Keeping Up With Dairy Packaging

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Fabienne Cheriaux, marketing manager, dairy, food and beverages, Serac Group, discusses the evolutions and innovations of the dairy industry from bottle manufacturing to product filling.

The dairy manufacturing industry is an important one for all around the world, since its consumers consist of both the young and old. Dairy products are sensitive and easily susceptible to contamination, so already on manufacturers today is the onus to take care when processing and producing dairy products. Further, with the increasing consumer demands for healthier products, manufacturers need also take this into consideration when developing new products.

What are the new developments for products and packaging technologies for the dairy industry?

Bottles: Technology Fosters Diversity

The plastic bottle has conventionally been used for the dairy industry, and today it is still strongly developing on a worldwide scale for various products with constantly widening ranges. These include uses for coffee whiteners, drinking yogurts, chilled or aseptic milks, as well as for premium recipes of soy based drinks and value-added niches such as aseptic nutritional drinks.

Looking at the drinking yogurt market for example, bottles are by far the leading packaging format for products under this category, and they continue to promise significant growth in the years to come. Market trends also favour the development of small to medium-sized bottles ranging from a few dozens of millilitres to one litre which, through the use of new materials and manufacturing technologies can now display vivid colours and original shapes.

Simplified High Precision Bottle Forming Technologies

For the manufacture of these required bottles, bottle processing technologies have advanced. Today, there are thermoforming machines available which enable one to create bottles from plastic sheet reels in a vertical process that requires few plastic processing skills. Typically, these bottles are made from polystyrene (PS), a polymer—widely used for the production of yogurts in thermoformed cups—which offers the possibility for manufacturers to choose amongst a wide variety of vivid colours.

However, with advanced bottle thermoforming machines, these also now offer the possibility to use polypropylene (PP), similarly a thermoplastic polymer, but with a much higher stability under high heat. Although PP is typically opaque, it can also be made transparent, coloured or pre-printed. This option has already shown to be quite successful in the drinking yogurt industry of the US and Europe.

Other than these, there exist polyethylene terephthalate (PET) stretch blow moulding technology as well that is integrated in single block blow-fi ll-cap units for the packaging of drinking yogurts and chilled milks.

A real alternative to high-density polyethylene (HDPE), both technologies offer more simplicity in plastic processing while being extremely precise. They are particularly favoured for portion packs dedicated to children as the flexibility they provide allows the production of funny bottles that have the shape of a fruit, a spring or a cartoon character.

Multipurpose Filling Lines For Smaller Packaging

Currently, there are filling units available that have been designed to be highly flexible and therefore authorised to fill equally HDPE, PET, PS or PP bottles. With these, manufacturers are therefore able to diversify their offerings. Flexibility such as this comes from the bottle neck transfer system which requires only a few tooling parts to be changed to switch from one bottle model to another.

Based on the weight filling technology, these units have a high accuracy—a critical factor for small-sized packaging. Some have recently been upgraded to provide still higher performance on bottles ranging from 60 ml up to two litres.

Cups: Sophisticated Products, Traditional Packaging

The yogurt and dessert market is developing through organic products, limited editions and increasingly sophisticated recipes—this refers to products which comprise several layers of yogurt and fruit, fruit, nuts or cereal chunks within the product or dosed in a separate compartment to be mixed just before eating. These recent developments have made dosing operations more complicated.

On another side, the market quest for authenticity today has led the return of traditional packaging such as glass jars or cartons with quaint shapes that cannot be stacked up. Such packaging requires specific technical adaptations on filling units. In Europe and especially in France, authenticity is also a way to develop the spreadable cheese segment with recipes using traditional blue-veined or pressed cheeses that call for particular dosing equipment.

Sophisticated Dosing Units To Upgrade Existing Lines

With increasing requirements for flexibility, there needs to be technology that enables manufacturers to proceed on from wherever they are instead of starting over from scratch. As such, it would be useful and economical to have dosing systems that can easily be integrated to existing lines, whatever the make of the machine. Such systems do exist today, and even with some that have up to 24 filling heads. These provide perfect control for all kinds of products through a complete range of nozzle solutions.

These can also be adapted to the most sophisticated filling methods, from layered and spiral filling of different ingredients to complex dessert combinations, and thus serve multiple and an increasing number of recipes. This would suit manufacturers looking to simultaneously produce several recipes at a go, such as for multi-flavored packs of yogurt.

Hot Filling Of Highly Viscous Products

Hot filling is a common filling technology used today, and suits applications involving the dosing of pasty and highly viscous products. One example of such a product is spreadable cheese. For dosing products such as this, a specific tank equipped with a motorised agitator can be used, that also includes a double or triple jacket with water circulation to maintain the product at the right temperature (around 75-80 deg C) and a full temperature monitoring system. Equipped with nozzles, this dosing system can be used for applications involving viscous runny products.

Machinery For More Flexibility And Food Safety

Whatever the product considered, markets are characterised by an explosive growth of the number of recipes which, in addition to specific adjustments on the machines, call for the highest possible levels of flexibility.

There is a second global trend on the market today: upgraded levels of hygiene in order to increase food safety. Depending on the market considered, upgrades can include packaging decontamination or the implementation of aseptic filling units.

Pilot Lines For R&D And Market Testing

Whether for consumer testing on flavours and packaging or for real conditions market testing, an increasing number of manufacturers are looking for dedicated multi-purpose equipment.

To meet this demand, aseptic pilot bottling lines have been developed, and these are tailored for a low production rate of a wide variety of recipes in different packaging formats (plastic materials and sizes). Offering the standard features for packaging sterilisation, process hygiene and cleaning procedures, these lines allow manufacturers to conduct their required pilot testing for products.

Maximum Flexibility With A Minimum Footprint

Flexibility is always a requirement of the industry. Filling lines should therefore enable manufacturers to accommodate production changes quickly such as from one packaging or recipe to another, and this can be achieved through neck transfer systems and quick change of recipes from a control panel.

To further increase flexibility, it would also be beneficial to have easily cleanable equipment that allows recipes to follow each other without having to go through a four-hour long cleaning and sterilisation process. Instead, with a single injection of sterile water, pipes can be ready for the next batch, and in the best case scenario, it would be further productive and economical if one recipe can be used to drain the other.

Also, with the integration of on-site bottle manufacturing solutions in a single block blow-fill-cap unit and new solutions for thermoforming bottles out of pre-printed plastic sheets, these reduce the footprint of complete packaging lines by avoiding the need for storage tanks, unscramblers, sleeves or label applicators.

Modular Solutions For Food Safety

In order to meet all levels of safety requirements, modular solutions that range from packaging decontamination to fully documented aseptic lines (for qualification by health authorities) can be used.

For example, a controlled H2O2 decontamination of bottles, cups and caps can be used to provide a better uniformity of treatment and an increased control on decontamination parameters. In this process, the concentration of active components and decontamination parameters are continuously monitored, and the control system stops the machine as soon as a parameter is out of the tolerance limits. This solution is also interesting from an environmental point of view, since it requires low volumes of H2O2 and no water.

Aseptic filling lines that include dry sterilisation at all stages as well as sanitisation of the filling unit itself can also be used. A ‘first class’ aseptic filling line would consist of a 100 percent sterile zone plus a controlled area below the neck of the bottle for pharmaceutical level of hygiene within the aseptic enclosure, enhanced security through the doubling of all gas filtration systems, and constant monitoring of a wide range of sterilisation parameters.

Whatever the country, competition is fierce within the dairy industry and all manufacturers, whatever their size, focus on creating distinctive brands that will retain consumers’ loyalty. Their efforts are supported by technological innovations that offer multiple options from which to choose.

Finally, aiming at being unique, newly developed products call for manufacturing equipment that is modular and adjustable rather than highly standardised, and this flexibility would allow them to adapt to the continuously changing demands of consumers, be they in concerns for material, preference for packaging size, new recipes, and whatever else there is to come.