The beverage industry is bigger, more trend-driven and more diverse than ever. The American Beverage Association says just its slice of the industry (carbonated soft drinks, energy drinks, ready-to-drink teas and bottled water) amounts to a $119 billion, annual economy.
It is also growing. A 2011 study by market research firm AlixPartners indicated that 74 percent of consumers surveyed in the spring of that year expected to spend more in that coming year on non-alcoholic beverages than they had in 2010. Several market studies point to impressive growth in sub-segments including energy drinks, ready-to-drink teas and sports drinks, all of which more than eclipse the erosion of carbonated soft drinks sales.
This complex beverage industry means that beverage plant managers and engineers have more variables to work with and a higher level of expectations to meet. While it may be pretty basic on the surface, mixing and blending beverages and then packaging them for sale is not nearly as simple as it once was.
Remember when there was only formula for orange juice? "Now, do you want no-pulp, light pulp or heavy pulp?" asks Wallace Wittkoff, hygienic market director for Pump Solutions Group, which includes pump brands such as Wilden, Mouvex and Almatec (www.psgdover.com).
"Beverage processors need to thermally handle the juice differently than the pulp. If you break the pulp sac, all the pulp falls to the bottom. So they separate the pulp and then add it back in at the end to whatever proportion they desire. A centrifugal pump could pump the beverage just fine, but could break those pulp sacs. But a diaphragm pump gently handles mixing the pulp back in," he says.
Wittkoff also notes that the Wilden Hygienic series is designed with internal geometries that prevent pulp from getting lodged in seal areas or back sides of rotors so pulp is completely removed during clean-in-place. Otherwise, pulp can remain even after cleaning.
Some of the most important changes have taken place in the blending room, where new technologies allow for faster, more accurate and more thorough blending of the ever-increasing ingredients and fortification that goes into today's products.
It doesn't end there, of course, as filling and packaging equipment has also changed dramatically. And throughout a beverage plant, there are ongoing efforts to reduce energy use and push the envelope on the levels of hygiene, functionality and ease of maintenance.
A better mix
Mixing and blending for beverages is typically achieved in a large-format vat blending system. But as beverage formulations have become more varied and complex, and have come to include more high-value fortification and functional ingredients, the approach to blending has changed too, says Rick Earley, beverage and dairy market manager at Admix Inc. (www.admix.com) Manchester, N.H.
"With all the beverage folks, what they want to do is to wet, disperse and blend all of these critical ingredients into a liquid," he says. "We are able to save them energy and reduce batch times through things like in-line and powder induction blending that takes place before the mix reaches the batch tank.
"Most beverage plants have gone to high-shear mixers in their batch tanks, but with in-line and powder induction there is less heating and mixing needed once the product reaches those tanks," he adds.
Additionally, ingredients can be mixed at floor level, eliminating the need to elevate those materials to the top of a tall batch tank, says Daniel Osiedacz, blending/mixing product manager at Fristam Pumps (www.fristam.com) Middleton, Wis.
"You would rather not have personnel positioned at the top of the tank. And if you are blending directly in the tank, you have to have some way of getting the ingredients up there," Osiedacz says. "Also, when you dump a big bag of powder into a vat filled with liquid a portion of it doesn't get mixed in right away."
A common negative outcome of batch blending is that some of that undissolved, un-hydrated powder bonds together. Those clumps can be reduced, but it is nearly impossible to eliminate the smallest clumps or agglomerations, commonly referred to as "fish eyes."
"Those usually have to be removed by some sort of filtration, and that's a waste of raw material," Osiedacz notes. As beverage manufacturers add botanicals to energy drinks and vitamins to dietary supplements, the ability to lessen or eliminate raw material loss becomes more attractive.
Premixing can reduce costs in another way, says Chris Ryan, technical author at Silverson Machines (www.silverson.com) East Longmeadow, Mass. "We can help manufacturers cut their running costs by preparing premixes and formulations without the need for heating the base liquid," he says. "This applies to ingredients like pectin and gum arabic as well. We know of two major producers who have come to our site for trials and have been amazed at the results achieved with water at ambient temperature. The savings in this instance would allow payback for the mixer in no time."
Powder induction mixers and inline blenders use pumps upstream of the vat mixer to meter and blend liquid and dry ingredients while recirculating the slurry.
Inline blenders work in three stages. During stage 1, high-speed rotation of the rotor blades within the mixing workhead exerts suction, drawing liquid and solid materials into the rotor/stator assembly. Next, during stage 2, centrifugal force drives the materials towards the periphery of the workhead, where they are subjected to a milling clearance between the ends of the rotor blades and the inner wall of the stator. This is followed by stage 3, where intense hydraulic shear forces the materials at high velocity through the perforations in the stator, then through the machine outlet and along the pipework. At the same time, fresh materials are continually drawn into the workhead, maintaining the mixing and pumping cycle.
Powder induction high-shear mixers are designed more specifically to incorporate most solids or powders into liquids for blending, dispersing and deagglomerating. Most can accomplish these tasks in 3-5 minutes.
Osiedacz cites an example of a large juice company that was successfully marketing a mango juice beverage with a considerable amount of pulp. The company was happy with the product quality and consumers where receptive, but there were problems in production where the pulp had a tendency to build up and clog processing equipment. Fristam helped the company find a solution.
"They were successful in using an inline high-shear blender to break the pulp particles down to smaller size," Osiedacz noted. "So they could go from a 30-40 hour filling cycle to a 72-hour run."
These innovations in mixing technology have found a place in the processing of new beverage types including sports and nutrition beverages and energy drinks. They also have applications in a variety of juices, in flavored milks and anywhere else a significant amount of powdered ingredients and valuable fortification ingredients are part of the beverage's marketing proposition.
This Wilden Hygienic series pump was used instead of centrifugal pump to handle the pulp that is separated, processed and then re-added to the juice at the proper proportion. It's fully CIP-able, 3A/EHEDG certified and prevents pulp from getting lodged in seals or back sides of rotors.
Energy savings and sanitary design
Energy reduction was once something that food manufacturers only considered during price spikes; and with an unpredictable ROI, it was often a secondary consideration. These days, not being able to demonstrate a real effort to curtail energy consumption can cost a company in more ways than one.
"I don't ever see anyone delaying improvements that will result in a savings of energy consumption," says Admix's Early. "Walmart has come to its suppliers and demanded that they show X amount of savings in energy and water consumption."
As stated earlier, mixers can play a significant role in reducing energy use. Premixing by use of small, high-efficiency, high-shear blenders can reduce the heating and blending times. Whether considering mixing equipment or pumps, any discussion about energy efficiency has to start with proper sizing, says Osiedacz.
"There is always going to be that perfect horsepower sweet spot for the particular application, he says. "We also offer different components that allow the same pump to be used for different applications."
Experts say 10-15 percent reductions in energy use are not uncommon when newer mixers are combined with properly sized pumps. Today's inline mixer and powder induction system runs with about half the energy that was used in simple batch mixer systems that were in use 20 years ago.
Sanitary design has always been part of the consideration when equipment is designed for food manufacturing applications, but the bar continues to be pushed higher, says Silverson's Ryan.
"Hygienic design and traceability – features developed in the pharmaceutical sector -- are now as prevalent in the food & beverage industry," Ryan notes. "In recent years we've developed a series of ultra-sanitary mixers to meet this need, and they have set the benchmark for sanitary design worldwide, without compromising on performance."
Other features offered in new pump and mixer product lines include built-in CIP spray balls, double seals and design features offering ease of maintenance and quick change-over.
Fillers and packaging
Eventually that carefully blended beverage has to go into a bottle, and that is where filling equipment comes in. Numerous manufacturers offer an array of fillers for different applications. These include inline fillers for hot or cold fill, rotary fillers, systems that work in an ambient environment and those that include aseptic clean rooms. There are machines designed to fill gallon bottles or larger, and others that can fill bottles as small as 2 oz.
Fogg Filler (www.foggfiller.com), Holland, Mich., specializes in high-speed rotary filling systems for the beverage and dairy industries. Fogg recently introduced a new HEPA filtration feature for its rinsing systems. The new option includes stainless steel construction, internal lighting and variable-speed drives. A control PLC is programmed to balance the drive on the HEPA and the exhaust systems so the rinser stays positively pressured while keeping fumes to a minimum.
Filler Specialties (www.filler-specialties.com), Zeeland, Mich., recently rolled out a series of compact sanitary filling/capping systems for small 2-3-oz. applications, including popular energy drink shots. Bottle neck support hardware ensures full bottle control for highly efficient operation. These monobloc machines are available with optional attachments including patented clean-in-place filling valves, ultra-clean HEPA enclosures, and bowl quick-flush systems.
One of the most basic pieces of equipment for bottlers is the holding tank. These can be custom fabricated by companies like A&B Process Systems (www.abprocess.com), Stratford, Wis. A&B's tanks are designed to 3-A standards for optimal sanitation, and their all-stainless steel construction prevents corrosion and extends their life. They are also certified to ASME code.
Packaging for beverages has continued to evolve too, with suppliers of plastics and aluminum developing new materials and packaging configurations to meet the needs of beverage manufacturers. Paperboard cartons with improved closures also have a significant section of the market, particularly for dairy and juice, and glass still holds on to a tiny fraction of the milk business.
The packaging is so important to consumer perceptions that it can become a major part of a product's brand proposition. For that reason, this is an area of the beverage business that rarely sits still.