Spreafico Automation, a leading company in the designing, building and marketing of filling and packaging systems for the coffee industry, has established a partnership with the Dipartimento di Scienze per gli Alimenti, la Nutrizione e l’Ambiente of Università degli Studi di Milano (University of Milan’s Department of Food, Environmental and Nutritional Sciences) for the study of the properties of self-protected capsules and the role of protective atmospheres in the shelf life. It is a mutually beneficial collaboration between academia and industry, which could contribute to technological advancements in the portioned coffee market.

The protagonists: Spreafico Automation and Università degli Studi di Milano

The research team from the University of Milan that takes part in the project is directed by the associate professor in the Department of Food, Environmental and Nutritional Sciences (DeFENS),prof. Sara Limbo and will be able to apply their experience and knowledge in the field of packaging for the food industry. DeFENS is not new to partnerships with the production sector, having led projects that would contribute to the scientific progress and, at the same time, would yield positive results for the industrial world. For its part, Spreafico has provided a platform to develop the study: a fully automated machine that, as usual for the company, has been designed and built in its plant in Calolziocorte, Lecco, and has been configured to fully meet the requirements of the university research team. 

The company supports the project with a financial contribution as well, being able to take advantage of the study’s results, which are covered by confidentiality clauses. Spreafico Automation, a company that already has a profound experience in the industry, will be able to acquire a unique know-how in the field of self-protected capsules and in their behaviour according to type and different use conditions. In practice, this means they will be able to better orient the customer, with a deeper knowledge than any other competitor on the market. The know-how acquired by the company will be beneficial to both small-medium roasters and big groups.

Research methods and procedures

The project, which started in the summer of 2018, takes into consideration self-protected capsules,those that do not need an exterior packaging but already have a barrier that ensures the product’s shelf life and are commonly used in a wide variety of systems in the market (“Nespresso”, “A ModoMio” etc.), both by end users and by the industry. It’s the coffee sector with the biggest growth, it shows an exponential increase in sales every year throughout the western world. Just as an example, according to data shared by Iri in 2017, the capsule industry (both self-protected and standard) has registered an 18.8% increase in value and 20% in volume, and this is just on the Italian market. The project currently being carried out contemplates a series of related studies, which means it is not only complex, but could also be subject to changes in order to adjust the research method to any issues that might be encountered along the way. 

To get a full idea of the complexity of the study, it is important to note that among the different elements that are being analysed are the plastic materials used for making the capsule, the gas mixtures employed for the vacuum inside the capsule,the type and features of the packaging machines that are used and, finally, the quality of the ground coffee, that in its different varieties might possess characteristics which produce a notable impact on the behaviour of the system / capsule. The preliminary phase has included a comparative analysis of the different capsule types currently on the market, which have been examined by evaluating parameters such as the layers of the plastic structures employed, the evolution of the packaging gases and the interaction of the complex system coffee-capsule-environment in time, to understand the sensory and qualitative changes of coffee.

Future innovations in the capsule industry

The aim is to be able to define how the interactions of all of these elements affect the quality of the finished product, so as to be aware of and create the conditions for an optimal capsule packaging which guarantees the fragrance of the coffee produced but also a shelf life that is as long as possible.In addition to the financial and research aspects, other topics have been covered by the project that could yield beneficial results for the portioned coffee industry and for the environment. Understanding how to optimise not only the filling and packaging phases, but also the composition and preparation of the capsule, could have a big impact, especially now that the sector is facing several accusations,whether rightly so or not, based on the environmental impact of these solutions. 

For instance, a reduction in the thickness of the materials used or the ability of ensuring that the correct atmosphere inside a complex system such as the capsule is being maintained, could lead to a potential reduction in the environmental impact generated not only by the release of materials in the environment, but also by the loss of product, an aspect which is often underestimated. Objective evidence, on the contrary, shows that, in the food industry, the loss of product caused by an inadequate protection play a big role in the overall environmental impact of the sector.

The advantages of a study such as the one Spreafico and Defens are conducting could lead to benefits for the whole production and distribution chain of coffee in capsules.

The partnership between Spreafico Automation and the University of Milan was started with the help of Gianfranco Zanarini, the owner of Sepack, a company specialised in the fitting of packaging lines for the coffee industry. Sepack, a longtime partner of Spreafico Automation, has supported the meeting between the two partners, helping also in the development of the current study, being firmly convinced it is going to lead to concrete benefits not only for the companies involved in it but also for the whole supply chain.