Armenian water bottler A&M Rare procures two lines from KHS
A&M Rare's new, ultramodern bottling plant seems almost surreal in its Armenian mountain setting. This is a place where unspoiled scenery and naturalness are writ large regarding both the company's exclusive products and the production of the same. The company relies on KHS for the plant technology for its new PET and glass line.
Sheikh Mohammed Mussallam has run many companies in many different fields in his time – among them the construction and telecommunications industries and hotel sector. In his early fifties, he found he was keen to try something new. When he visited friends in Armenia ten years ago, they were greatly enthused about the quality and purity of Armenia's water – and for the first time, the sheikh learned of the many legends and myths that surround this essential element here. It gave him an idea.
Premium product from the Armenian mountains
Back in the 1980s, he had managed a family-run operation for bottled drinking water. He thus began developing the ambitious notion of returning to this business field, this time with a premium product that has him so convinced that he had love to market it the world over - natural Armenian mineral and spring water. In 2012 Mussallam contacted the country's government, who introduced him to several extremely cooperative individuals in the environment and mining ministries.
Together with a Swiss geotechnical company, he began looking for the ideal location for his undertaking – which he subsequently found in Artavaz in the Kotayk Province in the Pambak Mountains about 80 kilometers northeast of the capital of Yerevan. Here, close to one of the largest and most popular Armenian ski resorts in Tsaghkadzor, where the Lesser Caucasus mountains reach heights of more than 2,800 meters above sea level, two springs can be found amid totally unspoiled surroundings. Rare mineral water comes from Anapak Mountain, 2,050 meters up. It contains bicarbonate and is rich in calcium and low in sodium; it's a gentle digestive stimulant and, with its high mineral content, especially suitable for preparing baby food. The source of Rare's pure spring water – Aknaler Mountain with an altitude of 2,450 meters – is just five kilometers away; with its low to medium mineral content, this water is highly balanced.
Following extensive research and analysis, several recognized organizations have certified the high quality of Rare water for five years. These include Geotest in Switzerland, SGS Institute Fresenius in Germany, Zenith Global in Great Britain, and the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. The natural purity, high quality, and specific composition of the water are constantly monitored. To protect the spring from all outside impact, A&M Rare acquired the terrain and successively dedicated it as a nature conservation area – which proved a real marathon when it came to negotiation. From having the initial idea to the ultimate launch of his company A&M Rare, it took Mussallam five years to purchase the full 1,700 hectares of land from the various owners of this sparsely populated stretch Armenia.
No compromise on purity
Mussallam is not a man to compromise, however - for him, the absolute purity and unadulterated quality of his water have top priority. "Our products are completely natural and not treated in any way whatsoever. I always say, with a twinkle in my eye, that the only 'machinery' we need to transport the water from the mountain to our plant is gravity." He's particularly enamored of the untainted natural landscape that effuses a paradisiacal charm at all times of the year.
He also loves the country's culture, whose people he finds especially open, cooperative, and welcoming. This also applies to the political and regulatory conditions for investors.
High-tech equipment with excellent after-sales service
As his partner for certification, approval, and basic technical concerns, Mussallam chose SGS-TÜV Saar, which advises and supports him on the system, building, machine, and product safety. On the recommendation of this company, Mussallam eventually came into contact with the German system's supplier. "It was important to me that we also adhere to the highest possible standards when it comes to production and filling," he explains. "For me, this includes the provision of high-tech equipment in the form of lines and machines on the one hand and the availability of after-sales service in this rather remote part of the world on the other. What particularly won me over to KHS was that I could procure practically everything from a single source and that we can have a KHS engineer on-site at any time within just 48 hours."
The Saudi businessman also finds it necessary that the chemistry's right - in the meantime, he's formed quite a friendship with Oliver Schneider, deputy head of Sales at KHS, with both men on first-name terms. Schneider emphasizes, "Even if Mohammed's relatively new to the business, he knows exactly what he wants and what he is doing. He is positively bursting with ideas which we have been able to help him realize with great interest and commitment right from the start. He appreciates this – and this helped us to form a trusting relationship quickly."
The experts from KHS have been involved in many parts of the project, from planning the building and its infrastructure through the technical concept to the design of the bottles, labels, and packaging. The bottling shop's construction alone posed quite a challenge in Armenia with its high risk of earthquakes. The outer walls are made of solid concrete, the roof of composite panels. Given the extreme fluctuations in temperature, often icy in the mountains, great attention was also paid to the thermal insulation. It gets down to -25°C here in the winter, with two meters or more of snow not uncommon. When this is the case, the access and surrounding roads have to be kept clear so that the water can be delivered. "A&M Rare is one of the most modern factories I've ever seen," exclaims Schneider. "Mussallam has invested a total of €22 million here, with around EUR 6.8 million going into the technology alone. All of the materials and systems are of the best quality."
KHS has installed two lines - a non-returnable PET line and a glass line, with capacities of up to 12,000 bottles an hour. Both can fill the company's still spring and carbonated mineral water. While the PET line has a stretch blow molder or filler block, the glass bottling system has a block comprising a rinser and filler. "To meet the high demand for product quality, both blocks and the capper are housed in their hygiene room," Schneider explains. "The filling section is consciously separated from the packaging and palletizing section that's positioned in the warehouse area behind a partition." Both lines are equipped with a KHS Innoket Neo SK labeler that dresses the bottles with self-adhesive, transparent labels in a no-label look.
Focus on smart technology and automation
The packaging area of each line also features an Innopack Kisters WP wrap-around packer. What's more, an additional partition inserter has been fitted on the glass line. "This places a cardboard partition in each box to prevent the glass bottles from knocking against one another," Schneider specifies. "In a country like Armenia, logistics is rated differently from in Western Europe, especially if we look at the state of the roads," he continues. Unlike the usual practice in this capacity range, where palletizing is often done by hand, both lines include a fully automatic KHS Innopal PBL-1 palletizer.
"Alongside flexibility, Mohammed attached enormous value to having a high degree of automation in this section. This was undoubtedly one of the criteria that tipped the balance in favor of KHS," smiles Schneider. Accordingly, the factory layout is also very efficient: the glass and PET lines are placed opposite one another almost as mirror images in what's known as a comb arrangement. "It was important to us that we'd be able to operate the lines with as few people as possible," Mussallam stresses. "As a result, that's why we also don't refer to our engineers as operators but as monitors who watch over the line, if you like."
Bottle design with USPs
Mussallam also has very exact ideas and expectations regarding the packaging for his premium product in particular. He has opted for a minimalist cylindrical bottle shape with a flat base sealed with a decorative cap as wide as the bottle – blue for the still spring water and gold for the mineral water. This was relatively simple to implement for the glass bottles; however, designing a PET bottle to these specifications presented KHS' Bottles and Shapes experts with a challenge. "My initial wish for the brand was that the PET bottles for still water and the glass bottles for carbonated water should look identical," Mussallam remembers. "I, of course, realize that a PET container primarily designed for stability should look quite dreadful," he states. "It's all the more of an achievement, then, that the experts at KHS have managed to construct a stable cylindrical bottle that meets all of my requirements. On no account did I want to have to accept a convex base like the one you find on a sparkling wine bottle. This called for a lot of clever engineering – and patience – from the colleagues at KHS." Each detail of both the PET and glass bottle was designed to reflect the brand's premium positioning and, at the same time, ensure maximum food safety.
As opposed to the competition, the bottles are not held together with shrink film but packed in groups of twelve in attractively designed cartons stacked on pallets. This excellently prepares them for what's often a long journey. For with a population of less than three million, a certain amount of competition, and a high percentage of imported water in Armenia, Mussallam reckons on only selling about 10% of his output on the home market. He exports the rest to Russia or Europe, for example – to this end, he's had his water certified according to EU standards – and to the USA, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait – and of course to his native Saudi Arabia.
The geographical conditions alone meant that the new equipment's delivery was a demanding exercise, Oliver Schneider remembers. "Transport routes in the mountains are by nature rather restricted," he says. "Our machines weigh several metric tons, meaning it's not so easy to move them up to an altitude of over 2,000 meters, especially in wintery conditions." Communication also required a certain amount of flexibility. "If you want to bring people from Saudi Arabia, Armenia, and Germany and an installation team from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia together, you sometimes need two interpreters so that two people can understand one another," Mussallam grins.
Installation nevertheless went smoothly; commissioning was a different matter; however, it was hampered by the corona crisis and the limited freedom of movement for the 15-strong KHS team. "As soon as the first restrictions were lifted, KHS was back on-site," reports Mussallam. "Of course, we then always had to adhere to strict rules of hygiene and present countless documents at the airport, for instance. We stationed the colleagues from KHS up in the mountains and strictly controlled access to the plant. It all worked very well; we were able to limit the delay to just four months. We used this time to forge ahead with our marketing campaign and stock up on raw materials so that we're now in a position to produce four million bottles virtually off the cuff. The infrastructure in the area was also further improved by us turning our attention to the roads and electricity lines."
The time both lost and gained through corona was also used to qualify the company's workers and managers. "We chose the best candidates from the universities. We didn't attach too great an importance to experience because we can fully rely on the training quality. The pros from KHS teach our colleagues the necessary skills to make them the best in their field," says Mussallam. He can now hardly wait for his two lines to be running at total capacity shortly so that he can start devoting his time to his next project: Mussallam is already dreaming of a second bottling plant with an extensive returnable glass line so that he can convince even more consumers of the legendary benefits of water from Armenia.
The KHS Group is one of the leading manufacturers of filling and packaging systems for the beverage and liquid food industries. Besides the parent company, the group also includes numerous subsidiaries outside Germany, located in Ahmedabad (India), Waukesha (USA), Zinacantepec (Mexico), São Paulo (Brazil), and Suzhou (China).
KHS manufactures modern filling and packaging systems for the high-capacity range at its headquarters in Dortmund, Germany, and its factories in Bad Kreuznach, Kleve, Worms Hamburg. The KHS Group is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the SDAX-listed Salzgitter AG corporation.
In 2019 the KHS Group and its 5,149 employees achieved a turnover of around EUR 1.260 billion.