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It runs and runs and runs

by Food Drinks Innovation

Syntegon successfully modernizes control software of Zott filling machine

Filling machines can remain in operation for several decades, their individual parts, however, cannot. Mechanical or electronic components often only last a few years – and it is not always because of defects or wear. Obsolescence or new technologies can also be the reason why existing solutions can no longer be used. When this happens, Syntegon takes care of timely replacement. This was also the case at Zott, a well-known manufacturer of dairy products.

The white lettering on a red background is quite the eye-catcher: Dessert specialties or dairy products from Zott stand out immediately in the refrigerated section. And for good reason. Since the family business was founded almost 100 years ago, the company has established itself in Germany and internationally. The products from Mertingen in Bavaria and other locations come together in an impressively diverse product range, delighting fans of dairy products. The best-known brands undoubtedly include “Monte,” “Jogobella” and “Zottarella. Zott also offers vegan products.

The products have to come a long way, before they stand neatly packaged in the refrigerated aisle. It starts with sourcing the milk – the essential raw material. Then comes production and filling using specialized equipment. For liquid and viscous products in particular, such as yogurt or kefir, Zott relies on filling equipment with hygienic design and sophisticated technology, that gets the products into suitable cups safely and quickly.

Keeping up with technological standards
However, high-speed production does not only cause wear and tear on machine components. Technological components like, for example, control elements, can also age in other ways. This does not necessarily mean that they no longer work. Existing servo motors and controllers that manage precise processes within machines can also simply disappear from the market – for example, when manufacturers replace them with new product series. This is known as controlled obsolescence, i.e., the deliberate obsolescence of existing products.

This poses a challenge for equipment operators. Machines must continue to run to maintain production but must also be updated to keep pace with the current technological state-of-the-art. In such cases, clever obsolescence management is called for. Experts define this as dealing with obsolete components that require efficient replacement.

Zott has experienced a situation just like it: Schneider Electrics (SE), their manufacturer of spare parts for the control equipment used in several filling lines, decided to discontinue production of these spare parts in 2024. “Syntegon promptly informed us about this decision. This allowed us to start looking for an alternative solution early on that would take as little time and material as possible,” remembers Martin Lechner, process engineer responsible for the filling lines at Zott. A partner who is very familiar with the filling line – the machine manufacturer itself – played a decisive role in this endeavor. In Mertingen, Zott has been operating a filling machine for liquid dairy products from Ampack GmbH, a Syntegon company, since 2003. The eight-lane double-index machine fills up to 38,400 cups per hour, making it an important pillar of production in Mertingen.

Modernization on offer
Syntegon knew from SE that the existing components would not be available for much longer – and promptly offered Zott a modernization. As this was the first time such an upgrade had been carried out on this type of filling line, Syntegon entered new territory. A fact, the dairy specialists were delighted about: “We have been working with Syntegon for many years. The company therefore knows our requirements and processes very well. This seemed to us to be the most efficient way to upgrade our production to the new technology as quickly as possible,” says Lechner.

The process expert was proven right: together with SE, Syntegon promptly took care of replacements, but had to be patient at first. The Covid and Ukraine crises made the availability of important components difficult, so that the alternatives were only available with a significant time delay. In the meantime, the cables and motors of the thirteen motion axes had already been replaced – paving the way for the next steps.

Meticulously planned
“The cooperation was characterized by thorough preparation,” Martin Lechner recalls. Both Zott and Syntegon left nothing to chance. Syntegon and the electronics supplier tested the software extensively on site first and carried out virtual test runs before installing the new control software within a very short time. The high-performance machine in Mertingen stood still for just seven days – instead of the planned eleven – before it was able to fill yogurt, kefir and other dairy products again. Zott had wisely pre-produced up to the last day before the upgrade– after all, market supply needed to be maintained even during the production stop.

Long-term solution
The new solution ensures the same level of control of important servo axes, such as the main transport chain to filling and capping stations. This is thanks to its state-of-the-art technology that is available long term. In addition to the upgraded control system, Syntegon installed a new Human Machine Interface (HMI) panel for even more intuitive navigation of the machine’s control menu.

To do so, Syntegon did not replace any cables or motors, but simply adapted the electronics in the machine’s control cabinets – in just two days. Thus, the company fully met Zott’s requirement to use as little time and material as possible. The upgrade was followed by cleaning, sterilization and test runs to prepare for regular operation with the new control system. After just one week of work, Zott was able to successfully complete these steps. “The proximity of Zott and Syntegon played a major role in the success of this project,” recalls Helmut Weissenbach, project manager at Syntegon, who accompanied the collaboration from the very beginning. “Mertingen and Königsbrunn are only 50 km apart; our experts were therefore always on site quickly and were able to complete the project within a concise time frame.”

Service from a single source
Syntegon went beyond the actual modernization of the control system. Zott wanted to use a free servo axis of the filling line to perform leakage controls of the cups. So, Syntegon consulted on and supplied an additional servo motor and control technology and took care of their integration into the new HMI.

Considering this was a pilot project, the results are impressive: in addition to the time savings, the modernization was worthwhile financially. As an original equipment manufacturer, Syntegon was able to offer an attractive price for the new control system – and secure further commissions in the industry even beyond Zott. Manufacturers like Zott need not fear costly or scarce spare parts for the next ten years. Overall, Syntegon was in close communication with SE throughout the course of the project, thereby relieving Zott of a great deal of coordination and procurement effort: “Syntegon enabled us to modernize from a single source, so that our machine only experienced minimal downtime from adaptation to full production capability – and retained all functions. The cooperation was smooth and on an equal footing. We could not have asked for a more streamlined approach,” says Martin Lechner.

Syntegon was able to secure the flexibility and availability of Zott’s production for years to come – and there is still more in store. In Mertingen, further modernizations of filling and packaging machines are planned to future-proof Zott’s entire production process. Syntegon will, of course, once again provide support.

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