Working from a small workshop in Collecchio, near Parma, it was no accident that Procomac came into being in 1979 on the outskirts of this beautiful city – known as a center for food processing for more than a century. In those early days, the newcomer made washers and conveyors for glass bottles and crates, supplying them to beverage producers and bottling manufacturers, some of the latter it would one day count as competitors.
Despite the fact that the late 1970s was a time of recession in Italy, Procomac’s founding fathers: Ermanno Morini, Germano Storci, Yvon Van Neste and Valdo Ravanetti, saw the business opportunity for glass and plastic container sterilization. They summoned up the energy, drive, imagination and courage and went for it. The high risk ventured in those early years only made their subsequent success even sweeter, which continues today under the banner: GEA Procomac S.p.A.
The rise of bottled beverages
The Italian soft drinks market was already well-developed by the 1920s, including the large-scale production of aromatized soda drinks. After World War II, the advent of new industrial bottling technologies coupled with the increase in people’s incomes and the strong growth of large international companies investing in Europe, led to a rapid rise in consumption. Mineral water, on the other hand, remained a niche product for many years, enjoyed mostly by the wealthy for its perceived health and therapeutic qualities. The development of large-scale retail trade in the 1980s finally made mineral water affordable for more people. At the beginning of this boom, Procomac was supplying glass bottle washers and conveying equipment to leading brands such as San Benedetto, Vera, Fonte Panna and Recoaro.
Even at that time however, Procomac was incubating and pioneering new ideas; for example, in the 1980s it was the first company to use ozonized water to sterilize glass containers for wineries – the beginning of a long line of ‘firsts’ for which Procomac was able to claim credit.
The introduction of new flavors and formats over the next few years, like PET, combined with an infusion of marketing, further increased production and consumption of bottled beverages globally. With the switch to plastic, bottled beverages became lightweight and safer to transport – exactly what consumers wanted. Procomac was quick to spot several opportunities, developing a full range of technologies to handle these new formats, including: storage silos, air conveyors, unscramblers, rinsers and PET bottle fillers.
Inspired by the rapidly developing market, Procomac moved to new facilities in 1983 in Sala Baganza, also near Parma, enabling it to greatly increase its capacity. A subsequent and final move yielded even larger facilities, which today includes 24,000 square meters of workshop space and a self-contained R&D department, including laboratory and engineering offices for developing and testing new equipment and technical solutions. PET blow molding technologies are also manufactured nearby. “Whereas Procomac had primarily been a sub-supplier for other manufacturers, with the launch of our own bottle filler in the early 1990s,” says Luigi Baiocchi, Head of Business Development Blowing, Filling & Packaging, GEA Procomac, “we were able to offer customers complete turnkey filling systems for the first time. A proud moment for us!”
The opportunity to move towards aseptic filling came in the mid-1990s when one of Procomac’s largest Italian customers required a solution for filling sensitive products, including tea, into plastic containers without the use of preservatives. As a result, Procomac realized its first aseptic filling project successfully, which led to the promotion of this technology internationally. In fact, many of Procomac’s technological achievements later became accepted industry standards, many of them ‘firsts’ in the industry. For example, Procomac:
- was the first company to use a microbiological isolator in an aseptic system
- installed the first integrated injection-blow-fill aseptic bloc (Japan) whereby the process from PET resin to filled bottle takes place in a single system without the need for container sterilization
- introduced the use of PET bottle neck handling in aseptic systems
Joining a global family and a global marketplace
According to Alessandro Bellò, Head of Blowing, Filling & Packaging, GEA Procomac, “By the time it joined GEA in 2007, Procomac had more than 300 complete bottling lines in operation around the world, including many aseptic lines. Our R&D efforts were highly focused on this rapidly emerging technology, which allowed us to provide consumers with more variety in terms of beverages and formats, while delivering cost savings to our customers. And with GEA’s support, we were able to develop this expertise even further.” The can-do, against-all-odds spirit instilled by the founders has never disappeared, and in fact, several of Procomac’s early employees are still with the company, passing on their valuable knowledge.
GEA Procomac aseptic lines are now greatly diversified and more milestones have been reached, such as:
- pioneering the first aseptic blower with isolator technology and launching the integrated Aseptic Blow Fill (ABF) system
- supplying the first aseptic, cold-fill piston doser for drinks containing fruits and cereal
- supplying the first aseptic machine that could fill both carbonated beverages and still products with a simple program change and minimum downtime
- manufacturing the first certified FDA (the U.S. federal agency responsible for protecting and promoting food safety) line for low-acid drinks in PET bottles, based on PAA sterilization technology
GEA provided us with access to a global marketplace, financial stability, sound corporate governance and the resources to develop our technology and innovate in what was rapidly becoming a highly competitive marketplace."- Alessandro Bellò, Head of Blowing, Filling & Packaging, GEA Procomac
The only constant is change
Over the last 40 years, the aseptic bottling industry has matured and become extremely competitive, with new demands from consumers, retail and diverse stakeholders along the entire supply chain. “We’ll be expanding our product portfolio further in sensitive beverages – covering the full range of aseptic and ultra clean bottling while still remaining competitive and delivering exceptional performance,” states Donato De Dominicis, Head of PTC Liquid Processing & Filling, GEA Procomac. “This will reinforce our offering in the dairy, juice, tea and soft drinks segments. We’ll also continue our R&D work to keep delivering the best technology,” he continues. The development of ‘smart’ products that can leverage advances in processing power, machine learning and the IOT (Internet of Things) to increase flexibility and ease of use are also in the pipeline. “Then as now,” he says, “we’ve got big dreams!”