Two unique individuals – both named Otto – have and continue to shape the trajectory of GEA Tuchenhagen: founder Otto Tuchenhagen and subsequent Managing Director Hans-Otto Mieth. Each of them masterminded technological advances that revolutionized hygienic processing in the dairy and other industry sectors. Now celebrating its 90th anniversary, the company can look back with pride and straight ahead with confidence following decades of consistent service and leadership.

On November 27, 1931, Otto Tuchenhagen founded a dairy engineering consultancy in the northern German city of Kiel. At the time, the surrounding region had roughly 500 dairies in dire need of modernization. As he acknowledged in his memoirs, the enterprising engineer did not plan to remain in the dairy sector long as he assumed that only “simple, elementary mechanical engineering” would be required – no task for a “highly qualified precision mechanical engineer” like himself. He later expressed surprise at having been able to build an entire career around the challenges posed by the dairy industry. An inventor through and through, he was the first to develop centrifugal milk pumps, replacing the complicated rotary lobe devices then in use. He designed tubular and cylindrical pasteurizers, heat exchangers and coolers. His non-foaming separator finally put an end to the knee-high foam on dairy floors, a frequent problem for dairies at that time.

Before very long, Tuchenhagen was securing contracts for new, greenfield dairies and conversions. During the 1930s and 40s, the young engineer with little financial backing unseated many traditional industrial suppliers, showing he was not afraid to rock the boat even though he would feel the repercussions for the remainder of his professional career. His growing list of inventions included the first fully automated milk can filling line and the first automatic cleaning system – a precursor to modern clean-in-place technology. This meant, at long last, dairies could implement chemical cleaning as a result of replacing their tinned copper, bronze and aluminum pipework and containers with chrome-nickel stainless steel. As his project portfolio and experience grew, so did Tuchenhagen’s conviction that, even in new, state-of-the-art dairies, the existing milk pasteurization method in use was unreliable. Even at the end of WWII, the German population was still being supplied with unpasteurized raw milk; only feed milk was required to be pasteurized.

My company played a crucial role in automation because we had such a wealth of engineering resources to draw upon, plus a 20-year head start in remote control experience, starting with the automatic diverter.” – Otto Tuchenhagen, in his memoir, “Otto Tuchenhagen – Maschinenfabrik in Büchen”

Driving change in the postwar German dairy industry

After the war, by which time Tuchenhagen had relocated from Kiel to Hamburg and then, following bomb damage, from Hamburg to the small town of Büchen, the Allied powers were putting out warnings about German dairy products. According to Tuchenhagen, live tuberculosis bacteria could be detected in German milk, and 90 percent of the livestock, not to mention entire classes of dairy apprentices, were infected with tuberculosis. At the national dairy conference in 1950, German dairies were criticized for failing in their duty to curb infections. Tuchenhagen’s assessment was even harsher; he blamed dairy equipment manufacturers for the hygiene scandal, stating that slow thermometers and hit-or-miss controls, like the manual three-way valve between steam and condensate lines, made high-precision, hygienic operation impossible. He called on the dairy industry to “fundamentally change its ways.”

Tuchenhagen and his employees took on the challenge themselves, developing process solutions to eliminate the industry’s hygiene problems. While some of the innovations may seem inconsequential today, such as hygienic ball feet under machinery or corrosion proofing for electrical equipment, these improvements made significant contributions to the much-needed modernization of dairy processing technology. This also included an industry standard for pasteurizing equipment circuitry and installation1 in 1966. Known as the Tuchenhagen automatic diverter, it enabled automatic switching between pipework cleaning in the raw milk and the pasteurization rooms with the aid of valves and pumps. As a result, world-class standards were introduced in German dairy production, restoring consumer trust in these foods.

The Tuchenhagen diverter, introduced in 1950, was a safe automatic valve for dairies that improved the pasteurization process and conferred longer shelf life in milk.
The Tuchenhagen diverter, introduced in 1950, was a safe automatic valve for dairies that improved the pasteurization process and conferred longer shelf life in milk.

Tuchenhagen helped the first German dairies fully automate, a godsend given capacity expansion rendered manual cleaning nearly impossible. He later wrote, “My company played a crucial role in automation because we had such a wealth of engineering resources to draw upon, plus a 20-year head start in remote control experience, starting with the automatic diverter.”

The company’s engineers developed cleanable pumps, valves and cleaning systems for containers, machines and entire production lines. These solutions continue to make up the company’s core product portfolio. Over time, Tuchenhagen would oversee the design and installation of entire production facilities – and not just dairies, but also food and beverage plants, as well as installations for the mining and chemical industries, shipyards and car factories. Like today, Tuchenhagen specialists were called upon whenever a need arose for valves and pumps that could meet specific high-performance and hygiene criteria.

A world first: double-seat valve technology

By the 1960s, Otto Tuchenhagen GmbH had a workforce of more than 300 employees and an impressive list of 70 in-house patents. However, the invention that shaped the company’s history the most, as well as the future of food processing, was its double-sealing seat valve – a world first. In 1967, the company introduced the double-seat valve, which ensures mixproof shut-off of incompatible products at pipe junctions. The valve and its operating principle became Tuchenhagen’s signature product worldwide and remains an instrumental technology for the safe and hygienic processing of liquids – from milk to ketchup.

Perfected in 1975 with the optimized VARIVENT® double-seat valve, this innovation even made a galactic debut when the Starship Enterprise engine room scenes were shot at the Anheuser Busch brewery in California, one of Tuchenhagen’s first brewery customers. “If you know your valves, you can spot VARIVENT®-series valve heads in those movies – though they were still blue then, not black like today,” divulges Managing Director, Franz Bürmann.

Now firmly established as the benchmark for hygienic valve technology, VARIVENT® ensures the consistent application of product and process safety principles in the production of liquids thanks to its sophisticated modular valve system. VARIVENT® went on to win the supreme accolade in 2007 when the 24/7 PMO valve gained authorization under the strict U.S. Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO). This enabled dairy plants in the United States to operate, for the first time, without interruption. Prior to this, operations would be halted, sometimes for hours, to allow for long cleaning cycles. In 2022, GEA will launch its next-generation VARIVENT® valve – and to be sure another benchmark.

VARIVENT® incorporates years of development work and vast experience from countless projects around the globe. We are proud to carry our technical heritage into the future.” – Franz Bürmann, Managing Director, GEA Tuchenhagen

Expansion and new leadership

As the company took on more plant engineering projects in the late 1960s, including Germany’s first automated dairy and later its first turnkey brewery in Hamburg in 1972, Otto Tuchenhagen began considering how to pass the mantle. Fermentation expert Hans-Otto Mieth was promoted to Managing Director in 1975 and subsequently took ownership of the company. He was instrumental in the company’s foray into brewery installations and well-known in the industry for developing the modern pressurized beer fermentation and storage vessels that ended the era of open fermenting vats.

Mieth and his team continued to prioritize food safety and automation, while looking abroad and diversifying. New focal areas included automation and control, acquisitions, manufacturing pasteurizers and milk trucks, developing membrane technology, establishing more sales offices worldwide and expanding a second plant in Büchen for automated valve production.

Aerial view of the GEA Tuchenhagen plant in Büchen, Germany, GEA’s Center of Competence in Hygienic Valve Technology
Aerial view of the GEA Tuchenhagen plant in Büchen, Germany, GEA’s Center of Competence in Hygienic Valve Technology

More wind in the sails with GEA

Mieth put Otto Tuchenhagen GmbH on the map globally. However, a workforce of 1,500 people and seven managing directors resulted in a business model that had lost its focus. Although he denied intentions of going “under the wing of a corporate group,” Mieth took this route in 1995 when Tuchenhagen became part of GEA, forming the backbone of the group’s process technology activities.

GEA reorganized the former Tuchenhagen business by technologies and, in 2004, also separated the plant and mechanical engineering businesses from one another, which proved to be a successful move for both entities. Together with Niro spray dryers, the plant engineering activities now form the heart of the Liquid Processing and Powder Technologies Division. The mechanical engineering business, encompassing component manufacturing, continues to operate as GEA Tuchenhagen (Separation & Flow Technologies Division).

Today, the company develops hygienic valves and pump technologies as well as cleaning systems to ensure product safety and plant efficiency for customers in the food and beverage, dairy, pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Sites include Büchen (Germany), GEA’s Center of Competence for Hygienic Valve Technology, Koszalin (Poland), Bengaluru (India) and Suzhou near Shanghai (China). Following hard on the heels of the ultra-modern Suzhou multi-purpose site inaugurated in 2018, is GEA’s Factory of the Future, a new climate-neutral plant under construction at the long-established Koszalin site. By mid-year 2022, the new facility will begin producing hygiene pumps, components and deliver comprehensive machining following modular principles.

Clara Stolp, Construction Mechanic Welding Technology, started with GEA in 2016 as an apprentice at Büchen.
Clara Stolp, Construction Mechanic Welding Technology, started with GEA in 2016 as an apprentice at Büchen.

Employees with 30 years of service or more are not rare within GEA Tuchenhagen. Many of the existing employees made the successful transition to GEA. Trainees very often stay with the company for the rest of their working lives, and many skilled employees and managers began their careers here. One of the reasons for the great team spirit is an excellent training program which allows apprentices and college students to work side-by-side with our highly qualified employees in the workshop.

Ulrike Meyn, Human Resources Manager at GEA Tuchenhagen, herself has celebrated 30 years with the company and is proud of the outstanding scores achieved across all HR performance metrics in Büchen:

  • average length of service: 20 years (excluding training)
  • training rate: more than 10 percent
  • employee turnover rate: below one percent

“When you join us, you join a family. You have a secure home base where you can learn and grow, be challenged, build confidence and enjoy the freedom to set out and seize opportunities in a leading international group.”

Andreas Gressmann, Deputy Master Assembly, is a trained fitter and joined the company in Büchen in 1977.
Andreas Gressmann, Deputy Master Assembly, is a trained fitter and joined the company in Büchen in 1977.

Nothing suits me better than working for GEA Tuchenhagen. I began as an apprentice in the tank making team 44 years ago and I’m as happy today as I was the day I started.” – Andreas Gressmann, Industrial Mechanic, GEA Tuchenhagen, Büchen

Franz Bürmann, who became Managing Director in 2000, adds: “We have succeeded in making the company stronger by continuously developing our products and processes. The workforce has grown and our business is booming. This progress over the last 20 years has meant secure jobs for the workforce as well as very good business results.” Both outcomes are reflected in a healthy confidence that comes from leading technologically, rather than hanging back or following others.

Key pillars ensuring future success: modularity, digitalization and sustainability

We're all GEA Tuchenhagen

“Our goal has always been to meet the needs of our customers,” says Bürmann. One of these involved adapting the modular valve range to specific market requirements. For example, a FLOWVENT range was adapted and is now manufactured at GEA’s state-of-the-art Suzhou flow components production facility to accommodate Chinese customers. Plans are in place to tailor the same range for the Indian market. This modular principle allows customers to leverage our solutions despite the specificity of their production systems while reaping the benefits of standardized parts. This simplifies their inventory management and maintenance and minimizes total cost of ownership.

Component design is key to driving transformational change, both in digitalization and sustainability. Product Manager Bernd Porath sums this up: “Plant uptime, robustness as well as repeatability of processes are all integral to increased sustainability. Optimally configured, durable process technology plays a critical role in the smooth operation of our customers’ plants. Sophisticated automated functions and feedback options contribute to an improved climate footprint. Therefore we will include additional functionality in our valve range – from control to process diagnostics and predictive maintenance. These topics have always driven our engineering innovations, and they will remain focal to the work of future process technologists.”

1 Erhitzerausschuss (1966): “Richtlinien für die Schaltung und Montage von Erhitzungseinrichtungen”, updated 1998_Kieler_MW_FoBer_v50(4)p343-356.pdf (openagrar.de)

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