The InnoPET BloFill ACF-L aseptic block from KHS is now part of one of the most modern dairies in the region. It incorporates a stretch blow molder of the newest generation. Photo credit: KHS

Block Systems

Serbian milk producer Imlek relies on an up-to-the-minute block system from KHS

| Filling technology | KHS | Dortmund | Germany

In 2018 a big fire caused terrible damage to Serbian milk producer Imlek’s production site. One of the many items destroyed was a KHS aseptic filler, just six years old. When it came to procuring a replacement, the company again opted for the Dortmund systems supplier – and for a block system featuring the latest in stretch blow molding technology.

What’s now the Imlek Group has its origins in a farmstead in Glogonjski Rit, a suburb of Belgrade, where in 1953 an artisan dairy farm was established. This transported between 3,000 and 5,000 liters of milk a day from the farm’s 800 or so cows to the city’s markets, initially in metal churns loaded onto horse-drawn carts and tractors. Just four years later the company installed its first pasteurizing and filling line. Its development then gathered pace: by 1963 the dairy was already producing over 20 million liters of milk a year. The 1970s were also marked by growth, with more and more dairies becoming part of the consortium. Since 1991 the company has been run as a stock corporation under the name of Imlek. It now fills over one million liters of milk a day, with its annual turnover amounting to around €300 million. This makes Imlek a market leader – also beyond the Serbian border in the neighboring countries of Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Further sales markets include Croatia, Albania, Slovenia and – first and foremost – Russia.

The diary giant was the very first in the Balkans to invest in an aseptic filler in 2012 in order to enable germ-free filling of a section of its portfolio into PET bottles. Its prime aim was to facilitate the export of sensitive products by lengthening shelf lives and lowering transportation weights. Back then Imlek decided to invest in a linear KHS Asbofill ABF 711 filler, as with its very small aseptic zone this machinery permits sterile filling without the need for intermediate sterilization. Up to 12,000 PET bottles holding between 250 milliliters and two liters are processed per hour.

More than just a replacement

The technical details also reveal that time has by no means stood still since the company’s first purchase of KHS machinery in 2012. Despite the misfortune of losing their proven system and the considerable amount of extra organization this subsequently incurred, Imlek can now enjoy a new machine that thanks to its numerous further developments is much more than simply a replacement investment. However, the Serbian dairy group doesn’t need to risk any experiments here. “Our specifications were basically the same as when we commissioned the first machine,” Samardžija explains. “The main emphasis was to ensure product quality and production stability. And with our new acquisition we again attached great importance to a high degree of flexibility so that we can produce our various volume formats on the same machine.” The block setup means that a full format changeover can now be performed in the space of just ten minutes, taking up to 40% less time compared to single machines with an air conveyor.

The filling volume accuracy has also been improved by around 30% over the old filler. Electromagnetic induction flow meters with new evaluation software and tried-and-tested algorithms are also used in the aseptic zone to achieve this. They ensure consistent head space volumes and thus identical fill levels in the bottles and minimize the risk of excessive foaming.

Modular aseptics

The modular design of the Innofill PET ACF-L aseptic filler is also new. It basically allows optional empty modules to be planned for on procurement. These leave space for filler retrofits, such as foil sealers or dosing units for fruit chunks, should these need to be later included in the portfolio.

Finally, the KHS Innopack Kisters SP Basic from 2012, a shrink packer that can wrap up to 10,800 packs an hour in film, also forms part of the restored line at Imlek. The packaging unit is one of the few pieces of equipment in the machine park to have survived the fire unscathed. Following a general overhaul, it’s again now fully functional. “On the new line, like on the old one, we fill fresh milk in various formats and chocolate milk,” says Samardžija. In the near future Imlek wishes to further exploit the various new options already provided by its state-of-the-art technology and associated increase in flexibility. “We can imagine expanding the portfolio of our aseptic filler in the future to also include milk shakes and flavored milk,” the dairy's chief supply officer tells us.

Future-proof product range

The Serbs currently process around 200 products. The majority of its sales is generated with fermented milk products and fresh and ultra-heat-treated milk. Financially no less significant but much smaller in volume are product categories such as dairy spreads, butter and standard value-added products. The company isn’t only looking ahead when it comes to its production technology but also with respect to its portfolio: besides standard and organic milk products this includes lactose-free products and the probiotic Imlek Balans+ line for all those who pay particular attention to digestion and immunity. “This year we launched Imlek Protein to market, a protein-rich, lactose- and sugar-free milk beverage specially geared towards people who watch their diet and do sport,” states Samardžija. “Products like these have been a focus of the international milk industry for some time now. It’s thus only logical that we offer our consumers on the home market beverages in this segment.”

The Serbian milk magnate’s modernity also encompasses a strategic commitment to more sustainability. “With a mind to our responsibility to the environment, we’re the first local milk producer to fill our Moja Kravica brand into packaging made of recyclable, bio-based plastic,” Samardžija tells us, not without pride. “Even the caps are made of plastic that comes from plants, namely from sugar cane.” One thing is clear: since its early beginnings as a local milk supplier on a farm on the edge of Belgrade, Imlek has come a very long way indeed – and is far from reaching the end of its impressive development.