From sheet to bottle
Stylianos Eleftheriou had an idea about plastic bottles when working at another large packaging company. Actually, his idea was about turning plastic sheets into bottles. The CEO of Agami Technologies, a subsidiary of dairy packaging machinery firm Serac Group, thought there could be a simpler way of making plastic bottles back in 2009. The result was the development of the Agami thermoforming machine, which creates bottles from plastic sheet reels in a vertical process that requires few plastic processing skills. Using either polystyrene or polypropylene, the sheeting is formed into a tube and then into a mould that shapes it. Different colours may also be used, and sleeves. This option has already been quite successful in the drinking yogurt industry, with registered new orders in the US and Europe, such as industry giant Chobani.
Eleftheriou notes the advantages are simple: there is 10-20 per cent less material used than other bottles, and the machine is shipped to the customer, where the customers produce their own bottles. “It is an advantage and a price savings. The added value stays with the customer, and the logistics are easier.” Reels of plastic are also easier to store than finished bottles, and the company estimates that a ratio of 1:25 in storage space is saved. Electricity consumption has also lowered, with low bottle weight and on-machine decontamination.
The machine can produce bottles from 100 to 500ml size, and has a compact footprint of 4×6 metres, with the ability to produce up to 28,800 bottles per hour.
“The market is moving towards polypropylene,” according to Eleftheriou. “There are also different types of closures such as a heat seal lid or screw type closure, which can be produced on the machine, and different sized bottles can be made on the same machine.”
Over the years, Serac has had many competitors in food and beverages, and so decided to specialise in niche markets such as dairy. In 2009, Agami invented its process – very quickly, Serac was interested in the packaging side and entered into a commercial partnership. In 2014, Serac bought Agami outright.
Agami products fit into the overall Serac portfolio by offering innovative packaging with aseptic qualities, according to Vincent Altazin, the product and business development manager at Serac. “For dairy and UHT beverages, aseptic is rather important. We have our expertise and are recognised as a technology specialist in this area.”
New technologies are now being developed for aseptic, in order to sterilise bottles in both wet (with paracetic acid) and dry (H2O2). Light pulse technology is also being explored for sterilising bottles, he notes.
Altazin says the moulds on the machine can be changed over within 30 minutes. Customers can print on the plastic or have shrink sleeves, and all of this may be combined with a variety of bottle shapes.
“We help the customer design a bottle, and once the design has been chosen, we transfer the intellectual property rights to the customer – we don’t retain them,” says Eleftheriou. “Part of the business model is that we supply the machine and the former belongs to the customer, and it can then source plastic from different suppliers.”
The blow moulder can produce 9,000 bottles per hour and 10 machines have been produced at Trappe this year. “We are forecasting building 15 machines, and they run from €500,000 to €2 million each depending on options,” says Altazin. “Over the next five years we hope to sell 20-30 machines. We have manufacturing in Asia and the US, so that the customer has technical support locally.”
It takes around six months to build a machine, and Agami has a 3D printer that can show customers what the design will look like via computer assisted design. The model can be tested in-house for resistance, and so forth, and then it can be fine-tuned in the company’s pilot plant.
Bottle: The plastic bottle is still strongly developing worldwide for various products, with constantly widening ranges such as coffee whiteners, drinking yogurts, chilled or aseptic milks, as well as for value-added niches such as aseptic nutritional drinks. For example, in the drinking yogurt market, the bottle is by far the leading packaging and promises significant growth in the years to come. Market trends also favour the development of small to medium-sized bottles ranging from a few dozens of millilitres to one litre which, through the use of new materials and manufacturing technologies can now display colours and original shapes.
Serac offers Combox PET stretch blow molding technology integrated in single block blow-fill-cap units for orders in the dairy market. A real alternative to HDPE, both technologies offer simplicity in plastic processing while being precise. They are favoured for portion packs dedicated to children as they allow the production of bottles that have the shape of a fruit, a spring or a cartoon character.
Serac’s H2F filling units have been designed to be flexible and can fill HDPE, PET, PS or PP bottles, thus enabling manufacturers to diversify. Flexibility comes from the bottle neck transfer system, which requires only a few tooling parts to be changed to switch from one bottle model to another.
Based on the weight filling technology, H2F units are known for accuracy, which is critical on small-sized packages. They have recently been upgraded to provide higher performances on bottles ranging from 60ml up to two litres. Serac offers bottle neck transfer associated with weight filling in its H2F filler.
Cups: The yogurt and dessert market is developing through organic products, limited editions and increasingly sophisticated recipes (several layers of yogurt and fruit, fruit, nuts or cereal chunks included in the product or dosed in a separate compartment to be mixed just before eating), which make dosing operations more complicated. The market quest for authenticity has also led to the return of traditional packaging such as glass jars or cartons with quaint shapes that cannot be stacked up. Such packaging requires specific technical adaptations on filling units.
Serac’s Nova dosing systems can be integrated to existing lines. They include up to 24 filling heads and provide control for all kinds of products with a range of nozzle solutions. They are adapted to most filling methods, from layered and spiral filling of different ingredients, to complex dessert combinations.
An owner of several Nova lines has recently upgraded its dosing units to cope with an increasing number of recipes. The Greek yogurt specialist can now produce up to four fruit mixes simultaneously in the same cup and several recipes that are gathered in multi-flavour packs.
For spreadable cheeses that require a hot filling process, Serac has developed a specific tank equipped with a motorised agitator, a double or triple jacket with water circulation that maintains the product at the right temperature (around 75 – 80°C) and a full temperature monitoring system.
Whatever the product considered, markets are characterised by an explosive growth of the number of recipes which, in addition to specific adjustments on the machines, call for flexibility. The second global trend on the market is upgraded levels of hygiene in order to increase food safety. Serac can offer upgrades to packaging decontamination as well as aseptic filling units.
Whether for flavours and packaging consumer testing, or for real conditions market testing, an increasing number of manufacturers are looking for dedicated multi-purpose equipment.
In order to meet this expectation, Serac has developed aseptic pilot bottling lines tailored to the production at low rate of a wide variety of recipes in different packaging (plastic materials and sizes). These pilot lines are derived from Serac’s aseptic filling lines and thus offer the same features for packaging sterilisation, process hygiene and cleaning procedures.
The filling lines enable fast production changes from one packaging or recipe to another through neck transfer systems and quick change of recipes from the control panel.
To further increase flexibility on its aseptic machinery, Serac has also worked out easily cleanable equipment that allows recipes to follow each other without having to go through a four-hour long cleaning and sterilization process. With a single injection of sterile water, pipes can be ready for the next batch. In the best case one recipe can even be used to drain the other.
With the integration of on-site bottle manufacturing solutions in single block blow-fill-cap unit (Combox machines) and new solutions for thermoforming bottles out of pre-printed plastic sheets, Serac also contributes to reducing the footprint of the complete packaging lines by avoiding the need for storage tanks, unscramblers, sleeves or labels applicators. For products packed in cups, Serac is working with the same objective on end-of-line integration of case packers for its linear filling machines.
In order to meet all levels of safety requirements, Serac offers a solution for H2O2 controlled decontamination of bottles, cups and caps that provides a better uniformity of treatment and an increased control on decontamination parameters.
Active components concentration and decontamination parameters are continuously monitored and the control system stops the machine as soon as a parameter is out of the tolerance limits. This solution is also interesting from an environmental point of view, since it requires low volumes of H2O2 and no water.
Serac has also developed first-class aseptic filling lines that include dry sterilisation at all stages plus sanitisation of the filling unit itself, a 100 per cent sterile zone plus a controlled area below the neck of the bottle for pharmaceutical level of hygiene within the aseptic enclosure, and enhanced security through the doubling of all gas filtration systems plus constant monitoring of a wide range of sterilization parameters.
In order to assist customers looking for qualification of their line by health authorities, Serac can document its aseptic lines with risk and functional analyses, as well as all necessary certificates.
The Agami thermoforming machines allow customers to produce bottles out of PS or PP reels, and Serac has recently gone a step further by adapting its simple, efficient and reliable solution to the thermoforming of bottles out of pre-printed PP reels.
For this particular application, Serac has equipped its Agami machines with sensors and sets of cameras that ensure fast initial machine setting with minimum waste, and systematically check that the PP sheet is at the right place for the next stroke during production.