Bottle Filling Machines: What’s New, Improved, and Considerations
Without bottle filling machines, how would we crack open a refreshing beer on a hot day or experience that slow pour of a craft spirit into a glass? Filling machines are an integral part of the craft beverage production process and used by producers of craft beer, spirits, wine, cider, and a wide variety of carbonated drinks. Bottle filling machines are nothing new, but there are some new developments in this industry that are helping beverage producers innovate and share their products with consumers in exciting ways.
Background on Bottle Filling Machines
Filling machines have existed since the Industrial Revolution, and by the end of the 20th century, the machines were widely used for various applications. These machines have been adapted for use by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, as well as for agricultural needs, water filtration purposes, and, of course, beverage production.
There are many advantages to using bottle fillers rather than manual operations, such as an increase in production, distribution, quality and efficiency. Without the use of these machines, many craft beverage producers would see declines in their profit margins, limiting their public reach and stunting company growth.
How Bottle Filling Machines Work
Bottle filling machines are incredibly versatile, and various models exist in the industry today. These machines may accommodate free-flowing liquids or products that are viscous and thick. Specific models are designed to handle liquids that foam up, drip or have chunks. Some even handle dry products.
Liquid filling machines are typically classified into three types: ordinary fillers that utilize gravity; pressure liquid fillers that apply additional pressure to gravitational force for faster and more powerful results, and vacuum liquid filling machines, typically used for more viscous liquids. Ultimately, producers should choose a filling machine based on liquid viscosity, the gas-bearing properties involved, production quantity and cost.
Overflow automatic filling machines are widely used for thin, free-flowing liquids, while servo pump automatic filling machines can handle thicker liquids and liquids that contain particulates. Peristaltic automatic filling machines work well for high-cost liquids because they are incredibly accurate, while time gravity automatic filling machines are used for thin liquids that do not change much with temperature and batch variations.
Bottle Filling Machines for Breweries
Barry Fenske, the director of filling technology at Krones Inc., a world leader in the manufacture of fully integrated packaging and bottling line systems, told us that the counter pressure vent tube filler is the most popular product among breweries.
“It is a fill-to-level machine, which is important, as glass is inconsistent in its makeup,” Fenske said. “Fill-to-level gives consistent fill levels in the bottles, which is important to consumers. Nobody likes to see different levels in their six-pack, as it gives the impression that one bottle contains more beer than the bottle right next to it.”
Eric Lokker, the carbonated product sales rep for Fogg Filler, a manufacturer of filling equipment in Holland, Michigan, said breweries have a strong desire to be unique.
“With that comes filling machines in many shapes and sizes,” Lokker said. “Smaller breweries are looking for cost-effective options, while larger breweries are more focused on quality, consistency, and overall longevity of the machinery.”
Rod Silver of XpressFill, a San Luis Obispo-based company that designs and builds bottling equipment for artisan producers, told Beverage Master Magazine how his company introduced its first counter pressure bottle filler for beer in 2014 – the XF2500. He said that this filler became popular among brewers because it was affordable and effective for filling beer bottles with minimal foaming issues and dissolved oxygen.
“We had repeated requests for a higher production model, so this year, we introduced the XF4500, a four-spout version of the earlier model that’s capable of filling approximately 400 12-ounce bottles per hour,” Silver said. “We also realized there was a movement towards cans, so again this year, we introduced the XF4500C, a two-spout filler specifically designed to affordably and efficiently fill cans at a rate of approximately 300 12-ounce cans per hour.”
Bottle Filling Machines for Distilleries
Distillers typically require a different type of bottle filling machine, and there are several options on the market for distillers today. For example, XpressFill’s Rod Silver said their XF460HP model, a volumetric filler, is designed explicitly for high-proof spirits and the most common filler requested by distilleries.
“This filler is extremely accurate to comply with TTB accuracy requirements, as well as being a reliable and sturdy piece of equipment,” Silver said. “We have distilleries that have used these fillers for over five years without issue.”
Meanwhile, Lokker at Fogg Filler pointed out that distilleries are often focused on glass handling to ensure that there are no flaws in the bottles or appearance.
“The fill levels must be precise to ensure accurate volume reports,” Lokker said. “They often seek out very flexible [filler] lines that can quickly change over to several different size bottles to meet their marketing demands.”
Krones’ Fenske said that the same principle of fill-to-level applies to glass bottles for distilleries as well as breweries.
“Most popular are the vacuum fillers, as they use the vacuum to correct the fill at the end, giving consistent fill levels in the bottles,” Fenske said.
Trends in Bottle Filling Machines
While some things remain constant in the industry of bottle filling machines, some new and improved features are trending as well. The need for affordable and reliable equipment remains; however, as more options become available, equipment standards become just as high as the standards for creating high-quality beverages.
“As startups, inexpensive equipment is necessary to propel their vision to the next stage,” explained Silver of XpressFill. “Equipment issues at this stage in their development can be a deterrent to future success.”
Recent technological advancements in the bottle filling industry now see machines equipped with better electronic components, replacing inefficient models, and improving output and efficiency. Ultimately, electronic advancements offer enhanced interfaces and greater reliability for craft beverage producers.
“Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) systems are the next step in further improving the filling experience and will allow more control over the process by the individual customer,” said Silver. “XpressFill is currently researching how this technology can be best implemented in bottle filling machines.”
Fenske said that while the design of the filling valve has remained the same over the years, how the valve cycles through each step of the filling phase has improved. While older machines used mechanical actuation, today’s machines use electro-pneumatic actuation that allows for better optimization.
“The drivetrain has changed from mechanical gears to servo drives,” Fenske said. “Servos use less electricity, allow for better access to change parts, and allow for better housekeeping of the machine. There are still manufacturers out there that build mechanical style machines because some customers like that older technology.”
At Fogg Filler, Lokker said they see market demands for greater sterility growing by the day.
“With those demands, Fogg continues to lead the industry in extended shelf life developments such as rotary Microb-Blasters to sanitize bottles, dual turret bottle rinsers, cap sanitizing, ultra-wash systems to self-clean the filling system, and so much more.”
Maintenance and Cleaning for Bottle Filling Machines
All of our experts agree that maintenance and cleaning is a crucial factor in keeping bottle filling machines working well and ensuring they are reliable when you need them.
“Most importantly, follow the operator manuals for cleaning and maintenance,” advises Fenske. “Regular attention will keep that machine running efficiently for years.”
“The XpressFill fillers are designed to provide ease in cleaning and maintenance, as there is no disassembly required,” said Silver. “If the equipment is subjected to the recommended cleaning after every run, the equipment will operate problem-free.”
Lokker told Beverage Master that Fogg Filler provides planned maintenance procedures for each piece of its machinery. “There are illustrations and instructions to help get the longest life out of your investment,” he said. “We also offer audits to help keep your investment running efficiently.”
Final Words of Advice
Before buying a new bottle filling machine, there are a few crucial questions to ask yourself, such as size and material of containers, carbonation levels and production rate. You’ll also want to consider whether a manual, semi-automatic, or fully automatic machine will best suit your beverage production needs, whether a liquid-level filler or a volumetric filling machine is ideal, and whether your machine should have in-line or rotary filling capabilities.
XpressFill’s Silver said that an investment in equipment involves many factors and that the associated risk in making these decision makes for a complex task.
“We speak to many clients who must decide between investing now in a fully automated production line for filling versus a more manual, semi-automatic process,” he said. “Most of our craft customer businesses are relatively young and ‘testing the waters’ to see where they best fit in the competitive landscape. Smaller equipment for these startups can significantly reduce the risk associated with this investment decision. Many of our customers have started with a simple two-spout filler and graduated to a four-spout filler as demand increases, ultimately selling back their equipment at the point where full automation becomes practical.”
“Look for a manufacturer with good guarantees and a proven track record,” Fenske told Beverage Master. “Also, know what the costs are year-to-year to maintain the machine properly. Established vendors can give up-front TCO numbers that can be assessed by the producer’s CFOs.”
Finally, Lokker said that the critical thing to look for in a bottle filling machine is consistency. “That is, consistency in fill levels, in dissolved oxygen pick up, and proper capping. “You need to fully understand your machine’s average daily running capabilities rather than possible, potential, best-case scenarios when choosing new filling equipment.”