One of Germany’s mineral waters with the highest mineral content comes from Burgbrohl, a little town on the northeastern edge of the Volcanic Eifel. It is sourced and sold here by a company which has existed for 190 years. It wasn’t until 1958, however, that RHODIUS started to bottle beverages. “This enterprise was started by my grandfather Manfred Rhodius traveling to the USA where he was introduced to the Pepsi-Cola beverage. He then had the idea of filling the product at RHODIUS and selling it in parts of Germany,” explains Hannes Tack. Together with his sister Frauke Helf the 33-year-old is currently preparing to take over the management of RHODIUS Mineralquellen from his father. The RHODIUS mineral water bottling plant is a family business now in its eighth generation. “Back then my grandfather made contact with the headquarters in New York and secured himself the exclusive licensing rights for Pepsi-Cola in select areas of Germany.” Mineral water marketed as the company’s own RHODIUS brand didn’t appear in the portfolio until 1974. This was when initial contact was also made with KHS. RHODIUS then became the first mineral water plant in Europe to fill mineral water into tin cans on a system supplied by the systems manufacturer from Dortmund. The can business quickly proved successful for RHODIUS – a success which persisted for the next 30-odd years.
“When the can deposit fee was introduced in 2003, the market completely collapsed at first,” reports Tack, who is responsible for production, logistics, purchasing and contract filling sales. “At the time we were the market leader for mineral water in cans; accordingly, we were greatly affected by the situation. Despite this, unlike many of our competitors we took the strategic decision not to disinvest – in other words, not to sell our systems to companies outside Germany – but to continue to produce, even if not at full capacity. We were able to successively increase our capacity utilization through contract filling orders until three years ago our canning operations were again running at full strength.”
Tack is keen to emphasize that the can still plays a central role at RHODIUS. About half of the 300 million fillings a year goes into cans in Burgbrohl. “The can is also growing in importance on the beverage market as a whole. It’s the container of choice for more trendy products and the online trade in beverages in particular, which is still in its infancy in Germany. This is why the can in Germany is currently the fastest-growing beverage container and this will probably continue to be the case in the next few years,” forecasts Tack.
It thus seems only logical that the company should now invest in another canning line – albeit a rather unusual one, as Gerd Bodenheimer, sales manager at KHS, points out. Instead of capacity and speed the focus of the project planning was on flexibility. “In view of the high percentage of products filled under license here at RHODIUS we’re confronted with an enormous variety of products and packaging. This is why, for example, we needed a component blending system in the maximum configuration in order to be able to produce over 150 different products.”
“The new canning line is the biggest individual project RHODIUS Mineralquellen has ever implemented.”
Coming from the Volcanic Eifel, the well-known source of the best mineral waters in Germany, RHODIUS mineral water is the showcase product in the company’s range. However, RHODIUS is also working intensively on a number of product and packaging innovations. With its mate tea product MAYA MATE, for example, a caffeinated soft drink, RHODIUS is targeting a very young and dynamic consumer group, especially as this is the only mate in Germany sold in cans. The extraordinarily broad range of products includes not just mineral water and soft drinks but also other energy and sports drinks and mixed beer and wine beverages – both as own and third-party brands. They are produced on a total of seven production lines. Across all lines the share of contract fillings is around 60%, with this figure rising to 90% for cans. It thus goes without saying that the issue of packaging also plays a special role in the production process.
In this respect Michael Oberlohbeck, KHS’ project manager for the new line, draws our attention to another special feature of the canning line. “RHODIUS can run the old KHS system on the new one and vice versa; it can cross them over, so to speak, so that all container sizes between 150 and 568 milliliters and every type of packaging can be produced on both lines. Both systems can also access both the old and the new palletizing area. The setup couldn’t be more flexible than this.” This flexibility is also needed, as Tack explains, quoting the following example. “We have a number of packaging lanes, only one of which is used per production order. It’s important that we can use all packaging lines with both canning lines.”
Extreme cleanliness required
Due to the high demands RHODIUS makes of quality the company separates production by beverage type and not container size. This means that energy drinks are kept apart from less flavor-intensive products to prevent a carryover of taste. Hannes Tack is very pleased with the result. “With the help of the new system we can also again fill our mineral water into cans. Water in particular is an extremely sensitive product which immediately picks up any taste impairment which could be transferred inline.”
Another challenge for the project planning was the space situation, as Gerd Bodenheimer ascertains. “At the start of the project there was just a parking lot where the system was to be installed. The new production shop still had to be built. The production hall and the system then gradually evolved, step by step. Sometimes things were pretty tight – for instance when the cement the tiles were laid in had barely dried and the new machine was already scheduled for installation.” His colleague Oberlohbeck adds, “We erected parts of the new line in the old production shop and others in the new one; we thus virtually combined the new system with the old one and had to therefore think about how machine parts could be exchanged without impacting ongoing production too much. And as here no one brand is run for 24 hours at a time, we often had to reschedule during the course of the project for technical production reasons. For example, we delayed moving the old empty can pusher so that the existing line could run for longer. The new KHS Innopack Kisters TSP Advanced packaging system was commissioned before the line’s filling section so that this section could be put to immediate use. All told, the situation was very different from the one in an empty production shop where you install your plant machinery and hand it over on a certain date.”
Biggest single project
The financial framework data, which Tack speaks openly about, illustrates just how large the project was. “On average we invest between four and five million euros a year. In 2016 this sum was around fifteen million euros, two thirds of which were for the canning line project – including construction of the new production shop and setting up the media connections. This line thus constitutes the biggest single project RHODIUS Mineralquellen has ever implemented.”
This vast project was only able to reach such a successful conclusion thanks to the trouble-free manner of communication, as emphasized by all those involved. Bodenheimer and Oberlohbeck praise the uncomplicated approval processes at RHODIUS and Tack in return confirms KHS’ very short reaction times and fast implementation of all decisions made. Just one year passed between the initial plan to commissioning of the new line, with the planning alone taking up about six months of this. Installation itself took just five weeks – an extremely ambitious timeframe, think both Tack and his contacts at KHS. It helps if you can rely on your established partners and enjoy a sense of trust built up during a business relationship which has lasted for over 40 years.
Tack is confident that production efficiency can be considerably improved with the new line. Thanks to innovative plant technology, such as on the new pasteurizer, he expects to make noticeable savings in energy and is looking forward to exploring new opportunities in packaging diversity – both for the end product and also in palletizing. Tack also believes future investment is needed in the first depalletizing section and on the old canning line palletizer in order to bring both lines into full parallel.
Family of entrepreneurs
RHODIUS is also an exceptional company aside from its product variety – for example in the way it is run. RHODIUS’ family of owners attaches great importance to generational issues and specifies in detail how the business is to be transferred from one generation to the next. “Here we define which demands are made of a candidate, of his or her education and qualifications,” explains Hannes Tack. After studying business administration he himself earned his first merits at a management consultants’ bureau and ran a craft brewery together with his younger brother for four years before taking on technical responsibility at RHODIUS at the beginning of 2015. The point at which the ‘old’ managing director steps down is also governed by contract, allowing fresh ideas to flood the innovative beverage market following a timely generational handover.
At the end of our conversation we’re interested to learn what the company manufactured in the first approximately 130 years of its existence. “We’re originally a family of chemists who produced paints and varnishes. The carbon dioxide springs in Burgbrohl were extremely useful in the processing of flake white.” Up into the 1990s the company sold paints and varnishes for professionals alongside building materials and hobby paints. The Rhodius family now concentrates on just two areas of business: grinding tools – and beverages.