“How can I tell that it’s a good aseptic line?”
Quite a frank question I was asked during my first visit to Japan about nine years ago. This marked the beginning of a series of business trips to the Land of the Rising Sun – just as this blog marks the beginning of a number of blog articles dealing with various aspects themed around aseptics. What I could not possibly foresee back then was that I was soon after to go to Asia for several years in order to extol the aseptic solutions from Neutraubling in this highly heterogeneous region.
Not least because aseptic filling of beverages into PET bottles has some of its roots in Japan, this story is ideally suited as my first blog article.
I had the greatest respect for my new environment when I embarked on that journey because of
- the obviously high expectations clearly reflected in the emails received from clients, including very long, detailed Excel lists of questions, and
- the likewise well-known language barrier, which renders it downright impossible without local support to enter into a meaningful exchange of views with the customers.
As far as the language barrier was concerned, my colleagues in Krones’ Japanese subsidiary (called KJ internally), all of them very conscientious workers, took action. I was very politely welcomed in their office before I went to meet the first clients, and everyone working in sales took the time to participate in a small training session on aseptics. For my colleagues, that did in fact offer an opportunity to bring themselves up to speed on the issue and get a grasp of the specialist terminology I was using. After all, they had to know what I was referring to if in the days ahead – either with or without me – they were to communicate the advantages offered by aseptics made in Germany to customers from the local beverage industry with persuasive potency.
To be 100 % prepared to cope with these expectations and questions with the highest zoom factor down to the tiniest detail, I had brought along properly matched slides, which were very well received by the training session’s participants, and even before the first customer meeting took place I learned the difference between two expressions that sound roughly like that: “So des ka?” (Sou desu ka) and “So des ne!” (Sou desu ne). You should definitely take a closer look at these before your next trip to Japan.
So I got off to a good start: My slides were well received by my local colleagues, and in return for my technical remarks I was able to pick up a few simple expressions in colloquial Japanese to start with. Interaction with my Japanese fellow-workers improved a lot, and by our second meeting I’d already managed to suppress my German reflex to shake hands and replace it by a respectful bow, as is the local custom.
All good things come in threes?
“Now let’s see …” is what I thought at the beginning of my third meeting. What quite quickly emerged in a small, simply furnished meeting room in Tokyo was this: That talk was going to be entirely different from the previous ones. While we were shooting through the underground tunnels to get there, my colleagues had already informed me that what was coming would be a more traditional Japanese meeting. After we had ceremonially exchanged our visiting cards with a brief bow, it was clear that we would this time be working just with pen and paper, not with my elaborately compiled slides.
And then we got going: My colleague translated the client’s first question into English for me. But it took quite a few minutes (and quite a few replies) before it dawned on me that the very active mind in the body of a man in his early sixties was not expecting me to give him a long list of correct answers. That kindled my interest and stimulated by mind.
In the end, I came to realise that here – different perhaps from other cultural areas – I would not score points by rattling off a mantra-like enumeration of aspects showing in how far our solution is superior to those offered by our competitors, aspects also referred to as USPs (unique selling points). You will find those at the end of this article. What was needed here – instead of a cornucopia of arguments – was presumably a somewhat more succinct truth. And for me, in turn, that meant leaving my comfort zone, i.e. the technical details that are ever so familiar to me, and focussing one hundred per cent on the person sitting opposite me and the situation at hand.
As I was beginning to experiment in my mind with some thoughts running along philosophical lines, such as “Does a falling tree in a forest make a noise when there is nobody there to hear it fall?”, I hit upon the appropriate perspective here in the land of most elaborately produced things like foods (just think of Kobe beef, Teppanyaki sushi or Sashimi artworks), the finest whiskeys, laboriously hand-crafted Katana swords or electronics (like the game consoles of our young people).
How you can tell that it is a good aseptic line: As its user, you don’t feel the time and outlay that has gone into creating this solution. It works just as simply and reliably as any other line concept – the only difference being that it fills a substantially larger variety of sensitive products. So for us as its manufacturer, it is all about lending the sometimes complex issue of aseptic filling a certain ease and accessibility. And if we want to succeed in doing this, we have to do our homework, of course. An elegant solution, though, does not reveal any of this when it’s being used. On the contrary: It presents itself to its users and operators with all due modesty, keeping things simple. So it is neither the complexity of a line’s processes nor its simple design that tells you it is a good aseptic line, but rather the clear and simple operating and handling routines – independently of the complex problems it solves.)
Once my colleagues had translated this reply, the client smiled and addressed me in English for the first time: “You might be right, Paul-san.”
To mark the occasion in due and proper form, I invited my tirelessly translating colleagues without whom I would never have passed this test to join me in drinking a noble Japanese jasmine tea, special cherry-blossom edition – needless to say it was filled on an aseptic line.
Further arguments that also crossed my mind on that day because they have been the defining features of aseptics at Krones ever since we started work in this field were not expounded there and then but I’d like to list them for you, thus rounding off this article:
- Fast product and format change-overs render the equipment really flexible. This is a particularly cogent advantage in Japan, where everything, from the smallest bottle with a high-acid vitamin-C shot right through to a square two-litre special-shaped bottle with a mild-aromatic zero-sugar tea, is run on one and the same line.
- The line combines long uninterrupted production times and maximised efficiency with ultra-short cleaning and sterilisation times.
- Wide process windows for packaging sterilisation open up some flexibility in the “magical triangle” of the treatment parameters of time, temperature and concentration, so that low bottle weights and high sterilisation rates are no longer mutually exclusive.
- Reproducibility and stability during the partially automated format change-overs provide clients with the requisite “peace of mind” because the change-over routines do not depend so much on the operators’ qualification levels.
- Single-sourced: Since there are no interfaces, there won’t be any fingerpointing, any hide-and-seek, either; Krones built it, Krones gets the entire line reliably up and running.
- Low media consumption, with a concomitantly high degree of sustainability in continuous operation.
- All of this topped off with a variety of different features and checks in the system providing continuous monitoring of the line’s basic functions. Nor should it be forgotten in this context that the tracked information is backed up for years to come, so as to be able – if need be – to evidence the conditions to which the individual bottle and its microscopically small original inhabitants were exposed to.
- And last but not least, let me mention the training options offered for operators and managers by the Krones Academy, plus the Lifecycle Service with its local presence – providing the requisite assistance until the line will after many, many decades take a well-deserved retirement.