The Akij Group is a heavyweight in this densely populated land of Bangladesh, where more than 150 million people live on an area of 144,000 square kilometres. In 2009, Akij Group paid 160 million euros in tax, making it the biggest local tax-payer, contributing two per cent to this nation’s entire budget. Named after its founding father Akij Uddin, the group achieves a turnover of just under 400 million euros with a payroll of about 50,000 people. Sheikh Akij Uddin had built up the group during the 1940s from the smallest of beginnings: as a trader in jute, “the golden fibre of Bangladesh” (which back then was still a British colony), into a conglomerate of enterprises operating in 24 lines of business, which today is managed by his ten sons. Akij Group is a major player in the cement, printing, melamine board and tobacco industries, and operates the world’s biggest jute mill with a one-thousand-metre-long factory, which alone employs 7,000 people. As far as its corporate social responsibility is concerned, Akij Group is involved in five non-profit-making institutions, among them a hospital, an orphanage and a college.
A lateral newcomer to the beverage market
It was only in 2004 that entry into a new market segment was signed and sealed, when the group set up the Akij Food & Beverage Ltd., “because we wanted to meet the need for workclass products made in Bangladesh and expected this market to offer us huge opportunities”, explains Sheikh Jamil Uddin, who is responsible for the group’s marketing operations. Akij Food & Beverage Ltd. concentrated on carbonated soft drinks, water, fruit juices, milk and snacks, and grouped together all of these divisions in a new factory, located 50 kilometres outside the capital Dhaka in Krishnapura, Dhamrai. “For our founder, quality had always been the top priority”, emphasises Sheikh Jamil Uddin, which is why this visionary entrepreneur formulated the following maxim: “Uncompromising quality even in adverse market situations is the main force behind our success”.
The food and beverage industry was entirely virgin territory for the Akij Group. “We went to look at trade periodicals and trade fairs, and quickly came to the conclusion that Krones is the name in the beverage component supplier sector”, says Sheikh Shamim Uddin, the youngest of the ten brothers and the director responsible for AFBL, with the exception of marketing. “In contrast to the other lines of business we operate in, where to generate employment we’re engaging as many people as possible, in the food and beverage sector we wanted to have fully automated systems and lines right from the start as far as this is possible, so as to achieve maximised levels of hygiene and quality for these sensitive products.”
Five KRONES filling lines since 2006
14th April 2006 saw the start of commercial production on the first two Krones lines, one rated at 18,000 cans an hour, and the other one at 24,000 PET bottles per hour. These were one year later supplemented by a PET-Asept line filling juices at a speed of 18,000 bottles an hour, and in 2008 by yet another PET line, featuring a Volumetic filler with an hourly output of 25,000 bottles, this one being a combined line suitable for handling both CSDs and water, “because water is going to overtake carbonated soft drinks in a few years’ time”, to quote Sheikh Shamim Uddin. And in mid-2010, what is meanwhile the fifth Krones line within four short years was started up, this one rated at 45,000 bottles an hour, filling solely the facility’s main product, CSDs, in 250-millilitre containers, so as to maximise line efficiency. The process technology for juice blending and CSD production, including making the sugar syrup, was likewise supplied by Krones. This factory also accommodates three cartoning lines for UHT milk and two lines packaging potato crisps. Since AFBL is invariably keen to work as autonomously as possible, the factory also houses a water treatment system, three injection-moulding machines for PET preforms, plus a closure production operation. And the packaging films and film labels are likewise produced and printed by AFBL in-house.
AFBL has already invested a total of around 70 million euros here and considers this factory as the “Pride of the Nation”. “What we had was the first and so far only aseptic PET lines on the entire subcontinent,” explains Sheikh Shamim Uddin, and continues: “Experts and entrepreneurs are nowadays touring the plant”, which is run round the clock in three shifts, with 170 employees per shift. “Within just four short years, we’ve almost tripled our filling capacities, from 42,000 bottles an hour to 111,000 bottles per hour.” The road it took to get there was a bit rocky at first but the ambitious project then picked up speed: firstly because there’d already been a distribution network in place for other products, and secondly because the name of Akij enjoys an enviable reputation among the populace.
First PET recycling line of its kind in Asia
After some deliberations on installing the company’s own PET recycling line, the ultimate decision was arrived at by a long hard look at the pocket calculator and by heeding the management’s sense of responsibility for the national environment, underpinned by yet another visionary concept from Sheikh Bashir Uddin, the Managing Director of the Akij Group. P. B. Barua, the Senior General Manager of the Akij Food & Beverage production facility, singles out three main reasons for the decision: “Firstly, the bottom line has to be right. And it is. At present, we’re already saving up to 30 per cent of the price per container, by using recycled flakes. Secondly, we don’t need so much foreign currency for importing PET granules. For a country like Bangladesh, that’s another crucial factor. And thirdly, we help to significantly reduce the amount of discarded PET containers, on the kerbside and in lakes and rivers.” This is why AFBL in 2009 installed the first PET recycling line of its kind in Asia. In a new aisle of the hall in the Dhaka plant, Krones built a PT recycling line comprising a washing module with an output of 1,000 kilograms per hour, plus a decontamination module for 500 kilograms an hour. The washing module produces non-food-grade RPET flakes for use in the fibre, plastics or film industries. Full capacity utilisation is always dependent on the market price. But Director of Akij Group Sheikh Jamil Uddin is already talking about converting the remaining 500 kilograms per hour of non-food-grade RPET flakes into polyester flakes, and then using these in the group’s own textile manufactory as a cotton-polyester mixture.
The target ratio is 50 : 50
The washing module can be run for as long or as short a time as the client likes. The downstream decontamination module, by contrast, which refines half of the non-food-grade flakes, should from an energetic viewpoint run with as few interruptions as possible, due to the relatively high process temperatures involved. Which is what it does. The food-grade flakes obtained at the end of this process are used by AFBL directly for making PET preforms. The three Sipa and Husky injection-moulding machines for in-house preform production are located in an adjacent hall and specially equipped for processing flakes. At present, AFBL is working with a mixing ratio of 30 - 40 per cent RPET flakes and 60 - 70 per cent new material (granulated). The target ratio is 50 : 50. The 30:70 / 40:60 mixture is used to make white PET preforms for cola, juices and water, plus green ones for the two lime-based soft drinks. In future, Mr. Barua also aims to have brown bottles produced from recycled flakes.
“The FDA approval was particularly important”
“This approval by the FDA was particularly important for us”, explains P. B. Barua. “We do, of course, monitor both flake quality and bottle quality on a permanent basis, using checks on IV value, moisture, density, crystallisation and colour. What’s interesting for us is the fact that the system runs fully automatically. For the Krones process, the intrinsic viscosity doesn’t have to be as high as for other technologies, a definite advantage. The recycling line is high-tech kit, which is why we have to be able to rely on the manufacturer; we need fast feedback and good service support. And this is what we’re getting from Krones.” And Director Sheikh Jamil Uddin puts it in a nutshell: “Following the good experience we’ve had with the filling lines from Krones as our main supplier, we had total confidence in this new recycling technology; we were certain that it was going to work.” Akij recycles- Bangladesh profits.