Precise and Pristine

by Lynn Petrak
Contributing Editor

The latest filling equipment is engineered for sanitation, speed and versatility.

Although consumers may not give much thought to how their dairy foods and beverages end up in bottles, cups or cartons, filling is a pivotal step in the production process.
If a filler is off, precision and volume are off. If a piece of filling equipment isn’t working properly or is not good fit with a particular package, there can be waste that leads to inefficiency or potential microbial contamination. Many dairies also are aware that by using faster and easy-to-clean filling machines, they can get more out of their runs and, hopefully, their bottom lines.
Filling systems have been around since the early days of plant automation, and many machines have a long life span, often up to 20 years. But thanks to continually improving designs and technology, there is a greater range of advanced fillers on the market today, designed for a variety of products and lines.
The reasons behind improvements in filling systems are, as with most new equipment geared for today’s dairy facilities, driven by processors’ interest in manufacturing components that are efficient, durable, reliable and cleanable.
Mike Fogg, chief executive officer of Holland, Mich.-based Fogg Filler Co., says the changing dairy production environment has impacted the ways in which products are filled. “There is always something that’s going on, and I couldn’t say that as much five years ago. And I’ve seen only forward movement of the dairy industry this year,” Fogg says, noting that the future is just as open, as technologies like computer controls and as business demands continue to evolve. “Dairies can’t be farmers anymore — it’s still changing.”
One example of such changes, according to Fogg, has been the continued growth of extended-shelf-life (ESL) products, which affect the filling process in various ways, including the need for equipment that can be cleaned effectively and rapidly. To bring to market products that fit those needs, Fogg recently introduced a new filling machine for ESL applications. “The new ESL machine has HEPA filtration, class 100, and we have automatic, CIP-able valves,” he says.
ESL is an acronym also tossed around a lot at Elopak Inc., New Hudson, Mich. “Dairies are buying more ultra-clean fillers because they help extend the shelf life of refrigerated products in gable-top cartons. The shelf life is generally 60 days,” says company vice president Nils-Erik Aaby, citing the development of Elopak’s gable-top systems that provide a six- to 12-month shelf life for high-acid products like juice, which are produced in many dairy plants.
Filler Specialties Inc., Zeeland, Mich., has also heeded more interest in ESL applications and recently developed patented ESL CIP filling valves. “These valves offer improved cleanliness, reduce CIP time and help eliminate valve tube and valve sleeve damage which occur with traditional CIP methods,” says Jim Grant, sales manager.
In addition to ESL products, some dairy plants are starting to produce aseptic products or are at least looking at such capability. Elopak has delved into this arena with its new Pure-Pak® U-S80A, a high-speed system for aseptic products. “It is fast — 8,100 cartons per hour — and flexible. It can fill three carton sizes at the same time, and runs either Pure-Pak® Classic gable-tops or our new Curve™ cartons,” Aaby says, adding that the system achieves sterility through a combination of UV light and 2 percent hydrogen peroxide.
In addition to that new offering, Elopak offers an “even faster” aseptic system for its new mini Diamond™ cartons, according to Aaby. “The Pure-Pak® U-M100A fills up to 10,800 per hour,” he says.
Stork Food and Dairy Systems Inc. with U.S. offices in Gainesville, Ga., is another company that has found an audience for its aseptic fillers. A few years ago, a 12-lane linear aseptic filler line from Stork was installed in a Morningstar Foods plant in Mount Crawford, Va.
While there is considerable attention paid to sanitation in ESL and aseptic filling lines, the concept extends to all types of perishable dairy products. “Speed and hygiene continue to be the hot buttons for processors,” Aaby says. “Some processors using our ultra-clean fillers are running 60 hours between cleaning instead of the normal 24, so they have less downtime and a better return on capital.”
Fogg concurs that cleanliness is top of mind. “In a nutshell, what we have developed as result of demand is cleaner machines,” he says. “The days of older machines that, to be cleaned, have to be disassembled by hand are gone.”
Fogg Filler, for its part, addresses sanitation and clean-up with features like new safety guarding technology and the company’s recently-launched F6.2 filler, which features a sloped base. “That way, if something spills, it doesn’t sit in a pool,” Fogg says. “And it also has a drain trough outside the enclosure so any residual bacteria is outside.”
Likewise, Grant says that new product development at Filler Specialties has often focused on cleanability, citing the company’s CIP hardware with Sani-flex diaphragms to improve set-up time, CIP ring alignment, and improved sealing with the filling valves for improved flow rate. The company also now offers machine enclosures with HEPA filtration and bottle and cap sanitizing functions. “A lot of those things relating to the dairy industry have to do with sanitation, whether cleaning machines quicker or bottle and cap sanitizing,” he says. “Those are all becoming more important parts of the equation.”
Capacity and Capability
In addition to sanitation, there are other product and processing trends spurring filling machine design. One ongoing issue is throughput: As dairies become part of larger, consolidated organizations and as competition heats up across many sectors, capacity has gone up. Fogg, for instance, notes his company offers large fillers, including its F6 model featuring a 6-foot-diameter bowl.
In addition to capacity, flexibility is a requirement of many users. As such, many modern fillers are equipped to handle the diverse product lines now offered by many dairies, as well as different (and often custom) types of packages. “I have bottles and caps on my desk from dairies that are all unique,” Fogg says, underscoring the impact of the industry’s embrace of PET bottle in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Grant highlights that trend, too. “Unique bottle and cap combinations have also resulted in an increase in the use of highly efficient and accurate pick-and-place or cap-in-head capping turrets,” he says. “We have also offered machines with twin capping turrets, one for heat sealing foil caps, and the second for applying traditional screw overcaps.”
Versatility is stressed by Aaby as well. “Changing products means shorter runs, which requires filling machine flexibility,” he says. “Some Elopak machines can fill different carton sizes and even different products at the same time. You can change from one size to another, U.S. or metric, with the flip of a switch.”
The need for product differentiation is also evident in the filling of ice cream products. For example, dairy equipment company Tetra Pak, Vernon Hills, Ill., offers a Hoyer DeepBlue™ Filling attachment that creates distinctive product appearance by allowing ice cream producers to fill highly viscous low-temperature ice cream. According to company information, different heights, patterns and shapes of the product top are possible as well as filling with or without inclusions and ripples.
Finally, with the dairy industry becoming less homogenous, so to speak, the amount of custom filling machines is on the rise. “We are seeing more customization to meet specific needs. This again is due to the ever changing bottle designs and bottle/cap combinations being brought to the market, the desire to optimize shelf life with new products, and the constant goal of improving overall line efficiency,” Grant says.
“We customize to meet consumer needs as well as processor needs,” Aaby says, citing a “triple fill” technology Elopak developed with Campina in the Netherlands. “This fills a carton with three products at once, like, yogurt, fruit syrup and custard, and keeps them separated, even when they are poured out.”
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.