Whether you’re new to liquid filling or you’ve reached a plateau in your production and you’re looking to upgrade your filling equipment, you’ve inevitably found that a Google search for liquid filling machine leaves you more confused and uncertain than you were in the first place.  For years, the liquid filling industry has done a great job of offering a plethora of highly customized filling machines while offering little to no guidance or explanation to help you navigate the landscape and make informed decisions.  This deliberate tactic has served the filling equipment manufacturers well, as it often results in a phone call from a frustrated and vulnerable prospective client.

Today, we hope to lift the veil of confusion and provide you with seven critical criteria to consider when selecting your next liquid filling machine.

1. Cost

Cost of a Liquid Filling Machine

Cost is illusive throughout the liquid filling industry and it is seldom, if ever, addressed in any of the blogs or educational content you’ll find on the internet.  But we recognize that it is a significant consideration, especially for cash-strapped startups, so let’s talk about it.

No one enjoys borrowing money, especially if that money is accompanied by a steep interest rate and/ or an endless term sheet. As a small business owner myself, the last thing I want to do is burden my customers with a mountain of debt.  This is why it’s critical for us to accurately assess the current and future demands of your packaging system and optimize that system for maximum cost effectiveness – against the backdrop of your budget.

So, it goes without saying that you’ll need to know your budget.  If you’ve got less than about $10,000 to invest in filling equipment, the most affordable liquid fillers are off-the-shelf tabletop fillers.  The most popular filling methods among these tabletop fillers are of the piston, peristaltic, and pump varieties – we’ll cover what this means later in this article. The good news is that most of these machines are very versatile so you can fill different container types or viscosities with relatively little frustration in changeover and you can add automation packages to tabletop fillers as your production demands increase and your cashflow allows you increased flexibility in acquiring filling equipment.  In most cases, a tabletop piston or peristaltic filler and accompanying tabletop labeling equipment will pay for themselves in the first 180 days of use.

As your production demands and budget increases, you’ll want to begin considering fully automatic filling solutions that will dramatically enhance your filling capacity, decrease your labor expense, and improve the consistency of the products you put in front of your customers.  These more capable machines are typically customized by a team of engineers who will work with you to understand your demands and consider a variety of factors which we discuss throughout the remainder of this article.  Naturally, the time and materials required to design and fabricate fully customized filling solutions comes at a cost and it is not uncommon to invest six figures in a highly customized fully automated filling line.

The best advice we can offer you here is to be certain you’re working with a filling manufacturer who is eager to understand your unique production needs and financial constraints to ensure that the solution you’re investing in offers you maximum benefit in the immediate future and is designed as part of an implementation strategy that will will grow with your business to ensure maximum benefit in the long-term.

Finally, don’t shy away from exploring alternative options that will stretch your dollar even further.  For instance, instead of committing several thousand dollars down on a single filling machine, you could start by leasing a small, yet complete, filling, capping, and labeling system for around $250 – $600 per month.  There are virtually an unlimited combination of options to address your needs and not break your bank account and we’d love to explore them with you.

2. Product Viscosity

Fluid Filling Interactive Viscosity ChartThe viscosity of a liquid is a measure of its resistance to deformation or flow at a given rate. In simple terms, it’s a measure of a liquid’s thickness.  For instance, syrup has a higher (or thicker) viscosity than water so syrup is more resistant to deformation, flow, or movement than water.  So, it goes without saying that the filling machine best-suited for your product is largely dependent on the viscosity of your product.  This is why it’s so important for us to get our hands on your product and test it to ensure that we’re recommending the best equipment for you.  To get an idea of the viscosity your product exhibits, check out our interactive viscosity table.

In general, a gravity or overflow filler are often good choices for a free-flowing product like water but may not be well-suited to handle a thick product like honey.  For thicker products, a pump filling machine or piston filling machine will often perform better.

3. Filling Speed

Faster is always better, right?  If your production requires very high volume output, then you’re not going to be well-served by a tabletop machine with one or two fill heads filling at a rate measured in bottles per hour (BPH).  If cost is not a factor and you’re looking to maximize your productivity, then you’re likely in the market for a fully-automated filling line that will output several bottles per minute (BPM) and that will take care of filling, capping, and labeling all with the push of a button.

On the other hand, if cost is your number constraint and your production needs are relatively low, focus more on investing in a tabletop pump, piston, or peristaltic filler that can be expanded with automation packages as your business and budget grows.  And remember, be certain you’re working with a filling manufacturer who is eager to understand your unique production needs and financial constraints to ensure that the solution you’re investing in offers you maximum benefit in the immediate future and is designed as part of an implementation strategy that will grow with your business to ensure maximum benefit in the long-term.

4. Type of Container

Dual Belt Transfer for Bottom Printing

There are an endless variety of container types and sizes available today, and the specific type you select for your products can significantly influence the type of equipment best-suited to fill it.  This is often a consideration overlooked by new-comers to the liquid packaging space and it’s a pretty bad day when you realize that the off-the-shelf filling machine you just purchased won’t readily accommodate the containers you’ve selected.  Some factors that will be critical for you to consider in selecting a filling machine include:

Container Material

Glass, aluminum, or plastic containers all exhibit unique characteristics that influence how we fill, cap, or label them.

Container Shape

Fully-automated filling lines often include components that position the containers for filling, capping, or labeling and the shape of the container influences how the containers are positioned.  For instance, we would often want to avoid positioning the container from the sides if the container is unusually wide or from the top if the container has an unusual lid or cap.  This is often why we’ll ask you to provide us with samples of your containers at the same time you provide us with samples of your product(s).

5. Fill Principle

A critical decision in selecting the ideal filling equipment for your application is to determine whether a fill-level filling machine or volumetric filling machine is best suited to your needs. There are two considerations in making this determination:

  1. What type of liquid product are you filling?
  2. What do you want your final product to look like on the shelf?

Volumetric Filling

This type of filling machine delivers a precise volume of liquid into each container, regardless of variations in the shape or volume of the containers that could otherwise result in the liquids appearing to be at different levels. Volumetric fillers often cost more to operate than fill-level machines due to the special instruments they require for timing, calibration, and balance.  Customers who choose volumetric filling machines typically see this as a worthwhile investment if liquid must to be packaged in precise dosages or when minimizing waste is critical due to the high cost of a given product.

Volumetric filling machines come in three varieties:

  1. Gravity-Fed fillers which are more cost-effective and work best with low-viscosity or frothy liquids.  In this filling application, the liquid is stored above the bottles as they are filled and gravity assists in the process.
  2. Piston fillers work well with either low-viscosity products (check-valve piston fillers) or very thick products (rotary-valve piston fillers).  In this filling application, the product is pumped from one area of the machine to another in very precise amounts.
  3. Pump fillers are suitable for any viscosity but are typically the preferred filling method when very high viscosity (thick) products are being filled and require a high amount of pressure to move the product through the machine.

Fill-Level Filling

Often referred to as a cosmetic fill, these fillers fill each bottle to the same specified level, even if the actual volume of liquid varies from bottle to bottle. The most relevant example of this application would be glass bottles vs plastic (PET) bottles. Blown-glass is almost always inconsistent from bottle to bottle, and 8 ounces of liquid in one bottle will likely not have the same FILL LEVEL as the next.

This method of filling is more efficient and costs less. In addition, it gives all the bottles a uniform, cosmetically pleasing appearance, which is very appealing to consumers. Liquid level filling machines typically use pressure-overflow technology, which has a very fast fill rate and can handle a wide range of viscosities. Any leftover product in the filling tubes gets pushed back into the tank, preventing overflow and spillage.

6. Cleaning and Changeover

When it comes to cleaning and changeover (converting a machine to fill a different type of product), not all filling equipment is created equal.  Be leery of manufacturers claiming that their machines offer clean-in-place (CIP) systems that require no disassembly.  These systems often fall short of properly cleaning and disinfecting contact parts and the CIP gimmick is certain overused among filling manufacturers.  The notion of no disassembly is a fallacy in our industry.  The reality is that ineffective cleaning and disinfecting can lead to cross-contamination and you often cannot gain sufficient access to contact surfaces without disassembly.  If you encounter this claim, challenge the manufacturer, ask questions to understand the elements on which they’re making the claim, and if they continue to claim you never need to disassemble the machine, look elsewhere.

In terms of changeover, if your production requires relatively short runs (a small number of containers per run) or if you have a large variety of different products to fill, being able to clean and changeover your equipment efficiently can make or break your operation.  If this is the case for you, a peristaltic filler is just about as efficient as you can get.  Simply swap out the fill hose and you’re ready to go in a matter of a minute or two.  Unfortunately, peristaltic fillers have their limitations, particularly if you have high volume production needs.  Changeover for tabletop piston fillers can typically be accomplished in 15 – 20 minutes.  Check out our video below to see exactly how to tear down a tabletop piston filler.

If your production requires the best of both worlds – very high volume AND very fast changeover times – you definitely want to check out our line of Dockable™ Automatic Piston Fillers.  These fillers are unique in that all of the product barrels are housed on a hot-swappable dock that allows you to changeover up to 20 product barrels in as little as 15 minutes.

7. Support Before, During, and After Installation

As you’ve explored the liquid packaging landscape, we’re sure you’ve encountered a lot of different options and it can be difficult to decide which option is the right choice for you based on a fancy (or not so fancy) website.  We understand that the equipment we manufacture represents a significant investment so you want to be certain you can trust and depend on the manufacturer you partner with for your filling needs.  As such, we’ll encourage you to consider of few less tangible factors as you’re navigating the space.

Responsiveness

  • When you have attempted to contact a liquid filling manufacturer, have they responded within 24 hours to a contact form or email submission?
  • If you call, does an actual person answer the phone?  If not, how long does it take them to return your call?
  • How knowledgeable is the person you’re speaking with?
  • Are they asking you detailed questions about not only your products and packaging objectives but also your business plan and growth objectives?

When you contact them, ask them to provide you with the details of their:

  • Process for customizing your equipment.
  • Quality review and approval process.
  • Installation process.
  • On-site and remote support following installation.
  • How they handle Returns and Refunds.

How effectively and completely did they answer your questions?  If they failed to exceed your expectations, we’d encourage you to give us a chance to show you The Fluid Experience.

Contact us, shoot us an email, or give us a call at 219.575.7179 – we can’t wait to meet you!