The European Union’s decision in January to allow packaging giant Tetra Laval to complete the acquisition of blow molding machine manufacturer Sidel could bolster Sidel’s leading position in combination machinery performing stretch blow molding (sbm), bottle filling, and capping. These machines have become a preferred equipment choice for beverage bottle blow molders/fillers, the principal users of high-output sbm machinery, since they take up less space, require fewer personnel to operate, and provide better hygienic levels than systems using air conveyors, rinsers, and separate filling units.
As part of the EU’s decision, Tetra Pak, the beverage packaging subsidiary of Tetra Laval, will license its Tetra Fast sbm technology, now in development, as well as other blow molding technologies (Feb mp, 13; mpi, 15). These technologies are certain to be integrated into Sidel, in Octeville sur Mer, France.
Rather than compressed air, Tetra Fast employs a hydrogen/nitrogen mixture that creates an explosion used to expand heated preforms. Besides potentially faster sbm speed, the explosion also sterilizes the bottles, making the process particularly promising for use in combination machines, since preforms would no longer have to be pre-treated. Typically, preforms are treated with ultraviolet light or a chemical bath prior to stretch blow molding. Bottlecaps are treated similarly before being shuttled into the blow molding machine.
The EU believes the technology licensing agreement will ensure that the merged sbm portfolio of Tetra Pak and Sidel does not dominate the market. But Sidel’s leading sbm competitors — Sipa, SIG Corpoplast, and Krones — have developed their own combination sbm/filling/sealing systems and are unlikely to seek a Tetra Fast license. In late 2000, Sipa, in Vittorio Venetto, Italy, brought to market its Synchro system for bottle molding and filling both still and carbonated beverages. Procomac, in Sala Baganza, Italy, produces the filling unit. Last year, SIG Corpoplast teamed with sister firm SIG Simonazzi to develop the Sinergia combi-system. About 10 have been shipped. Krones came out with its combi-system, the Bloc, late last year.
Sidel introduced its Combi machine in 1997. Bertrand Guillet, communications manager, says the firm has about 70 machines in service, including one being used by a dairy in Arnas, France, for processing and filling 1-L bottles with microfiltered fresh milk since last November. The first aseptic Combi unit started operation late last year at an undisclosed dairy in Spain, and there is one on order for a Japanese firm. Two systems for carbonated drinks were delivered to Coca-Cola bottlers in Eastern Europe last year.
Jörgen Haglind, Tetra Laval’s communications vp., says the first Tetra Fast machine had been in field testing at a customer. But last summer, Tetra Pak decided to close its sbm machinery business, and unsuccessfully tried to divest it. The machine was taken back, but the firm continued development of Tetra Fast, in addition to several other sbm projects.
Should it reach market, Tetra Fast could greatly reduce processors’ capital-investment requirements for combination machines because it would obviate the need for a high-pressure air compressor. Floorspace and energy savings also would be realized. An air compressor for a 20-cavity sbm unit, which is about a mid-range machine, costs upwards of $1 million. Some air compressors are as big as the molding machines.
Haglind emphasizes that Tetra Fast is still a developmental project, and that the firm has not tested or utilized the sterilization effect. “However, we have measured the sterilization level one can achieve through the explosion, and it would theoretically be possible to create an aseptic combi-machine based on this technology,” he says.