling machines,” explains Anthony Subryan, chief executive officer and general manager.
According to Subryan, ease of use is just as important as versatility. “With the flick of one switch, it changes over from one size to the next,” he says. As with other contemporary fillers, hygiene is also critical to ATS machines, with cleanability and easy changeover additional highlights of the SP1X2-3 design.
Finally, as dairies are changing product lines to go with the flow, so too are suppliers. Packaging equipment companies like Vernon Hills, Ill.-based TetraPak and New Hudson, Mich.-based Elopak Inc., for instance, have added plastic bottles to their traditional carton-based systems in light of demand for single-serve beverages.
Evergreen, too, has expanded its capabilities. “In the last couple of years, we have begun building and servicing bottle-filling equipment, which includes standard dairy and extended shelf life and shelf stable,” says Rooney. “In the end we respond to customer needs, and work to be a full-solution supplier for our customers.”  m
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.