Filling In The Blanks
by Lynn Petrak
Flexibility increasingly counts, as speed and sanitation demands remain top features of today’s filling equipment.
After decades of continual improvements, from manual to increasingly sophisticated automatic equipment, filling systems in today’s dairy processing facilities have become just as diverse as the products that are poured into bottles, cartons, cups and other vessels.
As with other types of machinery found in food and beverage plants, filling systems are more expansive in scope and type these days, ranging from basic rotary fillers to high-tech integrated machines with multi-lane systems. Equipment manufacturers have continually invested in and introduced new filling machines and accompanying sealing, capping and rinsing systems to meet the needs of dairy processors looking to upgrade old machinery or to install new fillers to accommodate new product lines.
Recent history has been no exception. Although new fillers make their debut every year, the latest designs reflect processors’ steady demand for speed, durability and reliability, but also their ever-increasing desire for greater versatility and sanitation.
Handling New Products
One of the most notable areas of evolution in filling systems lately has centered on the advent of new products, particularly items that do not fall into traditional dairy categories.
The boon in the drinkable yogurt category is one example. Fogg Filler, Holland, Mich., has responded to several inquiries related to the effective filling of drinkable yogurts, which are more viscous and sometimes have more particulates than regular dairy products. “The process has some challenges in terms of increasing fill speeds to meet their demands. It’s also a difficult product to cap while spinning, because the bottles are smaller in diameter and most of the time they have a sleeve label on them,” says Ben Fogg, director of sales.
To help drinkable yogurt manufacturers, Fogg has tweaked some of its designs. “We’ve helped speed through improved valve technologies and we’ve developed a belt anti-spin system,” Fogg explains. “Basically, it adjusts the pressure, the friction, on containers for a consistent anti-spin on the capper.”
Fogg’s machine can accommodate the many different types of bottles used for drinkable yogurt products, which are rarely standard. “The marketing folks keep changing the packaging and some are extremely challenging, depending on if they are doing foil seals or snap off. But basically, there hasn’t been any package we can’t run,” he says.
Another manufacturer that has fielded more requests for systems that can be used for drinkable yogurt and smoothie applications is Milwaukee-based Federal Manufacturing Co. “The filling of drinkable yogurt is something that we seem to have a lot of interest in,” general manager Otis Cobb says.
According to Cobb, Federal’s net-weight filler is a good choice for the filling of thicker products that may contain more particulates. “Because of the viscosity, our net-weight filler certainly lends itself to that application very well. If we need to, we can pressurize the filler bowl to get speeds to where they need to be,” he explains, adding that such a system is currently in use by several yogurt manufacturers, including one high-volume global operation.
John Rooney, general manager for Evergreen Packaging Equipment, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based division of International Paper Corp. that supplies a range of rotary bottle fillers, cup fillers and gabletop fillers, agrees that the spate of thicker beverages is what consumers want and what processors have to accommodate. “On the bottle filler side, with people going with new products like drinkable yogurt, that is where we are seeing a lot of new opportunities,” he reports, adding that orders for bottle fillers that can be used for such products increased in 2005.
Beyond drinkable yogurt, the fact that dairies are diversifying product lines and getting into a host of new types of products and processes has had other effects in filling equipment. That, in turn, has led to dairy processor demand for greater flexibility and multi-functionality.
Gram Equipment, a Denmark-based company with U.S. offices in Tampa, Fla., is offering a new inline Gram Multi Filler (GMF) machine to customers seeking versatility. The servo-controlled GMF can be used for the production of cups, cones, bulk packages and squeeze-up tubes and was designed for quick changeover. “That is a new machine for us, and probably one of our best,” regional sales manager Herb Fish says, adding that the machine can be adjusted for pitch, acceleration and speed for different product types.
Shelf Life and Safety
Another hotbed of new dairy product activity that affects the choice and use of filling equipment is processors’ continued movement toward extended-shelf-life (ESL) products.
As Rooney points out, the appeal of ESL products is multifaceted for processors. “It’s not just for product shelf life — they extend their reach as well,” he says of the potential to expand distribution through greater shelf life. “We are also seeing systems that are more and more tailored.” Evergreen offers a range of gravity fed, volumetric and linear rotary bottle fillers for ESL products, including an EH-3 extended-long-life unit for specialty dairy products like yogurt drinks, buttermilk and low-carb dairy beverages.
Fogg, for his part, agrees that processors are asking for and manufacturers are supplying more filling machines used for ESL items. “Fogg has invested a lot of energy and financing in extended shelf life,” he says. “We are in research and development for a process by which we’ll be able to sanitize bottles feeding the filler and are working on dry sanitization methods to reduce counts in the containers.”
Federal, too, has emphasized its ESL capability. The company’s sanitary rotary gravity filler can be used with ESL dairy products, while its non-contact ultra clean net weight fillers are available in both ESL and aseptic models. Federal also has developed a stainless steel and plexiglass filler enclosure for ESL production and a special “E” series filler bowl and valve.
As dairies extend shelf life to the ultimate point — shelf stability — marketing and distribution issues also merge with safety issues. The aseptic filling process, after all, requires the ultimate in cleanliness and sanitation.
To that end, many modern filling systems have been designed to be run in sterile environments. Federal’s non-contact ultra-clean net-weight fillers, for instance, feature bottles and closure sterilization systems, in addition to other features geared for aseptic production.
Among the ESL filling systems it provides to dairies, Evergreen offers a linear aseptic filler called the Evergreen BFI. The in-line aseptic bottle filler comes with single or double indexing, has a range of 5,000 to 45,000 bottles an hour and features a sophisticated diagnostic system that minimizes down time.
Even if a filler isn’t designed specifically for aseptic environments, sanitation is a key consideration for all dairy operators. That’s one reason why stainless steel construction and CIP hardware designed for quick, easy washdown are increasingly important, for fillers as well as capping, sorting and rinsing machines. “Lately, they have been looking for more cleanability,” Fogg says. “Dairies tend to have some in-house differences, but the dairy industry as a whole is regulated quite heavily by the federal government.”
Automatic Decisions
Automation isn’t anything new to filling equipment, but certain capabilities continue to evolve. One case in point is the new Semiautomatic Filling (SAF) machine from Gram Equipment. That system, which includes a mini PLC and stainless-steel switchboard, allows for adjustable filling times and is used for tubs and bulk products.
ATS Engineering Inc., a Canadian supplier that offers filling machines, sealers and overcappers, recently created new automatic container loading and labeling systems for use with its filling machine. “Automatic equipment is being adapted for filling machines, becoming part of the machine. Customers are really looking for more flexibility in all of these things,” company founder Anthony Subryan says, adding that he expects demand for automated systems to continue to grow as processors seek to reduce labor costs.
Finally, as versatility, sanitation and automation go up the list of priorities for dairy processors looking to replace, upgrade or install new filling systems, the need for efficiency is still strong. “They want speed as well,” Rooney says.
Evergreen’s BF-40 gravity fed rotary filler, for instance, can fill up to 350 bottles a minute, while the company’s extended long-life unit is a high-speed machine that can fill up to 140 cartons a minute for half-gallon sizes.
Fogg Filler has responded to customers looking for high-volume filling capacity with its Fill Pro series and its F9 series of pressure and pressure gravity fillers, which contain 90 valves to fill up to 900 containers a minute of hot or cold product. Federal offers a #7 series filler for high volume operations, a 30-valve filler with 10 capping stations that can handle up to 110 gallons per minute and another 64-valve model equipped to handle up to 800 bottles a minute. Models from these companies, of course, are just a few examples of possible speeds, which tend to vary by application.  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.