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Stork Aseptec filler

Stork delivers Clover’s new aseptic baby

In a first for this country, Clover SA has invested in an aseptic filler for plastic bottles, supplied by Dutch dairy processing and packaging giant, Stork Food & Dairy Systems. This high-tech system will replace Clover’s sterilised milk lines at its Queensburgh, Durban, plant.

IT’S NO secret that Clover, like all large dairy groups, has been investigating aseptic filling options for plastic bottles for some years, but several factors have recently converged to prompt the country’s largest dairy player to sign a very large cheque for Stork’s Asep-Tec linear filler and complementary processing equipment: ageing infrastructure for its sterilised milk products that was inflexible, increasingly expensive to run and falling short of new proposed safety regulations for pressure vessels; and Clover’s desire to build its brands and profitability through product innovation that resonates with consumer needs.

That’s the word of Dr Chris Lerm, Clover SA’s executive director responsible for production and marketing, who stresses that this R40-million pioneering step is a consumer-focused decision: ‘We have shed our co-operative mentality of old – and our new ethos is to be a branded consumer goods company; at the very least we aim to rank first and second in our chosen categories,’ he says. ‘Further, it’s our intention to enter new, high-quality, value-added markets and do it at lower cost, and all of this necessitates capital investment in proven, leading-edge technology.’

And there’s no doubt that Stork’s Asep-Tec linear fillers meet these criteria. Since their introduction around a decade ago, Stork now has some 45 installations around the globe that highlight its standing in this fast-growing sector of the beverage industry and provide excellent reference for new customers (see side article for more detail).

That Clover SA has opted for Stork’s technology pleases no-one more than Tony Dignam, previous MD of Stork UK with responsibility for South Africa, a duty he still continues on a contract basis in his ‘retirement’. A well-known figure to the local dairy fraternity, he has long been promoting the technology to South African dairy/juice producers, with his patience and perseverance now rewarded with Clover’s signature.

Stork Clover aseptic deal
At the signing of the Stork-Clover SA contract were Jan Kleingeld (technical manager, Clover SA); Paul Jansen (GM production, Clover SA), Chris Lerm (executive director, Clover SA), Gert Hemmes (commercial director, Stork Food & Dairy Systems), Wouter de Haan (MD, Stork Food & Dairy Systems), Piet Steyn (project engineer, Clover SA) and Tony Dignam (Stork SA).

‘Aseptic filling for plastic bottles is a major trend – it is the now and the tomorrow of the global dairy/juice markets, especially as the key growth avenues are in added-value products with long shelf life,’ Tony comments. ‘Our machine is designed to handle a wide range of dairy and juice products, and there is much more flexibility when it comes to bottle size, shape and material ie HDPE, PP or PET.’

Tony believes key factors abetting Clover’s decision to go with Stork were the technical seminars it presented to the company over several years, the Stork installations seen by Clover’s technical teams as well as visits to its Techno Centre in Amsterdam. ‘It’s an awe-inspiring facility, where we have lines that can blow aseptic bottles, process UHT milk and juice products, and fill them on a commercial aseptic linear filler,’ he explains. ‘This gives any prospective customer the opportunity of carrying out trials, taste-profile tests and pilot marketing before committing to the investment.’

He adds that there are several attractive cost efficiencies offered by this technology, from energy and water savings, less maintenance requirements and the use of lighter three-layer HDPE bottles that, in Clover’s case, will be 3g less than the current bottles it uses for its two steri-milk brands. ‘In terms of environmental governance, these are valuable advantages for Clover,’ Tony notes.

Civil work is currently being carried out at the Queensburgh plant, with the new Asep-Tec expected to arrive in October and commercial production planned to begin in December. The first products to come off the line will be Clover’s two existing steri-milk brands, Super M and Mina Moo, both of which are being given a design makeover. Clover is also installing a new Graham sleeving system, an investment it deems necessary to cope with new bottle shapes and sizes it plans to introduce in the future.

Nampak Rigid Plastics, which has had an in-plant at Queensburgh for the past eight years, will again be Clover’s packaging partner in this project, as supplier of the HDPE bottles. ‘We have been working closely with Clover’s project team on this landmark installation – it’s extremely interesting and rewarding to be involved in the launch of new technology that will undoubtedly boost volumes for both parties,’ says Jacques Swanepoel, Nampak Rigid Plastic’s key account manager for Clover.

Jacques adds that the new filler has demanded some design tweaks to the current bottles and that pilot moulds have been made, with sample bottles about to be sent to Stork’s Techno Centre in Amsterdam for final trials.

On the innovation high road

‘This is a very exciting development for us – and we believe it will open many new doors to innovation,’ remarks Clover’s Chris Lerm. ‘The flavoured milk market, for instance, may seem a mature category, but we view it as an infant. There’s so much scope to target the youth and adult markets with new products, and we also see great potential in the functional foods/supplement arenas. We’re not interested in generic products; what counts now is brand building and acquiring the technology to do this.’

Indeed, the Stork filler is not the only new aseptic weapon in Clover’s innovation arsenal. As a complement to the high-volume Stork Asep-Tec, Clover is also at work commissioning another aseptic system at its Clayville, Gauteng, factory, a filler for cups and bottles that has an hourly output of between 3 000 and 16 000 units with a varied volume capacity of between 0,2 to 1,5 litres.

This again is a significant technology investment that Chris says will be used for smaller-volume/higher-value lines, and should also prove useful as a ‘pilot’ plant for new products with production shifting to the Stork line at Queensburgh if warranted by sales growth.

‘The flexible concept behind both these new filling lines,’ says Chris, ‘opens the way to ongoing development of bottle shapes and the products filled in them. We can adapt to the increasingly rapid changes in consumers’ requirements. We can be quick to market, we have the means to a high degree of product diversification, we can efficiently target market niches – and at the same time we have reduced our investment risk.’

While Chris, naturally, won’t give anything away, he does confirm that we will see an interesting new aseptic Clover product hit the shelves in the last quarter of 2008. There’s no doubt the company has a cupboard full of ideas and is working to its chief executive, Johann Vorster’s publicly-stated intent to change the face of dairy in this country.

Stork Food & Drink Systems 082 7693258;

The appeal of ambient aseptic filling

Hersey milkSPECIALITY, innovative and differentiated beverages are driving growth in the drinks market – but traditional filling and packaging options have their limitations for these types of products. The pioneer for aseptic packaging was the liquid carton, but the concept has made major inroads for use with plastic (PET, PP and HDPE) bottles.

Consumers are looking for convenience, freshness and on-the-go snacking in juices and beverages, and they expect added value from the product and packaging alike. Traditional procedures for ensuring microbiological safety such as hot filling or the addition of preservatives don’t always gel with the contrary demand for freshness, natural and additive-free quality. The high-temperature/short-time processing of cold aseptic filling bridges the gap.

Hot filling is popular but has some drawbacks: not all ingredients can withstand the thermal stress unscathed, while most hot-fill PET bottles don’t meet the required barrier performance for a long shelf life demanded by the distribution chain and cost about 1,5 times the price of a standard bottle. None of these problems apply to aseptic filling that, while demanding significant initial capex, also offers opportunities of substantial saving in manufacturing costs. These include filling at ambient temperature and light-weight bottles. The systems can also handle beverage products ranging from acidic to neutral while maintaining much better flavour and organoleptics.

And let’s not forget shelf life, that basic prerequisite for today’s retailers and consumers. Non-carbonated options for soft drinks and mineral waters with shortened product life cycles, plus, of course, the traditional beverages like fresh milk, UHT milk, drinking yoghurt, fruit juices and squashes, all require a filling process that offers not only efficiency, but also a dependable shelf life.

The Stork Asep-Tec linear filler

NOW in its fourth generation, the Stork Asep-Tec can now boast a design that minimises failure while maximising high speed, reliability and flexibility.

The Asep-Tec units can handle high- and low-viscosity products and even those containing solids, as well as bottles of varying shape and material (PP, PET and HDPE). Before filling, the product is UHT treated, cooled and stored in an aseptic tanker (both supplied by Tetra Pak in Clover SA’s instance). Bottles are sterilised with hydrogen peroxide prior to entering the aseptic zone. Handled by their necks, they are filled, sealed with a PE-coated aluminium foil and then capped outside the aseptic environment. The Asep-Tec has an output of 24 000bph, depending on the number of filling lines (eight, 12 or 16 bottles wide). Flow meter technology is used for high-accuracy filling and thus minimum give-away.

The combination of a very small aseptic zone with no mechanical parts and a special air distribution system is the most important innovation in the Asep-Tec. Overpressure and downward flow force are employed in the aseptic zone; the former prevents non-sterile air from penetrating the zone, while the laminar down flow keeps the area sterile and carries off possible contamination.

Stork uses a two-step approach to ensure the reliability of its Asep-Tec machines. Firstly, from experience gleaned from building more than 45 machines, potential risk areas have been identified using risk analysis methods and then eliminated in the final design. The actual machine is first validated against design criteria and specifications, and after it has passed those, is rigorously tested under industrial production conditions. Part of this process involves deliberately spoiling the sterile chain of both machine and containers, tainting them with microbiological contamination and then checking out the efficacy of the sterilisation process.

The Asep-Tec has a relatively small footprint, and is of modular design, making it easy to modify to suit changing requirements. Optional modules include an aseptic bottle neck trimmer to cut open closed aseptically-blown bottles, and a nitrogen-purge unit for very sensitive products such as fruit juices, vitamin-enriched dairy products, clinical and pharmaceutical products that could be affected by oxygen during filling and subsequent storage.

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media Magazine, June 2008, written by Brenda Neall

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