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Probat: keeping ahead in a dynamic industry.

With new European markets opening up in the East and consumer tastes in established markets becoming more sophisticated, the world coffee industry is now changing faster than ever before. The situation has created a parallel demand for equally new and flexible production technology to meet the situation, as special correspondent Richard Clark discovered in Germany recently.

Sometimes the coal-fired steam barges hauling freight along the Rhine in the 1860's would snag a hidden shoal and snap or twist a blade on their propellers. Often the only remedy was to winch the boat up on the slipway at Emmerich, for skilled artisans at the local engineering works and iron foundry to re-cast and replace the damaged item overnight.

The Emmerich enterprise soon won a reputation for swift and expert service so when local coffee merchants needed someone to make commercial-size roasters for them, they knew exactly where to look. That, in brief, is how Probat was born.

But sitting as it does at the center of what will become the world's biggest single market when the European Community drops cross-boarder barriers to trade at midnight on December 31, the company is understandably reluctant to dwell over much on its past achievements. The coffee industry will be even more competitive from next year onward than it is already. Buyouts, mergers and takeovers among the leading European roasters have increased at breathtaking speed during the run-up to the unitary market, but the advent of the unpredictable new markets of Eastern Europe has added an extra joker to the pack.

"No, naturally we are proud of our history, but we have never allowed ourselves to live in the past," explains chief executive, Hans von Gimborn. "In fact, we aim to keep ahead of change by constantly reviewing and updating both our technology and the services we offer our clients." So, in place of the simple globe roaster that was all the company produced in 1868, Probat now offers everything from the smallest gourmet store roaster to the giant industrial-scale roasters processing 4,000 kg and more per hour for customers in around 100 countries.

There are shop- and small drum roasters, or the classic L- and G-Series, radial-turbo RZs and the RC continuous roaster, with subsidiary companies Gothot and Maquinaria del Rhin completing the range. The bigger installations also incorporate advanced computer controls, plus all the necessary ancillary equipment for handling the bean from delivery through to final despatch.

"We can design, build and install virtually everything that even the biggest roasters require, including the full turn-key option," says Rudolf von Hartmann, Probat's newly appointed executive director, "On top of that, we also try to tune into the individual operational needs of our customers."

A difficult objective surely? "Difficult, true, but we still have to try," says Von Hartmann. Take our research and development program, for example. We don't attempt to duplicate the work major roasters carry out in their own laboratories; that would be foolish. But our R & D enables us to develop the best possible equipment for every stage in the total processing cycle, although we focus on the processing methods and not the commercial objectives of a company." In fact, a seemingly contradictory aspect of the department's work is that some bright ideas never get past the prototype stage.

"Yes, we can judge all new ideas very harshly," agrees Hans von Gimborn. "Every change in design or function must justify itself against the balance sheet. If there is a real, measurable benefit for the customer without adding too much to the total cost of the system, then it stands a chance of being incorporated. If not ... well, there is no room for purely cosmetic changes. Every part of every machine must earn its keep."

But, by no means, all the ideas get locked away and forgotten. Over the years Probat has advanced to the forefront of coffee processing technology and, most notably, of course, in the crucial roasting stages.

Last year, one of the biggest of the multi-national roasters polled all its technical chiefs on what equipment was the most advanced and generally the best suited to the company's operations. Their unanimous vote was for the Probat RZ radial-turbo roaster, which seems to prove that Probat has been travelling in the right direction.

The RZ--a blood brother of the famous continuous-roast RC--has a sophisticated system of heat transfer by convection under precisely controlled conditions, in a series of separate chambers. As with the RC, the RZs rate of heat transfer is very high and under controlled conditions (Measured value doctrine). Even coffees with a high percentage of breakage can be very successfully roasted. The design of roaster systems is, of course, an evolutionary process, and with the help of direct input from the operational experience of generations of customers, Probat's R & D wizards have added an increasing number of refinements to the basic stages of roasting, cooling and grinding.

Wastes from exhaust gases are eliminated by efficient internal re-circulation, thermal air cleaning and catalytic afterburners. The phenomenal CONTROX cooling systems use a preprocessing aerosol treatment that actually reduces evaporation from the surface of the beans and cools the coffee very gently. Other important advantages: The residual humidity of the coffee can exactly be determined and the emission source cooling is omitted, whereby the environment is effectively relieved from emission. Probat roller-mills even include refrigerated versions to prevent additional heating through the action of the grinding surfaces and form part of the CONTROX system by maintaining a controlled [CO.sub.2] atmosphere protective to coffee.

"Customer input is particularly important to Probat," says Von Hartmann, "our continued success rests on providing them with fully tried and tested systems, precisely tailored to their needs. They want the very best results from whatever bean types they're processing, and we design our plant to give them the highest possible return on their investment, thus we provide "measured value."

By refusing to introduce any new development until it has proved itself fully in a long series of pre-production trial runs, Probat also ensures that innovations are never tried out in the customer's production time. This stage-by-stage approach means that models do not have obsolescence built into them, and the company is still cheerfully supplying spares for machines built many years ago.

The evolution of many of these developments can be traced in the fascinating Roastery Museum at the Emmerich headquarters. The Museum which also features machinery made by other firms is being reorganized in advance of the company's 125th anniversary next year. But the event is not being over-emphasized

The roaster division may be the biggest unit in the Probat Group, but Probat Inc. in the US (currently being expanded), Maquinaria del Rhin in Spain, the roller-mill specialists Bauermeister, and Wolpert, which makes a remarkable range of testing systems, broaden its horizons somewhat.

"We see the occasion more as a staging-post in our history than as a celebration of the past," confirms Hans von Gimborn. "In a sense, we have to regard the past as a blank book, but we are going to make absolutely certain that Probat writes one of the most dynamic, positive entries in the new chronicle of the international coffee industry."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:Probat Werke von Gimborn GmbH & Co. Komm., manufacturer of coffee roasting equipment
Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:May 1, 1992
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