In mid-2019, Vitaqua GmbH put its seventh PET line into operation at its plant in Breuna, Germany – and like all of its predecessors, it’s a turnkey line from Krones. It’s the first one to be used as a multipurpose line, as all of the others run just one product in one PET bottle shape and size. Besides the installation of Line 7, the company also needed to restructure all of the plant’s peripherals since everything was configured for the existing six lines. That, too, was handled by Krones.
One of Germany’s biggest beverage producers
The family-owned enterprise Altmühltaler Mineralbrunnen originally emerged from a mid-tier brewery by the name of Schäffbräu in Treuchtlingen, Germany. In recent years, however, it has specialized entirely in producing and bottling mineral water and soft drinks in single-use PET bottles for discounters and store brands. The company is now one of Germany’s largest beverage producers, with four production sites, in the country’s south (Altmühltaler Mineralbrunnen GmbH, Treuchtlingen), center (Vitaqua GmbH, Breuna, and Heil- und Mineralquellen Germete GmbH, Warburg), and east (Brandenburger Urstromquelle GmbH, Baruth).
When the Vitaqua plant in Breuna was completed in 2007, it was considered one of Europe’s most state-of-the-art beverage production and logistics facilities. Krones served as general contractor and planned, built, and installed everything (except the building itself) in just under a year’s time. The project included
- the turnkey delivery of the entire process technology,
- a high-bay warehouse with 51,000 pallet slots,
- internal logistics,
- the digital connectivity of the entire plant,
- and four PET bottling lines, each rated at 43,200 containers per hour.
That enabled the newly established plant, which takes its water from the hills around Kassel, Germany, to fill around four million containers per day. But that wasn’t the end of it.
As planned from the outset, Vitaqua continued to expand its capacities in the years that followed, adding two further Krones PET bottling lines that would be used exclusively for water. In 2014 and 2018, respectively, Krones updated Lines 1 and 2, increasing their individual capacities from 43,200 to 63,000 0.5-liter containers per hour. And yet, even that wasn’t enough to keep up with demand. So, Vitaqua decided to add another PET line – now its seventh and again from Krones. Designed to handle four different bottle formats ranging from 0.75 to 1.5 liters at a speed of 40,000 bottles per hour, this new line is the first to be used as a multipurpose line. “Strictly speaking, if we include the two upgrades, Krones has now installed nine turnkey lines in our plant,” says plant manager Stefan Thöne, who has helped “build” the Breuna facility since its beginnings. “In addition, in 2020, we also retrofitted all of the lines with new Contiroll labelers, so they now all use the same gluing system.” But even so, he explains, the contract award wasn’t a done deal: “We’re almost an entirely Krones-built operation, but Krones still has to prove itself with each bid.”
Flexible, trouble-free production
PET line number 7
- Contiform 3 Speed stretch blow-molder with PET-View inspection system
- AirCo air conveyor
- Contiflow mixer
- Modulfill VFS filler in a cleanroom
- The latest-generation Accutable dynamic buffer system
- Linadry container dryer
- Contiroll labeler
- Variopac Pro FS-7 packer
- Modulpal Pro 1AD palletizer with a Robobox T-GS grouping system with high-level infeed
The new turnkey line bottles both still and carbonated water as well as carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) and went into operation in mid-2019. A number of unique points are worth noting:
- At Vitaqua, the blow-molder on each line is linked to the filler via an air conveyor. “It’s our ‘house philosophy’ and it has worked well for us so far,” explains Stefan Thöne.
Besides trouble-free operation, flexibility is a priority: “Since we run four different containers on this line, it was important that the Contiform blow-molder be equipped with quick-change capability. We can now change over from the smallest bottle size to the largest in just 75 minutes.”
- The cleanroom that houses the filler also has three integrated cap supply systems that feed into the screw capper. Switching between normal screw caps, flat caps, and sports caps is done automatically. “This is the first line on which we’ve been able to handle sports caps at all,” says Thöne. The company buys the sports caps, while the normal screw caps and flat caps are produced on site in Breuna and even supplied to the group’s other plants.
In addition, Altmühltaler Mineralbrunnen has been producing its own PET preforms for all four plants at the Baruth location since 2004. The company has a dedicated container design and development team. All in all, the group is pretty self-sufficient: “Basically, we are a plastics processing operation,” explains Thöne.
Major modifications were needed
Although the plant offered enough space not only for the seventh but even an eighth line from the start, the entire periphery was laid out for six lines. “As a result, this project was not simply about installing another filling line. Rather, the new line had to be embedded, and our plant’s entire structure had to be adjusted,” says Thöne. In other words, the installation of Line 7 required some major modifications to the plant:
- An existing carbonator was moved to make room for the Contiflow mixer in the centralized syrup room.
- In addition, a new CIP system and a high-capacity compressor were needed.
- A new pallet inspection unit for Düsseldorfer pallets was installed.
- The material flow technology was adjusted, with eight new electric overhead conveyor vehicles and fittedinto the existing structure. The electric overhead conveyor serves the entire Vitaqua plant.
- The production planning and control (PPC) system for the entire plant was also upgraded to the latest version.
“Krones had to do all of this in a timeframe that kept production stoppage to a minimum. In the end, we only had to shut down for three weeks. It was really a great accomplishment on the part of everyone involved. Krones sent 70 welders alone, who laid new piping and every one of them deserves a great deal of praise,” says Thöne of the cooperation.
The new line is, like all of the other lines, highly digitalized and therefore equipped with a variety of solutions from the SitePilot suite: the Line Management order management system, Line Diagnostics for production data acquisition and analysis, and the Asset Management maintenance tool. A bar code is affixed to each machine that helps coordinate the raw materials and supplies needed for each respective order. Suppliers of, say, raw materials, labels, or films affix bar codes that are defined by Vitaqua to their products. These bar codes contain information like batch numbers and “best before” dates. Based on experience from past orders, the SitePilot Planning module creates a production plan for each line and machine, using a specific algorithm to take into account the needs and thus generating a list of planned orders. This complete production plan then goes into the Line Management System.
So, when the operator starts production, the system already knows exactly which raw materials and supplies are needed and makes them available, fully automatically, by way of the electric overhead conveyor. When the operator scans the bar code on the machines, another validation takes place. Likewise, it is also possible to precisely trace which product was produced and packaged when and with which raw materials and supplies. “It practically eliminates the risk of production errors,” says Thöne.
This high level of digitalization is also necessary for smooth operation: “Our production is configured for round-the-clock operation on seven days a week. Depending on the season, though, we sometimes only work five days a week. But here’s the rub: We always have to be able to deliver, because we’ve only got two days from receipt of an order until the product leaves the plant. That’s a logistical challenge, especially with regard to getting the needed raw materials and supplies ordered in time,” explains Thöne.
The plant manager sums up the project positively: “Initially, the commissioning was delayed by a couple of weeks, but in the end we have been extremely satisfied with the new line. We were able to run the final acceptance at 98.5 percent. All guaranteed performance criteria were either met or exceeded: For the 1.5-liter bottle, we had agreed on a rated capacity of 38,000 containers per hour and we are actually able to run the line at between 40,000 and 41,000 containers per hour for all container sizes,” says Thöne, adding this summary of his experience from nearly one and a half decades: “Krones always brings its orders to a good conclusion.”