The company's mineral springs were first tapped and enclosed in 1781. From 1911 onward, MineralBrunnen RhönSprudel was owned by the Schindel family, which took what was then a small bottling operation and created what we now know as the RhönSprudel Group. In July 2022, the French Alma Group – one of Europe's leading mineral water bottlers – took over the family-owned and operated company so as to further consolidate the group's position on the German market. Together, the two locations in Ebersburg-Weyhers and Bad Liebenwerda have nine filling lines with a combined annual capacity of around 500 million liters.
"It was like a game of Tetris," says plant manager Michael Breidung, referring to the tricky work of fitting the new returnable-glass line into an existing hall, right next to a running non-returnable-PET line. Thanks to insightful project planning and a clever layout, it was successful despite the very tight quarters. The new Krones line, which is rated at 36,000 bottles per hour, has been up and running since March 2022 as the fourth line at RhönSprudel's plant in Ebersburg-Weyhers, Germany.
Focus on returnables
At the company's headquarters in Ebersburg-Weyhers near Fulda, there are four filling lines, two of which are for returnable glass and one each for returnable PET and non-returnable PET. Together, they fill as many as 145,000 bottles per hour. The focus is on returnables, which make up more than 80 percent of production – and some 50 percent of that is glass.
RhönSprudel recognized the strong trend towards glass packaging early on and decided in 2019 to replace an existing returnable-PET line with a new glass line. Initially, RhönSprudel awarded Krones the contract for a palletizing system that could also be used for the existing glass line. Because the plant is situated on a slope, there are warehouses for filled and packaged products on two levels, which can be supplied from either level as logistics require. Thus, the existing line can use both palletizing systems – the new one on the upper level and the old one below.
The company has since made something of a tradition of working with Krones: In 2015, RhönSprudel had Krones install a filler for the first time, and all of the labelers in the plant are made by Krones. "After our positive experience with the palletizing system, we wanted to invest in a turnkey concept – and decided to award the contract for the filling line to Krones as well. We expect that to yield synergies," explains plant manager Michael Breidung.
After our positive experience with the palletizing system, we wanted to invest in a turnkey concept – and decided to award the contract for the filling line to Krones as well. We expect that to yield synergies. Michael BreidungPlant manager at RhönSprudel
Planning with many limitations
The two project partners gave themselves an entire year to work through the planning phase, to make sure they came up with a concept that really made sense. Designing a suitable layout was not easy, for a variety of reasons. There were several limiting factors: For instance, since the opening in the ceiling for the depalletizer was to be located right next to the heavyweight bottle washer (180 tons in operation), the ceiling around the opening had to be able to withstand very high loads. Various platforms had to be erected in order to fit all of the machines – for example, the product filtration system and the crate washer – into the tight space. Moreover, the machines had to be brought into the hall in a specific order so that they could be placed in their intended locations. Not only that, but they all had to be lifted and lowered into the hall through three openings in the roof by way of a 500-ton truck-mounted crane because there was no access from the ground. "Krones has an excellent planning team that doesn't compromise on quality in certain points. And we really appreciated their highly responsive and consistent attitude," concludes Michael Breidung.
Krones has an excellent planning team. Michael BreidungPlant manager at RhönSprudel
Palletizing system installed in advance
Once the existing PET line was dismantled and shipped away (likewise through the roof), the assembly of the new line began in fall of 2021. And in March 2022, RhönSprudel was able to put the new 36,000-bph returnable-glass line into operation.
The palletizing system, which had been commissioned in fall 2020, comprises a Pressant Duplex 2NT with two depalletizing stations plus two Modulpal Pro 3A palletizers, one for full crates from the current production run and one for empties to be placed in storage for a future run.
Once unloaded, the pallets' contents make their way to the Linapac II unpacker, which features a gripper head magazine and automated changing system for quick and easy changeovers.
The crates are run through the Linajet Plus crate washer, a new development from the Krones family that features brushes, immersion bath, and a jetting system to ensure the thorough cleaning of returnable crates. For space reasons, the crate washer is installed on a raised platform. The cleaned crates then pass through the color detection unit and after that on to either the crate magazine or to the older palletizer, which loads them onto pallets.
Redundant heating of the bottle washer
A new feature on this line is a distribution system installed as part of the MultiCo pack conveyor downstream of the empties inspector. The unpacked bottles pass through an empty-bottle inspector and an additional, touchless gasoline detection unit and then on to the Lavatec E4 single-end bottle washer, which has several label removal units. "The earlier the labels are removed, the less label material can break down inside the machine," explains Michael Breidung. "That's especially important to us with respect to keeping microparticles out of bottles."
The main heat source for the bottle washer is hot water generated by two of the company's own combined heat and power (CHP) plants. And because RhönSprudel has completely revamped its energy concept in recent years under the plant leadership of Michael Breidung, the two 1.5-megawatt CHP plants are complemented by a photovoltaic system on the building's roof, which delivers 1.9 megawatts of electricity, and a hot water storage unit that can keep thermal energy available in the form of 100,000 liters of hot water. In addition, RhönSprudel is of course also connected to the power grid. Smart software determines the best energy source depending on need. At the bottle washer, the company even took it a step further, having Krones install an additional gas-fired unit at the back for faster heating and as a redundant hot-water source alongside the CHP. In light of the current political and energy situation, the firing unit, which had been set up for natural gas, is now being retrofitted for propane/butane fuel.
The line fills 0.75- and 1.0-liter RhönSprudel glass bottles as well as a 0.7-liter German Wells Cooperative (GDB) standard contoured bottle and a 0.75-liter restaurant bottle. The mineral water bottler's product range consists primarily of still and carbonated mineral waters with four levels of carbonation as well as various natural fruit-juice spritzers ("Plus-Schorle", “Milde Schorle", "Glück im Glas" – which translates to “joy in a glass"), near-water beverages and light drinks (“Mineralwasser PLUS", "Leicht & fruchtig"), and various soft drinks ("Hollerblüte" – which translates to elderflower – and "ISO Sport"). The products are available for sale in northern Bavaria and the German states of Hesse, Thuringia, and Berlin.
Michael Breidung's overall impression of this latest collaboration with Krones is positive: "Due to its complexity, this was our biggest project to date. All in all, we liked the project planning and the implementation. The decision to work with Krones was the right one. The project went off really well. RhönSprudel will continue along its path, with strong brands and high-quality products."