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Destination aseptics
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Destination aseptics
    By installing its first PET-Asept line, Italy’s sixth-biggest mineral water bottler, Norda, has significantly diversified its product portfolio.

    Something different for a change. By installing its first PET-Asept line, Italy’s sixth-biggest mineral water bottler, Norda, has significantly diversified its product portfolio. Together with partners from related industries, Norda is using its new line for making ice teas, beverages with a fruit-juice content, and sports drinks, all of which are soon going to be joined by smoothies. Placing the complete order for a bottling line, including the entire process engineering involved, with one supplier was a first for this family-run enterprise.

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    The mineral water bottler Norda sells around 600 million litres of packaged beverages, 95 per cent of which are water, and five per cent soft drinks, putting the company sixth among Italy’s mineral water bottlers. 30 per cent of Norda’s output is filled in glass bottles, which means the firm is the second-largest producer of returnable glass on the Italian water market, and the third-largest supplier in the horeca segment (hotels, restaurants, catering). The remaining 70 per cent are filled in PET.

    “Where eagles dare, Norda is bottled”

    40 years ago, the company had been founded by the Pessina family in Primaluna located in the high valley of Valsassina near Lake Como. As the decades went by, Norda expanded its production and distribution base to include another three facilities: one in Valli di Pasubio in the foothills of the Small Dolomites, one in Tarsogno in the Apennines and one in Bedonia in the Alpes Maritimes. In its four production plants, Norda is operating a total of 15 bottling lines for water and soft drinks: nine for PET, five for glass, and one for large PET containers. The biggest plant continues to be Primaluna, with a capacity of 3.5 million containers a day. It is here that the most important brand, “Daggio”, is bottled, a water bubbling up from what is still Europe’s highest commercially utilised spring, at an elevation of around 6,400 feet. So logically enough, the firm’s advertising claim goes “Where eagles dare, Norda is bottled”. Further important brands in the portfolio are Acquachiara, Ducale, Luna, San Fermo and Lynx. In addition, Norda also produces dealer’s brands for prestigious retailing chains like Italy’s biggest food retailer Coop Italia. This successful family firm is managed by President and founder Lino Pessina and his son, the board’s chairman Carlo Pessina. In 2008, they tasked their newly appointed Director General, Dr. Giuseppe Dossena, with drawing up a long-term strategic plan.

    Entering the market for still beverages

    Dr. Dossena, looking back on decades of experience in the food and soft drinks industries, recommended entering the still-beverage market, with a three-year plan targeting the main categories of tea, beverages with a fruit-juice content, and sports drinks, to be later on extended to include smoothies as well. To ensure bottling at a high level of qualitative excellence, an aseptic line had to be installed. “Hotfill was not a viable alternative for us”, explains Dr. Giuseppe Dossena. “It’s true, of course, that aseptic lines require a higher initial investment and more stringent operator control while they’re running, but the quality levels achieved are quite simply in a class of their own. We believe that the market is gravitating towards aseptics.”

    Ice tea, fruit juices, sports drinks

    And demand is proving him right. Just one year after the PET-Asept line was commissioned, Norda is already able to book important orders from its partners in all the “sensitive” beverage categories being targeted. Norda is at present concentrating on cooperation with industrial partners. Aseptic filling of private labels is yet another option for the future. For Twinings, the English tea producer and the market leader in Italy’s hot-tea segment, Norda is now handling both production and distribution of the newly developed Twinings Ice Tea for Italy, but also the export business, to Greece for example. Moreover, Norda uses this line to bottle fruit juices, squashes and beverages with a fruit-juice content in PET for an Italian company from Verona. Its third industrial partner is the Italian pharmaceutical firm Poolpharma, for whom Norda produces the MG.KVis sports drink, which has already gained wide-spread popularity as a powder, leading the market for this segment in drugstore outlets. As a fourth product, Norda has come up with its own Norda Ice Tea brand, launched in late 2009. In addition, Norda has been developing smoothies in two projects: one of them a high-viscosity product with 100 per cent fruit, the other one with a milk content, both of whose test phases were concluded in the summer of 2010, and which are now available for partners. Norda has thus built up a broad “aseptic” product range in next to no time.

    “Our journey into aseptics is only just beginning”

    For putting the PET-Asept line out to tender, Norda had deliberately adopted a new approach. All of the 15 bottling lines run so far had been self-configured mix-and-match lines with individual machines purchased from various manufacturers. “When it comes to aseptics, though, things are quite different: here, you have to be able to rely on just one vendor”, comments Dr. Giuseppe Dossena. Three producers were invited to present their quotations: Norda opted for Krones. The line in question, rated at 18,000 containers an hour, was installed in July 2009 and had by December that very same year already been validated. “It gives us an annual capacity of an estimated 60 million bottles in three-shift operation, with high seasonal fluctuations for certain beverages already factored in. With a capacity utilisation of around 15 million bottles in the first year, we’re already in pretty good shape, especially when you remember that all of the products involved are innovations”, emphasises Dr. Dossena. “Our journey into aseptics is only just beginning, and we’re very satisfied with it. We feel we’re on the right track.”

    Blow-moulder/filler monobloc

    While the line was still in the planning phase, ­Krones, in close consultation with Norda, changed its layout to a blow-moulder/filler monobloc configuration, thus dispensing with air conveyors. “This meant we were able to reduce the risk of container recontamination still further.” The Contiform S10 stretch blow-moulding machine can produce 38-millimetre wide-neck bottles in sizes ranging from 180 millilitres to 1.75 litres. So far, the monobloc-synchronised Volumetic machine fills six different containers: 180 millilitres, 190 millilitres, 500 millilitres, 1.0 litres and 1.5 litres. “At present, we still have relatively frequent product change-overs on the line”, says Director General Dr. Dossena. “Our aim is, of course, to fill the same product on three consecutive days, 700,000 bottles non-stop, as soon as market penetration permits.” The PET-Asept line has been validated for 72 hours of continuous running time, with an option for extending validation to 120 hours.
    Moreover, Norda has put the requisite preconditions in place for dressing its containers either in wrap-around labels or in full sleeves. For this purpose, after a buffer section, the following machines have been series-connected: a blow-dryer, a Sleevematic Inline with a downstream Unimodule featuring a Contiroll station, a Checkmat for monitoring the label position and a Shrinkmat steam tunnel. The entire PET-Asept line has an extremely small footprint, thanks not least to the space-saving monobloc configuration. A separate part of the hall accommodates the Variopac Pro non-returnables packer for creating shrink-packs and shrink-wrapped full-depth trays, plus the palletising equipment.

    Aseptic thermal product treatment with the VarioAsept J

    One point of crucial importance for Norda, as Dr. Giuseppe Dossena emphasises, was the fact that Krones was able to supply from in-house production not just the bottling kit itself, but also the entire aseptic peripherals required, and to integrate all of them into the process. The aseptic process-engineering equipment, which is installed in a directly adjacent ancillary room, comprises a Vario­Asept J from Krones as a product flash pasteuriser, plus the AquaAsept, VarioDos and VarioClean units. The aseptic VarioAsept J (Juice) thermal product treatment unit, rated at up to 30 cubic metres an hour, consists of the following modules: media link-up, plate heat exchanger and sterile tank. The VarioAsept J provides thermal treatment for energy drinks, green tea, ice tea, juices with pulp and fibres up to a certain size, squashes and still beverages with a juice content and viscosities of below 5 mPas. The media link-up module, with a pressure-resistant product tank as the equalising reservoir during sterilisation, decouples the line from the supply network for product, process water and CIP media. The plate-heat-exchanger module gently warms up the inflowing product in a recuperative, counterflow configuration, using the already-heated product from the heat-holding section, which is waiting to be cooled down. In the heating zone, the product is heated up to the heat-holding temperature specified, at which it is then maintained. Hot water and cooling medium, as secondary media circuits, supply the heating zone and the cooling circuit. This is followed by a VarioStore sterile tank, which provides a buffer for any stop-and-go situations in the bottling line downstream, thus avoiding product losses.

    Aseptic product change-over in just 35 minutes

    Fully automatic control and visualisation make for easy operation of this product treatment system. Full automation and monitoring has been provided for all steps in the process, such as start-up, shut-down, product change-overs, and also for the production parameters. The VarioAsept J has been designed to permit excellent accessibility for the line’s operators and maintenance staff. What’s more, the VarioAsept J also offers maximised protection against contamination by foreign media and micro-organisms, thanks to leak-proof aseptic valves and a positive pressure gradient. A signal and alarm system assures online monitoring for the process-engineering parameters involved. All production-relevant data can be made available to a documentation system through an interface provided. A large degree of flexibility for the production process is assured by an aseptic product change-over routine lasting just 35 short minutes.

    Hygiene centre with fully automatic control

    The water required for cleaning the PET-Asept line is sterilised in the AquaAsept sterile-water UHT. Cleaning itself is performed by the automatically controlled VarioClean CIP system, featuring two tanks each holding 10,000 litres, and operating at a flow rate of 30 cubic metres an hour. All the media required for container sterilisation, and for cleaning and disinfecting the exterior surfaces of the aseptic bottling kit, are prepared by the VarioDos Asept FCA (Foam Caustic Acid) hygiene centre, which mixes the peracetic acid for aseptic bottle sterilisation and passes it to both the bottle steriliser and the closure steriliser. During sanitation, the VarioDos Asept FCA doses the foam cleaning agent into the jet system’s supply pipe. The sterility of the air used for foam generation is assured by sterile filters, which in their turn can be steam-sterilised inline. Homogeneously dosed cleaning agent is applied to the aseptic monobloc’s exterior surfaces, making for very efficient cleaning, while for disinfecting them liquid peracetic acid is used, sprayed on by the jet system.

    Free choice of chemicals supplier

    Two modes of surface disinfection are planned, a main disinfection routine and an intermediate one. The fully automatic control system ensures efficient, top-quality cleaning and disinfection for both of these. All the individual steps in the pro­cess, like pre-rinsing, applying the cleaning medium and disinfectant respectively, reaction time and rinsing, have been automated, so that they can be tracked, monitored and documented at any time. Each of the requisite process-engineering steps is monitored online, and documented in the LDS line documentation system. Maximised accuracy and reproducibility of a reliable cleaning, disinfecting and sterilising function for the containers are achieved by means of quantitatively proportional dosing of the components water, cleaning concentrate and disinfectant. With the Krones system, the user can freely choose his chemicals supplier if an approval for use of the chemicals in question in an aseptic process is on file. The VarioDos’ construction gives operating and maintenance staff excellent access to the equipment involved.

    New syrup kitchen

    Krones also installed a new syrup kitchen for the PET-Asept line. The mixing concept adopted is based on making a final syrup for the type of beverage concerned in each case, which is then blended in a mixer with deaerated water – and carbonated if necessary – to produce the finished beverage. In order to keep the batch quantity of final syrup (as the drink’s most valuable constituent) at a minimum and achieve a high degree of flexibility for product change-overs, the liquid-sugar recipe component can also be dosed in directly at the mixer. To implement this system, one Contiflow, three blending tanks with a pump-over unit for final syrup, and a system for dosing in small amounts of powdered and liquid additives are used. This latter comprises a powder-dissolving tank, a suction pipe end piece and a connection for draining off concentrates into 1,000-litre containers. An existing liquid-sugar tank was incorporated into the new syrup-kitchen concept. In view of the high degree of automation provided, double-seat valve racks are used to link up the individual components. To ensure maximised hygiene, a dedicated CIP system was installed for the syrup kitchen, separately from the aseptic equipment. The Contiflow machine forms the crucial basis for accurate, economical mixing of all beverages produced. Its high level of automation, its integrated recipe-management function, plus an option for linking it up to a higher-order process control system, ensure dependable product sequences. The Contiflow comprises the following modules: deaeration, dosing and carbonation. The Contiflow 30/3 mixer installed at Norda blends the product concerned with singly vacuum-deaerated water, measuring the Brix value three times (once for each dosing unit) and finally in the finished product. The syrup is dosed in via a pressure-controlled pump, a mass flow meter and a control valve. The flow meter detects the Brix value of syrup with a sugar content.

    Range expanded to include smoothies

    For mixing its beverages, Norda always uses a well-balanced spring water as the base, the same water also on sale as Luna mineral water. Production in the syrup kitchen also incorporates the addition of both powdered ingredients like beta-carotin, and liquid substances, such as isoglucose syrup. While the project was still in the installation phase, Norda expanded their product range specification to include smoothies. When he mentions this, Dr. Giuseppe Dossena is full of praise for the huge degree of flexibility displayed by Krones and manifested in the retrospective link-up of a second flash pasteuriser for highly viscous products, using a shell-and-tube heat exchanger, plus a homogeniser, into the syrup kitchen from another vendor. 

    “Together, we’ve done a brilliant job”

    “In this case, there were three reasons why we opted for Krones: firstly because Krones came up with the right solution for our needs, which also happened to be the best in technological terms, secondly because they were able to offer this at a reasonable price, and thirdly because when compared to other vendors Krones also signalled their strong commitment to this project. To us, you see, this was important, since aseptic bottling was virgin territory for us in every respect, and all of it somewhat more complicated than just filling water pure and simple”, explains Director General Dr. Dossena. “In this way, we were able to do a brilliant job together. Successful validation of four products, plus starting production and sales of three very disparate beverages, just four short months after beginning the installation work: that’s hard to beat. An achievement due not least to the high degree of flexibility displayed by Krones, who never failed to take our priorities duly on board. For example, production of smoothies had not been on the agenda originally. While installation was already ongoing, however, Krones saw to it that a special flash pasteuriser for highly viscous milk-based beverages with homogeniser was retrospectively integrated. So we were able to bottle smoothies as well in next to no time.” “It could well be that the PET-Asept line comes up against the limits of its capacities in three to four years’ time”, says an optimistic Dr. Dossena. A further aseptic line would then be installed in a different facility so as to cut the costs for the logistics involved. After all, even though the location of Primaluna in the Valsassina valley is scenically spectacular and couldn’t be better as far as the quality of the water is concerned, it is in fact rather a challenge in terms of logistics. But anyway, this lies some time in the future still. The maxim for the present, as Dr. Dossena philosophically describes it, is this: “When you’re putting together an aseptic line with components from several different vendors with a variety of interfaces, and it runs smoothly, then that’s just fine. But when a problem crops up, you’re looking at some serious trouble. It was in all respects the right decision to single-source the entire kit from Krones, both the PET-Asept line and the process engineering equipment as well.”


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