The beverage can: popular and unbreakable – part 2

The beverage can boasts overproportional growth rates worldwide, with the European market a shining example. And even in Germany where a deposit on cans was introduced more than ten years ago, they are enjoying an unexpected renaissance.

Can production in the test market of Hassloch

The Palatinate town of Hassloch is home to one of Ball ­Packaging Europe’s three German beverage can plants. Hassloch, located to the south-west of Mannheim, is well-known for serving as a test market for new branded articles and consumer products being trialled by the consumer research organisation Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung GfK. Some years ago, for example, when the chocolate bar “Raider” was renamed as “Twix”, this change of name had been tested in Hassloch beforehand. Products that are to be launched in Germany in future are available in advance at Hassloch’s retailers, whose customers are Germany’s guinea-pigs, so to speak. Seemingly, the town’s demographic structure, in terms of age distribution and social classes, comes pretty close to the nationwide average. Ball Packaging Europe is one of the biggest employers here

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The plant was founded in 1978, back then by Schmalbach-Lubeca, with a single production line. In 1984, Europe’s first 0.5-litre can was produced here. Twice, in 1998 and 2006, it suffered a major fire, but was rebuilt each time. A crucial decision for the future was taken last year: in 2013, the two production lines were modified to handle aluminium instead of tinplate. “This decision will secure the facility’s long-term survival”, says Plant Manager Clemens Paulus confidently. Understandable optimism, since the situation is certainly auspicious, not least for exports. After all, up to 90 per cent of Hassloch’s production output is dispatched to Benelux, Austria and Spain. The cans are produced on two ultra-modern high-speed lines with a capacity of three million cans a day each, operating round the clock. 180 staff are employed on the lines in five shifts, seven days a week. One line produces solely 250-millilitre cans, while the second makes both 330-millilitre and 500-millilitre cans.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-07-07 um 09.35.49400,000 cans from a single coil

The noise is deafening when you enter the production hall. After all, this is a metalworking plant, though admittedly a highly automated one, and powerful forces are required for forming a can. The machine operators sometimes have to communicate with each other only in sign language. A total of 15 different worksteps are required to transform the blank aluminium sheeting into a finished can. At the infeed to the line wait the coils of aluminium, each about two metres in diameter, and weighing 13 tons, sufficing for three hours of production, equivalent to more than 400,000 cans. The first step is to cut out a disk from the aluminium strip and deep-draw it in a press to form a bowl. Only in the second step is the actual can shape created by stretching and base-moulding; the wall thickness decreases, the can gets bigger. It’s now possible to trim the edge of the can without burring. Since cooling lubricant is employed in the preceding process of stretching, this now has to be removed again by intensive washing. The can is then dried for the coating process. Whereas tinplate generally has to be given an outer coating in white, gold, aluminium-colour or transparent, because otherwise it cannot be printed on, an outer coating on aluminium is merely an option for the customer to choose or not, and is selected in less than ten per cent of all cases.

Printing as the paramount skill required in can production

Then it gets more exciting, because now the can is given its distinctive design, with which the product is identified out in the marketplace. “Printing is the paramount skill required in can production”, concurs Plant Manager Clemens Paulus. The cans are printed on using a letterpress process featuring up to eight inking units. A pretty simple process, really, comparable to the “potato-printing” so popular with children. The letterpress plates, the rubber blankets, accept ink from the inking units only in the places where they are raised. Each inking unit thus prints one colour onto the rubber blanket, on which the print image is mirrored. When the can is rolled on the rubber blanket, the inks are transferred to the can, and the print image becomes positive. The secret here lies more in the actual speed: each of the two lines possesses two printing units, each rated at 1,800 cans per minute, or 30 cans a second. The finished print image is dried immediately. Subsequent interior coating will insulate the beverage concerned later on from the aluminium or tinplate, and also protects the metal from the beverage. After all, a phosphoric acid, for example, in a cola beverage with a pH value of 2.8 would in the long run also corrode the metal. The top edge of the can is narrowed a little by means of necking-in and finally flanged for a secure seal. This enables material to be saved, since the can’s lid now has a smaller diameter. Tinplate also receives a base coating and where appropriate a second interior coating. All cans produced are now tested for holes or flange cracks, and inspected for interior defects using CCD cameras. The final station is palletising in up to 23 layers. Each pallet accommodates up to 5,000 0.5-litre or 8,000 0.33-litre cans, which in Germany corresponds to a deposit value of 2,000 euros.

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Cans have long since ceased to be all the same

Besides the high-performance letterpress printing process, the plant in Hassloch has recently also been offering digital printing for specifically customised images. This process, however, operates with a significantly reduced printing speed of just 100 cans per minute. “We could, for example, provide up to 100 consecutive cans with a different photo each time”, says an enthusiastic Clemens Paulus. “Which means we can meet the mega-trend for individualisation.” Current Facebook posts, for example, or Twitter tweets, can be integrated into the can’s design. Direct printing, however, is meanwhile just one of the well-nigh innumerable options that the can offers the beverage industry for highlighting its brands and differentiating them from their competitors.

Cans have long since ceased to be all the same. First of all, there are several different shapes: a standard can, which is still the most widely used can container, the increas­ingly popular sleek-can, and the slim-can, whose success is attributable primarily to the energy and wellness drinks. The sizes range from 250 millilitres to one litre. And the 150-millilitre “airline can”, hitherto reserved for aircraft passengers, is meanwhile being sold on the free market. The 150-millilitre slim-can is also available in a “twin-can” pack, held together by a rubber ring. The upper can, for example, will then contain a Tequila Sunrise mix, which shortly before being drunk will be blended with fruit juice from the lower can.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-07-07 um 09.36.48Laser-engraved printing plates can be used to create high-definition printing for eye-catching brand spotlight­ing in limited edition. Or there’s the thermo-can: it changes colour (e.g. from white to blue) when the beverage inside it has reached its optimum drinking temperature. The lid provides additional space for brand messages: it can be printed with harmless inks, and used as an ideal tool for advertising campaigns in limited editions. Or the lid does not change colour while the tear tab makes the difference by changing to red, blue, green, black or gold. One particularly impressive option is the “glow effect” from fluorescently printed cans, which in the discotheque begin to glow under UV light.
As a creative eye-catcher, the lid tabs can be punched, in the shape of the brand logo, for example. Or the tabs are provided with a code, enabling the purchaser to access the brand producer’s website and enter a competition, for instance. One feature almost taken for granted in the meantime is the QR Code (quick response code) on the can. Scanned with your smartphone it links you to further information, either to a video on a musical event or some­thing similar. The can becomes interactive through AR (augmented reality), where, likewise over a smartphone, the real environment is enhanced using computer-generated additional information or virtual objects, which can then in turn be shared with friends using Facebook and Co.

When the straw pops up from the lid

Besides these electronic gimmicks, there are also some more “tangible” innovations, like a hermetically sealed, reclosable can lid, a can specifically developed for wine, which is designed to meet the requirements of this sensitive beverage, and preserves the taste and the quality of even the most exquisite of wines. Or the “Easy Flow” lid which at a pre-stamped place under the tab enables the container to be selectively opened, and thus emptied more swiftly. Another whimsical option is a straw secured under the lid, which when the tab is raised pops up promptly out of the lid to everyone’s vast surprise.

Something else that goes back to the roots, so to speak, is the aluminium bottle, a hybrid in the shape of a glass bottle with the material of a can and a crown as its closure. Similar thinking is manifested in a reclosable can bottle with a wide neck finish. Back to the roots, because when it was invented in the 1930s the can was precisely this shape, modelled on a glass bottle. The Krueger Brewery in New Jersey launched “Krueger’s Beer” in cans on the market on 24 January 1935. 200 million cans of beer were sold in this first year, and one year later canning was commenced in the UK. And yet another year later, in 1937, Schmalbach-Lubeca in Germany premiered a first three-part bottle-can with a crown closure. But it was not until the “Interbrau” in 1951 that the can achieved its real breakthrough: a Frankfurt-based brewery started to sell its beer in cans, primarily for the American soldiers stationed in Hesse. Back then, it weighed 83 grams. In 1974, the steel can weighed just 38 grams, and today the figure is well below 20 grams – normally. Because cans can be made a whole lot lighter.

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Thinner than a human hair

In 2012, Ball Packaging Europe premiered the first 0.33-litre “B(all)-Can”, an aluminium can weighing just 9.5 grams, and followed this up in 2013 with the 0.5-litre B-Can, tipping the scales at 12.2 grams. The walls of the ultra-light can are 0.09 millimetres thick at their thinnest point, thinner than a human hair, and nonetheless the can copes with an internal pressure of 6.2 bar. The trick required for the production process is this: the aluminium strip is thinner right from the start, and now measures a mere 0.24 millimetres. “There’s still some potential for getting it even lighter”, is Clemens Paulus’ firm conviction. “Perhaps no longer so very much at the circumferential thickness, since the can still needs to be easy to handle, but probably at the base.”

The light weight serves not only to cut costs, but also to boost the can’s eco-friendliness, which means the can manufacturers can be quite proud of their energy balance. The recycling rate for cans in Germany is a staggering 96 per cent. And since metal can be recycled any number of times without any impairment of quality, the average energy consumption involved is dramatically reduced. This is because producing cans from recycled aluminium scrap requires only five per cent of the energy needed for primary production from bauxite. “Even though ten years ago it was a shock, meanwhile we’re proud of Germany’s deposit system, because it also means we can evidence our high recycling rate”, explains Plant Manager Clemens Paulus, who is also continually endeavouring to downsize still further the amount of energy and water consumed in the production operation. With admirable success: since 2007, power consumption at Ball’s plants in Germany per unit produced has been reduced by 23 per cent, natural gas consumption by 33 per cent, and water consumption by 13 per cent.

Lighter and more colourful

Cans are on the advance – long since in the rest of the world, and now in Germany once again. They’re getting lighter, and thus eco-friendlier, more diverse, more colourful. For the consumer, they are easy to transport, easy to open, and easy and quick to chill. They are unbreakable, and just as suitable for the beach as for major events in the cities. The can is, moreover, the ideal single-serve package for consuming on the go. For the canner, the lightproof can, non-permeable for oxygen, offers a very favourable weight ratio of 97 to 3 between contents and packaging. Thanks to its stackability and its low weight, it offers optimum volumetric efficiency for storage and distribution.