Like the steady drops of rain drumming a windowpane, the filling of beverages dictates a steady, consistent beat to keep production lines humming along. To keep pace with more SKUs and the need to handle diverse beverages in diverse packaging with high hygienic standards, equipment suppliers are adapting to trends and “filling a need” in a changing beverage market.

Mattia Cenci, PET solutions portfolio director at Parma, Italy-based Sidel, notes that in the fast-changing beverage industry, producers need to be agile to face the constraints and challenges on their path.

“In order to do so, they need to plan and measure their business in terms of performance, sustainability, maintenance, flexibility (optimization of SKUs) and, of course, quality,” Cenci says. “There is a lot happening at the same time, therefore, there are several trends shaping the food and beverage industries.”

Among these trends, he suggests that productivity and food safety are No. 1 as producers increase their performance to match the rising demand for their products while guaranteeing absolute food safety. To handle a broader number of SKUS and diverse container sizes, higher flexibility is required to handle still and carbonated beverages as well as hot-, ambient- and cold-filled beverages, while eco-sustainable packaging is designed to lower consumption and increase productivity and efficiency.

Cenci notes the explosion of SKUs, more aseptic filling beverages and the “rise” of the sleek can, particularly in the hard seltzers sub-segment, which “has emerged seemingly overnight to become the most talked-about area of alcoholic drinks in the U.S. … and one that looks set to become a long-term presence in alcoholic drinks.”

Digitalization also remains a top trend. “Digitalization is the dream for any producer or supplier to bring the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) as high as possible,” Cenci explains. “Digitalization supports the overall rise of OEE from two sides: on the one hand, digital tools can help manage the ever-increasing format changeovers more easily and on the other hand can decrease unplanned stoppages.”

Similarly, Manfred Härtel, filling product manager for KHS Group, Dortmund, Germany, pinpoints new digital offerings and diverse modular filling platforms that can be adapted to market needs and trends.

“[We offer] several digital systems [like] DIAS, OPTICAM that ensure product quality and require no operator,” Härtel says. “… The big drivers [to success] are the aspects of flexibility and changeovers. Thanks to the continuous expansion and optimization of our equipment portfolio, we can offer our customers a wide range of innovative technologies. Among other things, users benefit from being able to fill a wide range of beverages. In addition, there is no waste during format changeovers and the changeovers can be performed automatically or supported with our HMI.”

The company has seen strong growth in demand for water products that can be manufactured at high rates of speed along with machines that can simultaneously handle bottles and cans in one filler; however, these only can be used at low capacities, he notes.

Paul Kearney, vice president of global filling solutions and integrated systems at Corona, Calif.-based Pacific Packaging Machinery LLC, a division of ProMach, is seeing equipment that requires quick size and product changeovers — and not just for containers but product families. “Concentrates and single strength beverages on the same lines. That requires quick cleaning and easy changeover,” he says. 

On its filling equipment wish list, equipment manufacturers are desiring more intuitive controls and easier machine operation and technology that maximizes controls, Kearney says.

He notes that customers are looking for equipment that is modular, customizable, and can seamlessly handle bottles, cans and other diverse packages.

“Our customers are looking to achieve precise fill accuracy and efficiency. All of our fillers are customizable with various valve designs to optimize the filling process regardless of the product characteristics,” Kearney says.

Defying gravity

As filling equipment suppliers look to balance flexibility with efficiency, beverage-makers are seeing more innovation within the industry.

Holland, Mich.-based Fogg Filler, a division of ProMach, specializes in non-carbonated, flowable beverages with viscosities as thick as a drinkable yogurt, says Susan Lamar, media relations manager at Fogg.  

“Depending on the product to be filled, we can fill single-serve bottles from 30 to 1,000 bottles per minute. In general, we fill bottles from 1-ounce to 5 liters,” Lamar says.

She explains that Fogg uses gravity fill technology to fill bottles where the bottle opens the value, and gravity allows it to flow into the bottle. The company also emphasizes its hygienic clean-in-place (CIP) solutions.

“We can adjust the spacers on the filling valve to get the perfect, consistent filling level every time,” Lamar says. “Fogg uses a Sanibar cleaning system to clean the filling environment in between CIP cycles, and offers many other cleaning packages like rinsers, cap sanitizers, enclosure wash systems, and HEPA air filtration to ensure the product is being filled hygienically.”

In May 2020, Sidel launched its next generation Sidel Super Combi Compact for still water, which integrates five process steps — preform feeder, blower, labeler, filler/capper and cap feeder — into an all-in-one, smart system, allowing as much as a 30 percent footprint reduction compared with the previous model, and a 30 percent uptick in performance.

“It assures top-level performance with up to 54,000 bottles per hour,” Cenci explains. “Furthermore, its ergonomics and the latest technologies support easy access, operation and maintenance while ensuring high-end product quality.”

Aseptic beverages and other sensitive beverages like mixed milk beverages, juices, smoothies, iced teas and near-water products require hygienic filling under sterile conditions into PET and HDPE bottles, KHS’ Härtel says.

“When filling and capping beverages so as to prevent recontamination, filling under aseptic conditions especially is a gentle process,” Härtel says.

The InnoPET Blomax V, a rotary stretch blow molder is one of the company’s linear aseptic fillers with a transfer module that harmonizes the continuous PET bottle flow with the stepped filling process. This is done with the help of a transfer carousel that separates the containers into units of 10, which are removed by gripers and placed in the filler’s carrier plates. Then, the three variants of the module do their appointed tasks: one handles flocking with a stretch blow molder; a second discharges bottles to a Plasmax coating machine; and the third has an extra bottle infeed that enables the filler to process both PET and HDPE bottles, the company says.

Commitment to quality, sanitization

Experts note that innovations in the beverage world often dictate innovations for systems solutions and filling equipment that provides greater efficiency, more flexibility, increased ease of operation and optimum product safety.

Based on customer/engineer feedback, Fogg’s engineering department regularly strives to make a minimum of 10 upgrades or improvements for each machine. “Just in the last year you can see upgrades in lifters for glass bottles, cam tips, bottle stops, spindle assemblies, spray balls, cap dispensers, cap chutes, machine guarding, just to name a few,” Lamar says.   

“We have patented Ultrazone 04 technology to sanitize bottles before they are filled. This technology takes regular plant water, runs it through a special process making the water a very effective sanitizer and then turning it right back in to water to reuse through the system again,” she continues. “This system eliminates the purchase/use of chemicals in the rinser as well as saves around 18,000 gallons of water a day. The impact on the environment and the bottom line is amazing.”

Pacific Packaging Machinery’s Kearney notes that customers are looking to achieve precise fill accuracy and efficiency. “All of our fillers are customizable with various valve designs to optimize the filling process regardless of the product characteristics,” he says. “We are industry leaders when it comes to filling innovation especially for free-flowing non-carbonated beverages. With our Rotary and Inline Flow Meter Fillers, we accommodate a wide range of container sizes and speeds. Having a family of fillers in the same technology range is an advantage of Pacific/ProMach.

“We help a customer grow and stay in the same technology. We use the same cleaning techniques with each technology as well,” he continues. “We fill non-carbonated beverages, ready-to-drink beverages and juices. Our beverage fillers offer zero-drip nozzles and no container, no fill technologies. We believe in saving valuable product with no waste.”

The company’s Inline Flow Meter Fillers can accommodate 8- to 128-ounce containers at speed ranges of one container per minute (cpm) to 600 cpm, while the Rotary Flow Meter Fillers accommodate 8- to 128-ounce containers at speeds of 30 cpm to 600 cpm.

KHS’ broad machine portfolio covers the high performance range as well as the medium and low performance range, with a maximum capacity of as many as 82,000 bph (bottles per hour) (PET); up to 80,000 bph (glass); and up to 135,000 cph (can), Härtel says.

In November 2020, KHS released a new highly flexible long-tube filler on the Innofill Glass platform, which offers more speed and greater scope to assist beverage producers with a large product portfolio that requires frequent product and container changeovers. The Innofill’s modular design with high standards of hygiene and fast installation and commissioning provides growth prospects for the future.

Within the sensitive beverage segment, long-tube fillers are frequently operated, for example, to bottle beer or hot fill sensitive products such as juice. They also are most commonly used to process glass or PET bottles and contour containers holding as much as 3 liters of product.

“It permits fast flow rates and short filling times as the bottom-up filling method causes very little turbulence in the container. This makes for low oxygen pickup, important when bottling orange juice, for instance. This would otherwise lose its appetizing yellow color and turn brown unless additives such as vitamin C are used,” Härtel said in a statement.

Unlike the normal filling of juice, where the fruit fibers collect at the top of the container and form clots, during long-tube filling, less air attaches itself to the fibers and no clots are formed, he adds.

Based on the proven Sidel Aseptic Combi Predis, the most recent addition to the Sidel portfolio for aseptic production is the Sidel Versatile Aseptic Combi Predis, a new solution that can produce aseptically still beverages and carbonated soft drinks in PET bottles, Cenci says. This results in a high degree of production flexibility and productivity, while contributing to reduced costs and lowering the environmental impact.

He also points to the company’s aseptic Matrix blower with Predis technology (Sidel dry preform sterilization), which is available for high output of up to 60,000 bph for machines equipped with 18 to 26 blowing cavities.

“This machine configuration offers the fastest aseptic Combi with dry preform sterilization on the market,” Cenci says. “With the increasing popularity of teas, isotonics and flavored waters in all markets, this high-speed aseptic solution meets the production needs.”