Agr Process Pilot provides “technical safeguard” as Eckes-Granini shifts to 100% rPET bottles

Agr’s Process Pilot Automated Blowmolder Control system provides a technical safeguard as Eckes-Granini shifted production to 100% rPET in May 2021 (Photo credit: Agr International)

The Agr Process Pilot Automated Blowmolder Control system operating on Line 2 of Eckes-Granini’s bottle-making and filling plant in Fallingbostel, Germany, has provided an extra layer of process management and quality assurance for the premium drinks maker.

Responding to the corporate mandate to bottle its popular hohes C juices exclusively in 100% recycled plastic, Fallingbostel production manager Tim Pageler recognised that the sustainability directive demanded exacting control of the bottle blowing process. While he was confident in the plant’s ability to make the transition from 25% rPET to 100% rPET, he was looking for “a technical safeguard to keep the process stable and to ensure that production” was robust.

Pageler found that Process Pilot fit the bill. Stability in environmental conditions and in materials is always a big concern in blowmolding, even more so due to irregularities inherent in rPET as an amalgam of plastics from different sources. The more recycled resin there is in a preform, the harder it is for the blowmolder to achieve the material distribution targets required for well-performing bottles. Not being able to manage the variability in rPET results in non-conforming bottles and creates downstream problems like jams in the labeler due to skewing.

The granular control of the Process Pilot system, powered by sophisticated algorithms, counteracts all these variables, automatically triggering corresponding changes in process settings to adjust for irregularities. For Pageler, these capabilities introduce an extra layer of protection to buffer any fluctuations in quality that can occur, not just with preforms from different suppliers but within individual batches from the same vendor as well.

Eckes-Granini installed Process Pilot inside a KHS Series IV reheat stretch blowmolder producing roughly 30,000 containers per hour. Long an enthusiastic adopter of new technology, the juice maker had configured the line as a block, integrating blowing, the application of a protective Plasmax interior coating, and the filling operation in one unit. In addition to the one-litre hohes C, the line would produce four other SKUs: one-litre Die Limo, 1.5-litre hohes C Naturell, 0.75-litre Bio, and one-litre Trinkgenuss Granini. Design features like a long neck, dimples, or embossing gives each juice bottle a distinctive appearance, but all bottles are 100% rPET. Both the bottles and their content are high value, leaving no margin for waste from containers that do not measure up.

To assure a smooth transition to the new bottle parameters, Eckes-Granini engaged the services of Agr’s process performance optimisation group (PPOG) to set up and commission the system. Limited plant access due to the pandemic meant that the PPOG engineers had to work remotely from the US, coordinating with the Agr technician on site to carry out their instructions. As they went through the trials, the PPOG engineers tapped the full spectrum of their expertise to offset the lack of direct contact with the bottles.

Pageler was pleased with the results, noting that the machine-learning phase proceeded rapidly and the system got up and running much faster than anticipated. The line was producing good bottles within a few hours and remained stable over several days, he reported.

Eckes-Granini’s focus on ensuring container quality for its sensitive, high-end products also prompted the installation of Agr’s Pilot Vision+ for even more support. The vision-based quality management system examines the sealing surface, sidewall, and base of the bottles as they exit the mould. Any non-conforming bottles are diverted from filling, avoiding product waste and preventing them from getting to market.

With the Agr equipment commissioned in January 2021, Line 2 has now made it through all four seasons in its new configuration. Several months of trials and ramp-up have confirmed its ability to produce the same bottles to exact specifications, despite fluctuating temperatures, variations in resin, and preforms from different suppliers. Pageler is confident that Fallingbostel has mastered the shift to 100% rPET and will consistently meet production and sustainability targets.

Given Eckes-Granini’s stated intention to use only 100% rPET in all bottles throughout the company by the end of 2022, Line 2’s accomplishments are even more meaningful.

“This project was enormously important for us. We kept to the schedule, and commissioning took place without any problems. Agr kept every deadline, and I think it was a super cooperation,” Pageler concluded.