Planet Olive

A journey into the world of oil technology

The various stages of setting up an oil mill examined through the eyes of an expert. A journey that will reveal the secrets of the best olive millers, the producers of top quality oil. The installation process can be complicated, and the time factor is critical

Michele Librandi

A journey into the world of oil technology

Hands up if you never wandered how things work. Be it a domestic appliance or a vehicle, a lawn-mower, a farming tool, or why not? Even an oil press.

In our childhood, some of us probably dreamt of becoming inventors, or pilots, and in our own small way that's exactly what we are when we drive a car, or we imagine how certain objects and appliances should be so as to be really perfect:

“If only my four-wheel drive were a couple of inches higher from ground level…”

“If only my coffee machine would percolate more slowly…”

“If only this churn were shaped differently…”

Let's admit it, each and every one of us would like to have a say or give our contribution to the “development” of any good or service we purchase or exploit. Personally, I have often been asked questions such as: “How should an olive press be, in order to satisfy the needs of an olive farmer and/or a miller?” or “What is the olive farmer and/or miller's point of view with regard to this aspect of the transformation process?”

After graduating from college, I decided to continue studying for a Master's degree in olive-culture. During that period, I was an apprentice in a famous company operating in the field of oil technology. This opportunity was a great honour, although admittedly it was hard work: the job was in fact rewarding, fascinating but also energy-consuming.

When you have just completed your studies, it is extremely gratifying to be offered a job, but sometimes this may be a problem, if it means changing all your plans for the future. A young person who has just got a degree in Agriculture hopes to find the best job available, if she or he has not got another route set forth, and in this case, an unexpected offer of employment can be quite upsetting.

This is exactly what happened to me, and I found myself at a turning point, having to decide whether to accept a job offered by a leading enterprise in the field of oil technology or work as an agronomist in my family's olive farm. Obviously, and not only for logistic reasons, it would have been impossible to do both things.

The choice I made is the reason why I am here today, ready to guide you along the various stages of a journey that I hope will shed some light on issues that are dear to all who work in this sector, be they olive farmers, millers or both.

INSTALLATION

These are hectic days for us in the olive mills: who has purchased new machinery is currently installing it, whereas who already possesses an olive press is carrying out “dry runs”, re-assembling what was disassembled at the end of last year's harvest, so as to avoid any nasty surprise when the new season starts.

The atmosphere obviously changes, depending on whether the millers are only assembling some small parts, getting new parts, or installing a brand new press!

In the first case, if ordinary maintenance was well and timely executed (in a few month's time we will examine this topic more in detail), all one has to do is re-assemble those mechanical parts that are usually disassembled at the end of the season (grinders, pipes, vibrating decanter sieves, separation drums) and substitute the worn and broken bits (stators, connecting rubber pipes, grids for grinders, gaskets).

When more or less substantial changes have been made to a plant, the entrepreneur shares the same worries as who is setting up an olive mill and installing a new press. Even when one component alone is changed, be it a grinder, a churning complex, a decanter or a separator, the end result can be very different.

The most exciting atmosphere, albeit often full of tension, is that found when a new enterprise is set up by either an olive farmer or an entrepreneur milling for third parties, or the entire press is substituted, because it has either reached the end of its lifespan or is obsolete, and can no longer be updated with the new components offered by technology.

Olive farmers and millers are far-sighted by nature, and tend to go for state-of-the-art machinery, regardless of cost. However, what often appears to be a rather rash investment, soon enough proves to be the right choice.

It is always exciting when an entrepreneur shows you the premises of a future oil mill, or even the grounds where one day it will be built. These are dreams that are about to come true, and one can almost see the olives being transformed into oil, or the local farmers queuing up with their tractors, waiting for their drupes to be milled. Different images, according to whether one intends to mill one's olives or those of the local farmers, but hopes and emotions are all the same.

Setting up an olive mill is a complicated process. Sometimes the starting point is the building itself, because if none is available, it is best to design it from scratch, keeping in mind the future production process. Hence from where the material enters and exits, the positioning of drains for waste and sewage, the best place for the connections to the water and power supply, just to mention a few. Somebody could object and say that all these things are the responsibility of the builder, but a serious designer always listens to the installer's opinion, so as to fill in any gap between theory and practice.

The technician should make a list of the preparatory jobs needed before installing the machinery: usually the erection of walls, placement of power sockets, or issues regarding temperature control and water supply/draining systems. The suggestions made by the installer can be useful to prevent future setbacks, and ensure that the oil press is perfectly integrated in the building and with all its auxiliary machinery.

Choosing the water heating system, deciding where to position the water tank and whether to use concealed wiring or overhead raceways: these are just some of the parameters that have to be taken into account when setting up an oil mill.

Things are different when there already is a plant: the miller is a much greater expert, and is perfectly aware of all the problems that can arise, since he might have had to face them in the past. In this case, when purchasing a new olive press, there can even be a heated exchange of opinions with the technician in charge of installing the machinery, but these lively discussions are always extremely interesting and fruitful for both parties. 

When installing an olive press, time is a critical factor. For this reason it is best to schedule all purchases well in advance, and place the orders in time so that the machinery can be delivered on time. Programming is fundamental in every field, and the oil industry is no exception. Ordering in advance can make the difference between having a tried and tested machine running smoothly way ahead of time or having it delivered only a few days before harvest! Obviously these are extreme cases. 

Another aspect that should not be neglected is that concerning safety and certification: it is always best to call professional installers, in compliance with the laws on workplace safety and health (Italian Law Decree 81/2008), who can certify the work carried out. This must be done both with new machines and second-hand, revised ones, since also these must comply with the laws in force before being sold and installed. 

It is always advisable to be present when the machinery is being installed, and learn all about it and its components: this way, it will be much easier to carry out all the planned maintenance procedures during the olive pressing season (e.g. changing stators, grids, etc.).

As mentioned earlier, most installations are by now complete; however, there are some cases in which the procedures are still under way, or have yet to start, as in the event of retrofitting. This does not necessarily mean that we are late. The olive harvesting season does not start at the same time everywhere, and usually, professional installers do everything in their power to have the machines up and running before the crops are conveyed to the olive mill...

Michele Librandi

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