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Packaging is a defining factor in not only the marketing of a brand, but also the usability of a product and few elements have as much impact on how a product is used as caps and closures. We spoke to big brands and packaging manufacturers about the need for innovation and what is driving it

By Jim Banks

No cap on innovation

Packaging is a defining factor in not only the marketing of a brand, but also the usability of a product and few elements have as much impact on how a product is used as caps and closures. We spoke to big brands and packaging manufacturers about the need for innovation and what is driving it

Across many packaging markets such as beverages, cosmetics, food or personal care the usability of a product is often dependent on the nature of the cap on the bottle or the closure on the packet. So, too, is the ability to preserve the quality or freshness of the product inside. Yet the role of caps and closures in brand identity is often undervalued, though they are essential to the performance of many products in the marketplace and are the source of many innovations.

"Colour in closures plays a huge role in the identification of a brand or product for the consumer and will continue to do so. The size of a closure is also a key indicator for the consumer to identify the product type. Smaller diameter closures are predominantly used on carbonated beverages, while wider closures are more often used for still drinks. We have done some research in this area, which suggested that the proportions of the closure are as significant as the actual size when identifying a beverage type," says Greg Bentley in the European packaging innovation team at Coca-Cola.

"For new brands wishing to deliver a key unique selling point the use of more technical closures, such as Flex or dosing closures, can offer a clear on-shelf or performance differentiator. A custom closure design is certainly also a competitive advantage and is used, for example, for our main products, mimicking as much as possible the original closure for bottled beverages: the metal crown," he adds.

Customer expectations are a key factor in determining the direction innovation takes, though they are married to the needs to improve product safety and preserve the integrity of products.

"Consumers are asking for greater performance from their closures whilst, at the same time, demanding packaging with a lower environmental impact. Consumer demand has pushed brands, and therefore suppliers, to find innovative new solutions to deliver closures that better fit their drinking habits. It is important to understand the technical role closures play and the high levels of engineering that go into a closure development. The performance and consumer safety aspects of closure design are critical to any new development and cannot be compromised to achieve lightweighting or cost savings," remarks Bentley.

For manufacturers of caps and closures in the beverage sector and other market segments, there is significant scope for growth, particularly as demand from emerging markets grows, and it is important for them to stay ahead of both geographical trends and the changing needs of consumers around the world.

"The 2014 cap and closure market did mainly increase in the beverage and dry milk business, mainly driven by exports to China. Brands are looking for more sophisticated caps to bring added value through new designs and features like easy opening, and brands also want higher performances on the bottling line as well as more competitive products that use materials efficiently, which makes lightweighting important," says Yves Jozefiak, Commercial Director of cap manufacturer Procap.

New ways of thinking

Consumer needs are changing in many ways and analysis of population statistics in Europe show that in five of the seven largest countries over 16% of the population is over 65 years old. This suggests that the demand for products and packaging tailored the needs of older consumers, such as convenient closures that can be opened then resealed, will grow.

Spain typifies this trend and according to research firm Canadean demand there for greater convenience in closures has grown significantly over the last five years. Demand for dispenser, flip/snap top and sports cap closures increased from 2,493m units in 2010 to 2,631m units in 2013 – a growth rate that exceeds the increase in the total number of packs.

"The most significant developments are still in the area of lightweighting of water and soft drink closures, although many of these go unnoticed by consumers. For me, some significant highlights with regard to innovation aimed at consumer needs are in the area of sports closures. For instance, our own custom sports closure used on Powerade provides coherent brand design and consumer drinking benefits. I believe that the Smartseal Flex spill proof closure, with its related consumer benefits, has a role to play if this closure can be delivered to the consumer in a 100% safe condition. I guess the other big innovation can be found in the Picasso closure from GCS which is currently used by Nestle – the internal TE band for the dust cover is a truly innovative solution to a problem which is faced by all consumer safety focused brands," says Coca-Cola’s Bentley.

Outside the beverage space there are many new ideas for dispensing products, such as the EZ’R foam dispenser from UK-based Vetroplas, which is a revolutionary new system for the cosmetics, toiletries and personal care market. Users can quickly dispense a consistent stream of foam through a flip-top cap when squeezing the bottle upside down with just one hand.

"The EZ’R foam dispenser has been a fantastic project to work on because it means that we are able to launch a genuinely new and radical product to market. It is the result of lots of hard work and considerable investment on the part of our partner, Albea. As far as we are aware, such a method of dispensing foam has not been available until now. The cap contains the module enabling the mix of liquid and air to produce a consistent flow of foam through the cap," says Simon Dix, Sales Director for Vetroplas.

Procap is another company focused on innovation with produces such as the Procurve cap, and novel ideas for mineral water producers such as Prospark or Prospring caps. The company also supplies Nestlé or Danone with more sophisticated closures. Its 38 Proline cap is specifically designed to meet the requirements of to adhere to the stringent requirements of sensitive non-carbonised beverages that must be packaged in clean conditions.

A greener cap

With innovation marketing needs are essential, but equally important is the drive to use less material, in part to improve sustainability.

"There is a difference between the beverage market and other sectors such as agrichemicals or motor oil, where we have to look at high product integrity and feature to combat counterfeiting. In beverages brands want to a wide variety of colours and promotional features, like printing internet links or QR codes on the caps. Codes on the label could easily be read with smartphones without having to buy the product, which is not the case if it is on the inside of the cap," says Lothar Brauer, Director Technical Marketing & Business Development at cap manufacturer BERICAP Group.

"Other innovations are driven by cost savings, though brands may say that is for environmental reasons. Too much weight reduction in the cap, however, can lead to customers being dissatisfied, so the premium brands don’t want to exaggerate lightweighting because they want to be associated with high quality. Other brands selling on price, however, may push lightweighting to more of an extreme," he adds.

BERICAP came up with an innovative way to reduce cap weight but maintain integrity of the closure and ease of use. Its solution raises the cap height by 2mm without compromising on the effectiveness of the seal.

"I believe the continued innovation in the area of lightweighting solutions for closures will dominate the working time of closure engineers. For consumer visible innovations I can’t help thinking that dosing closures will start to play a bigger role for niche brands or new beverage concepts," says Bentley.

Key to sustainability will be the emergence of new materials or processes that improve recyclability. Petrochemical company Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), for instance, has introduced new products that will impact caps and closures, including new bimodal High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) product SABIC® HDPE AX7611, which is designed for sparkling water and carbonated soft drinks. The material not only provides improved down-gauging opportunities, but also has higher flow ability than standard HDPE to enable shorter cycle times and, therefore, more cost efficient processing.

Another advance that is creating a buzz, though with little elaboration from either Procter & Gamble or its subsidiary Imflux that is behind it, is a new plastic that will enable thinner and cheaper packaging. The patent application suggests the manufacturing system for this product could simplify the use of recycled resins or plant-based alternatives, and could improve overall recyclability of packaging by enabling caps and closures to be made with the same material as the rest of the package.

There is no doubt that novel ideas abound in the area of caps and closures and innovation, especially in lightweighting, is limited only by what consumers will tolerate.