Wave of Innovation - from Shaped to Self-heating Cans - Signals Bright Outlook
Breakthrough innovations in the metal packaging sector are revolutionizing the packaging industry. Never before has the metal container so completely satisfied the unique demands of today's busy consumers. Grocery shoppers suddenly can choose from an array of easy-to-use and convenient metal packages including containers with twist-tops, resealable metal lids, easy open cans with pull-tab lids and rectangular cans with a convenient peelable opening system. There are distinctive easy-to-grasp metal cans shaped like bowls, kettles and even squares. Self-heating and self-cooling cans are also on the horizon. Even microwaveable cans are emerging. The future of metal packaging has never looked brighter.
It's a new age of convenience for packaged food. Consumers are driving the innovations, letting marketers know that their busy lives and the needs of their children and even advancing age dictate packaging that is easy to open, safe, convenient and keeps food fresh. Consumers want portability, resealability and snappy and distinctive shelf appeal.
How is the metal packaging industry responding to these needs? "Customers today are looking for a little more sizzle and, obviously, we are responding through innovation without destroying the fundamental values of today's packaging," says Brian Cardno, president of metal food container operations at Ball Corporation and a 30-year packaging-industry veteran.
In listening more closely to consumers, companies are involving them in their research - and early on. For the past three years, Silgan Containers, a leading food manufacturer, has solicited grocery shoppers for feedback on new can ends and other innovations. With the information from shoppers and focus groups, Silgan engineers refine their new-product offerings. They found, for one thing, that consumers are in favor of EZO (short for "Easy-to-Open") can ends.
At Crown, which invests about $25 million annually toward innovation and new-product development, laboratory researchers enlist customer focus groups very early on in the development process to assess new packaging prototypes and concepts.
"As package designers, we historically focused on container performance and number-driven factors like axial loads and opening forces. Consumers, however, expect good performance in such areas and are therefore influenced by more subtle factors such as ergonomics, sound and touch. Such insights emerge from our use of consumer focus studies very early in our new product development process. These are pieces of information our engineers never before fully appreciated," said Dan Abramowicz, president of Crown Technology.
European consumers are the most eager to try - and accept - innovations in their metal packaging, even if it costs them more. That's why many breakthroughs, like shaped cans, self-cooling and self-heating containers, first gained commercial acceptance in Europe and then subsequently were successful in the U.S.
The Innovations, Briefly
The wave of can improvements reflects consumers' desire for easy-to-use and convenient products - especially with food and beverages. Here is a brief look at the major new innovations:
Pull-Tab EZO Lids - Can ends that do not require a can opener are called EZO (short for "Easy-to-Open") and use a metal ring-tab or pop-top lid. This allows consumers to easily pop open a variety of canned products. Already, the EZO serves an estimated one-third of the U.S. market and is predicted to climb to more than two-thirds by 2008.
The Peel Seam™ - This easy-to-open system consists of a metal ring sealed with a peelable, foil aluminum lid and seamed to the base of the can at conventional speeds. The lid can be highly decorated, providing strong brand identity.
Dot Top™ - This new face in the canned-food aisle lets consumers reseal their canned contents. Consumers simply peel back a plastic dimple (Dot) in the center of the lid (Top). This releases the vacuum that holds the lid in place, allowing the consumer to easily lift the lid off the container. If contents remain unused, the consumer simply snaps the lid back on and stores it for later use. The dot top differentiates the product on the shelf and the container has no sharp edges.
Shaped Cans - Food manufacturers are eager to differentiate their metal food packaging with unique shapes and sizes, popular among consumers who like eye-catching cans that contour to the hand. These shaped cans range from metal bowls for ready-to-eat meals and soups in kettle-shaped cans to square cans that have a great billboard effect on the shelf.
Self-Heating, Self-Cooling Cans - Available in the United Kingdom for coffee, self-heating beverage cans will greet American consumers soon. The self-heating can has a conventional ring-pull top and the heat activates by pushing in a button on the base of the can, producing a chemical reaction between water and quicklime contained in separate compartments in the can base. The coffee is heated to 140°F within three minutes, and insulating materials keep a consumer's fingers and lips from being burned.
Tempra Technology of Bradenton, FL and Crown together are the leaders in self-cooling technology and its proprietary self-refrigerating technology uses the evaporation of water into a vacuum to produce its Instant Cool Can. The can is recyclable and can cool a beverage by 30° F in three minutes.
Microwaveable Cans - Specially designed steel cans that are shallower than traditional cans let consumers pop a favorite can of soup or vegetables into the microwave to heat it up.
And Waiting in the Wings... Further technology advances lie ahead with some innovations poised to entice consumers.
Look soon for twist-top metal cans that are recloseable, easy to use and safe. The easy-open peel seams already provide one example of this. Blends of new polymers, including biopolymers, and metals also will introduce new can packaging.