The primary objective pursued by a technology group like GEA is to offer customer solutions that provide outstanding product and process efficiency allowing the company to compete successfully on a global scale.

Efficiency implies a minimum input of energy, the conservation of natural resources and a high level of recyclability, always in relation to optimized performance. As a con¬sequence, GEA’s innovative strength is key to its future success in business. Apart from engaging in in-house research and development (R&D), the company gets involved in projects and connects with customers and suppliers as well as research partners, the public sector, and for some time now also with selected start-ups.

For this reason, a string of R&D core issues address how efficient process technology contribute to value creation processes. This is GEA’s way of dealing with the macroeconomic megatrends like a growing world population, urbanization and rising energy costs.

CALLIFREEZE® calibrates the freezer after having controlled the level of frozenness of the products. This saves energy and improves the quality of the frozen food. (Photo GEA)
CALLIFREEZE® calibrates the freezer after having controlled the level of frozenness of the products. This saves energy and improves the quality of the frozen food. (Photo GEA)

For instance, GEA is working on the development of energy-efficient refrigeration systems that are absolutely essential to improve food safety and prevent waste. In the year under review, GEA came up with CALLIFREEZE®, a freeze process control system for GEA spiral freezer range. It continuously measures the food product level of frozenness at the freezer discharge while adjusting freezing time, air temperature and fan speed to achieve the precise level of freezing by minimizing energy consumption. Together with GEA refrigeration systems, the freezers provide the currently best food safety and energy efficient solution when it comes to food sector applications. First results measured in a plant embracing seven GEA freezers have revealed a ten to fifteen percent increase in production capacity accompanied by a lower level of energy consumption.

Oxycheck-MAP-packaging-quality-control
Oxycheck-MAP-packaging-quality-control

Another innovation launched by GEA at the leading international Interpack trade fair held in Düsseldorf in the year under review also focuses on the key topic of food safety: GEA OxyCheck is the world’s first in-line measurement system that checks the oxygen content and seal integrity of 100 percent of all modified atmosphere packaged food for each package released. What makes OxyCheck innovative is that each MAP pack (MAP = Modified Atmosphere Packaging) is subjected to a non-invasive inspection after being sealed on a GEA thermoformer without damaging it by inserting a needle, which used to be the standard procedure employed up until then. Costly spot checks are no longer required, both film and seal remain intact with no product or material being lost. Being a member of the “Save Food“ initiative, this is GEA’s contribution to reducing food loss and waste during production.

Research and development plasma

In cooperation with the Universities of Bologna and Parma as well as companies specialized in generating plasma, GEA started to develop systems designed for using plasma technology for the purpose of decontaminating surfaces and packaging intended for food applications in 2017. In nature, plasma can appear in various forms such as lightning or the aurora. Plasma can generate oxidant radicals that kill microorganisms. Scientific literature and initial preliminary tests conducted by GEA confirm that plasma may reduce the number of bacteria by 99.9 percent. Within the framework of this innovation project, GEA intends to enhance the chemical-free and dry decontamination technology for the benefit of filling lines. The project receives funding from the EU Horizon 2020 work program that promotes the development of a sustainable economy. Read more...

Research and development Sabana process

Another R&D focus is placed on creating additional value from spin-off products, for instance in the agricultural sector. The company aims at hygienically treating products that have frequently been disposed of up until now for the purpose of reintroducing them into the food and animal feed cycles as high-quality reusable materials. With this in mind, GEA has been working on the EU SABANA (Sustainable Algae Biorefinery for Agriculture and Aquaculture) project since 2016. In the context of this biorefinery project, universities, biotechnologists and mechanical engineering companies have been researching methods of binding nutrients from wastewater in algal biomass. During the course of the year 2017, the partners developed a microalgae cultivation plant that is to be established on a one-hectare site in Almería, Spain, in the first quarter of 2018. GEA will supply centrifuges for harvesting and concentrating the microalgae, homogenizers for cell disruption as well as a spray drier for this pilot plant. The algae farm will produce algae-based products like biofertilizers and biostimulants for agricultural purposes as well as feeding stuff components for aquaculture operations. Read more...

Research and development insects for proteins

GEA’s research priority relating to alternative raw materials in the food industry includes the “Insects for Proteins“ project that won an award in GEA’s annual Innovation Contest. In this context, GEA takes up the challenge of processing alternative sources of protein for feeding humans and animals – and in a sustainable manner at that. After all, according to the United Nations, the Earth will have to feed 9.7 billion people by the year 2050 – 30 percent more than today. Even now, the environmental impact of conventional protein production in agriculture and forestry is substantial. Thus, insects – in particular bugs and caterpillars – might provide a more sustainable solution when used as new sources of protein and fat. GEA offers basic technologies that may be adapted to this new market along virtually all stages of value creation. Currently, a dedicated working group explores the needs and circumstances of this exponentially growing market while coordinating activities with other industry and research partners.

Research and development dandelion

Another project on the verge of completion is the DRIVE4EU project that involves GEA and a number of researchers who focus on Russian dandelion. The latter is regarded as a domestic alternative to tropical rubber trees that may be used for the purpose of rubber production and could be grown on previously uncultivated agricultural land within the European Union. GEA has assisted in developing plants and lines for processing the crop. The first bicycle tires produced on the basis of this method were presented at the Eurobike trade fair in Friedrichshafen in early 2017. Read more...

Jacques Timmermans, the product application specialist at GEA showed the adjusted pack line GEA SmartPacker CX400 Quatro Seal during a live demonstration. (Fig. GEA)
Jacques Timmermans, the product application specialist at GEA showed the adjusted pack line GEA SmartPacker CX400 Quatro Seal during a live demonstration. (Fig. GEA)

In April 2017, the “The Full PE Laminate“ initiative was recognized as the most sustainable solution in the plastics industry on the occasion of the GPCA Plastics Conversion Conference (PlastiCon 2017) held in Abu Dhabi. Under this name, a consortium, which included GEA, presented a groundbreaking solution for manufacturing, processing and recycling flexible plastic packaging. It modified the hitherto merely partially recyclable materials in such a way that they could be fully integrated into the materials cycle – without any loss of performance in relation to materials handling or the packaging process. As a technology leader in the food processing and packaging industry, GEA pitched in by contributing its expertise in mechanical engineering. In cooperation with well-known industry partners, GEA continues to develop sustainable packaging solutions that embrace the entire plastics value chain ranging from materials development and production to recycling. In November 2017, GEA held the “Circular Packaging Event” to share knowledge and ideas in the Netherlands at GEA’s site in Weert.

GEA’s quest for technological leadership is underpinned by the fact that around 40 percent of its workforce are performing engineering or engineering-related activities. In 2017, more than 600 employees were assigned to the field of research and development. In fiscal year 2017, GEA filed applications for a total of 58 (previous year: 105) new patent families as a result of their endeavors.

Research and development (R&D) (EUR million)   2017   2016* Change in %
Refunded expenses (contract costs) 25.1 30.3 –17.2
Non-refunded R&D expenses after adjustments 65.3 57.5 13.5
Total R&D expenses after adjustments 90.3 87.8 2.9
R&D ratio (as % of revenue) 2.0 2.0
Total R&D expenses 102.9 98.5 4.5
R&D ratio (as % of revenue) 2.2 2.2
*) Reclassification of 6.7 EUR from non-refunded R&D expenses after adjustments into refunded expenses (contract costs)