Whitebloc Filling System Aero – the recent addition to GEA’s filling portfolio for ESL beverages – has hit the ground running in the Middle East, helping an important liquid dairy producer outpace the competition in the region’s dynamic beverage market.

Since September 2021, a shiny new GEA Whitebloc Aero filling system is operating in Saudi Arabia churning out bottles of drinkable yogurt, fermented milk and other extended shelf life (ESL) products for one of the country’s top producers of dairy beverages. We spoke to three colleagues at GEA Liquid & Filling Technologies involved in the project about the Whitebloc Aero and why it is the right solution for this customer: Massimo Pelizza, Sales Area Manager EMEA and India, Massimo Nascimbeni, Product Manager Blowing & Filling, and Cristian Amaro, Project Manager.

Given the challenges we faced in 2021, we showed that GEA is agile and flexible. The results speak for themselves: we delivered on budget and on time to a satisfied customer – in the middle of a pandemic.Cristian Amaro, Project Manager

Is this dairy producer a new customer for GEA?

M. Pelizza: No, the multinational company is a longtime GEA customer in many markets around the world and the Saudi Arabian dairy producer was already an established customer for GEA processing solutions. So it was a natural choice for them to select GEA as a trusted supplier for new filling applications in Saudi Arabia.

Why was the Whitebloc Aero the right fit for them?

M. Pelizza: The company is a leading dairy beverage producer in Saudi Arabia, serving the whole Middle East region with a large variety of premium products. One important aspect they saw in the Whitebloc Aero was operational flexibility. They wanted to transition from HDPE bottles to PET bottles – for a number of reasons, including improved recyclability, availability and price. The Whitebloc Aero is well suited to such a transition because it can handle a wide range of bottle formats with varying sizes, dimensions and materials. It allows quick format changes without having to replace mechanical parts; it gives them the flexibility to switch from one bottle to another semi-automatically.

M. Nascimbeni: The Whitebloc Aero was designed with this flexibility in mind to meet the specific needs of ESL beverage producers, who often focus on small batch production. With ESL, we are not talking about massive production runs with 48,000 bottles per hour as with many aseptic products; ESL is more about high-quality premium products with a high level of diversification. An ESL beverage producer might even need to switch production within a given day. The Whitebloc Aero saves them time during changeover, which increases the overall efficiency of the line.

The White bloc Aero is well suited to such a transition because it can handle a wide range of bottle formats with varying sizes, dimensions and materials. It allows quick format changes without having to replace mechanical parts; it gives them the flexibility to switch from one bottle to another semi-automatically. Massimo Pelizza, Sales Area Manager EMEA and India

What other advantages does Whitebloc Aero offer ESL beverage producers?

M. Pelizza: The Whitebloc Aero offers flexibility and ease of use, but also an advantage when it comes to decontamination. Our customer, for example, did not want to compromise on shelf life when switching to PET bottles; in fact, their goal was to further extend shelf life to expand the reach of their distribution. This is where our experience in aseptic filling came in. The Whitebloc Aero is essentially a simpler version of our Whitebloc Aseptic solution; it offers a lower cost point and is specifically targeted to ESL beverages, which do not require the same level of decontamination offered by aseptic filling. Nevertheless, many of the Whitebloc Aero’s features and components – the filling valve, for example – are the same as in the Whitebloc Aseptic. So the Whitebloc Aero leverages our extensive experience in aseptic filling, and customers benefit directly from this: they get maximum shelf life and an edge over the competition.

M. Nascimbeni: Whitebloc Aero decontaminates the beverage containers using hydrogen peroxide vapor (H2O2), which gives a product longer shelf life compared to similar technologies. And the Whitebloc Aero goes the extra mile with dummy bottles to form a closed loop so that the system circuits can be sanitized with steam. Flushing this closed circuit with steam allows for highest temperature possible for maximum sterility – so again we’re meeting the highest standard for aseptic machines and applying it to ESL beverage production. We see the flexibility advantage here too: the Whitebloc Aero can achieve a wide range of decontamination targets on the same system, depending on the required level of product sensitivity and shelf-life for both high and low-acid products. And of course the use of H2O2 instead of liquid chemicals means that the Whitebloc Aero consumes no water during production, allowing the customer to conserve precious water resources.

Does the Whitebloc Aero bring sustainability benefits other than saving water?

M. Nascimbeni: It saves product, too. The Whitebloc Aero delivers enhanced filling accuracy thanks to the option of load weight cell technology installed on each filling head. This feature weighs each individual bottle and tracks weight during filling to achieve the exact targeted weight, rather than dispensing product according to volume. With greater accuracy comes less uncertainty, and that is particularly important for dairy producers given the price of milk. The high filling precision also means minimum waste when changing products, which is good for an ESL beverage manufacturer producing small batches of different products. The Whitebloc Aero’s built-in product recovery system further reduces product waste.

Whitebloc Aero

How does a customer benefit from using GEA solutions for both processing and filling?

M. Pelizza: Our Saudi Arabian customer is using the Whitebloc Aero to bottle beverages with live cultures, such as drinkable yogurt and fermented milk (e.g. kefir). The processing phase has to make sure these cultures are not destroyed; after this, the filling phase is crucial to maintaining both hygiene and product integrity. Our customer promise is that the filling process does not add to the product or subtract from it in any way, i.e. the bottled product is exactly the same as the product delivered from the processing stage. So the interface between processing and filling is a critical part of achieving the desired shelf life and product quality – and it certainly helps to have a single, integrated GEA system for this.

M. Nascimbeni: Another aspect here is that ESL producers today face a jungle of small, medium and large equipment suppliers and solution providers. For a customer it is quite a bit simpler to deal with GEA, which covers all the bases in terms of beverage processing and filling, but also global service and support. So they don’t have the headache of integrating various suppliers.

ESL producers today face a jungle of small, medium and large equipment suppliers and solution providers. For a customer it is quite a bit simpler to deal with GEA, which covers all the bases in terms of beverage processing and filling, but also global service and support.Massimo Nascimbeni, Product Manager Blowing & Filling

How did the pandemic impact the usual process of selling, delivering and installing a product?

M. Pelizza: Of course it is very different – and challenging – when you can’t meet with the customer face to face. We worked with our GEA office in Dubai throughout the process, which helped. But in general we have found ways to continue selling, delivering and installing our systems throughout the pandemic.

C. Amaro: I think this brings up another benefit of working with a large, established provider like GEA. As an example, the travel restrictions due to the pandemic forced us to change our normal acceptance test process. Normally the customer travels to us here in Italy for the factory acceptance test (FAT) – a major milestone in the process when we conduct a test run of the product before shipping to the customer. Thanks to our GEA Premium Support Platform, we were able to conduct the FAT remotely. We shared the FAT protocol ahead of time and then our customer connected via webcam to observe the test run. Afterwards, we were able to install the Whitebloc Aero on site with just a single technician – partly because of the simplicity of the Aero design. Massimo mentioned some of the benefits of bottle decontamination using dry H2O2. Another one is that the dry decontamination and subsequent activation with warm air can be performed on a single carousel, which keeps the layout of the machine as compact as possible.

M. Nascimbeni: The Whitebloc Aero is agile – it has a small footprint, it is accurate and efficient, it is flexible in terms of operations, and flexible in terms of the types of beverages and bottles it can handle. At the same time, it benefits from GEA’s huge body of knowledge and experience in both processing and aseptic filling.

C. Amaro: And given the challenges we faced in 2021, we also showed that GEA itself is agile and flexible. The results speak for themselves: we delivered on budget and on time to a satisfied customer – in the middle of a pandemic.

The travel restrictions due to the pandemic forced us to change our normal acceptance test process. Normally the customer travels to us here in Italy for the factory acceptance test (FAT) – a major milestone in the process when we conduct a test run of the product before shipping to the customer. Thanks to our GEA Premium Support Platform, we were able to conduct the FAT remotely. Cristian Amaro, Project Manager

The GEA Premium Support Platform used to conduct remotely the FAT of the Whitebloc Aero installed in Saudi Arabia. Photo: GEA
The GEA Premium Support Platform used to conduct remotely the FAT of the Whitebloc Aero installed in Saudi Arabia. Photo: GEA
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