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The metal packaging industry is wrestling with consumer perception that sees its packs as a bit rusty. New technology has the potential to change all this as long as a few risks are taken reports Louise Hunt

The message on metal packaging is changing, says Tony Woods, director of the Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association.

The industry has recognised that trumpeting the latest widget and gadget is not enough to keep metal packaging shining out among the ever-toughening pack competition. There are negative consumer perceptions that need to be addressed before the significant technical advances – that have been likened to space travel engineering – are given the appreciation that they deserve.

“People tend to think that, because something has been around for a long time it is old fashioned and boring,” says Mr Woods. “But there are lots of new things going on in metal packaging – they are just not always entirely obvious to the consumer.”

To some extent the consolidation drives that have been particularly rampant in the canning sector have hampered the impact technical developments might have had on consumers.

The industry now comprises a handful of major players. In food cans they are: Crown Cork and Seal, Impress Metal Packaging, Lawson Mardon and US Can. On the beverage side is Rexam Beverage Can, Ball Packaging Europe (formerly Schmalbach Lubeca) and Crown Cork and Seal.

Likewise, their customers have reduced to a small pool across Europe. This means that can manufacturers all supply the same customers. The need to deliver the same standards and filling line requirements has somewhat limited design changes that consumers would notice says Mr Woods.

Despite these barriers, it cannot be ignored that over the last five years developments in metal packaging have exploded from the rather static 20 previous years. A step change has taken place that has delivered 30% lighter materials for cost and environmental benefits, smaller diameter ends to revolutionise the filling process, different surface finishes and more sophisticated printing to help the can compete in the shelf appeal stakes. Added to this is the array of choice in size and shape that has opened doors for new eating and drinking occasions and markets.

Market figures indicate that these efforts are paying off, in spite of tough competition from rival pack formats. In 2001 the European market for drinks cans reached 38bn cans, an increase of 2.5bn cans over 2000 and a 7% growth, according to the European Canmakers report 2002. The UK retained its position as the largest beverage can market, with a 4.3% increase over 2000 at 7.5bn total volume of sales. But by far the most dramatic growth has come from the East European market that has blossomed from 280M in 1995 to 2.4bn in 2001 – revealing the steepest increase of 15.5%.

The food can camp has been in decline over the last 15 years, propelled in recent times by the trend towards freshness – or at least the perception of it – which has opened the gates for new pack formats. However, an unexpected growth in 2002 of 6.5% to £1.7bn total sales was recorded by Taylor Nelson Sofres.

An article in The Grocer attributes this to a move to more premium products sold in cans, such as tuna salads, that helps to challenge cans’ commodity image.

Metal packaging should maintain its momentum with the next generation of developments designed to project the right messages of healthy eating, convenience and fashion.

Caroline Archer Reed, marketing director of Crown Bevcan Europe, talks about the new products that continue to push the boundaries of can functionality, openability and design.

“These are exciting times in the beverage industry,” says Ms Archer-Reed. “We enjoyed record production levels in 2002, registering an output of more than 8bn cans.

The coming months are set to be equally as productive with the long anticipated European roll-out of our SuperEnd as well as a number of other high-profile laser etching and shaping projects.”

The arrival of the 202 SuperEnd at Crown’s Seville plant in southern Spain is set to herald a fundamental change in European beverage canmaking.

Labatt Interbrew North America has already converted its Labatt’s lines to SuperEnd technology on the basis that it will generate a 10% decrease in aluminium over the standard 202 end.

The new end is also said to provide greater seam integrity and strength, easier openability through deeper tab access as well as improved pourability and drinkability.

Implementing the new technology requires no changes to existing filler equipment and only minor changes to seaming rolls and chucks.

Following initial trials in Spain, Crown is expected to pursue the roll-out of the new end across Europe over the next two years.

Easy open end technology, now in its third generation, continues to be a focus for development at Crown Food Europe.

The EOLE III easy open end is the first commercially produced 73mm double reduced easy open end in the world, says Steve Thomas, marketing manager at CFE. It is designed to offer consumers the most controlled opening while reducing the amount of peel force required to remove the end by up to 25%.

“The coming months will see further improvements to make EOLE III smoother, easier and safer to open without spillage,” he adds.

Crown has also a stake in peel seam ends, set to take easy opening to the next level. Already, they are generating interest across the European human and pet food sectors.

Unlike the one-component easy open end, which opens by a score in the lid, peel seam ends comprise a thin, flexible lid, heat-sealed to a rigid metal ring with a small tab for lifting. Fillers can close the end on their existing equipment and consumers can easily and safely peel off the lid leaving a residual rim without any sharp edges.

To date, Nestle has specified 73 and 83mm versions of Crown’s peel seam end for its Felix and Gourmet brands of cat food and Capitaine Cook has also used a 99mm version for its tuna salad product. Several major European food fillers are also investigating the technology for possible usage in 2003 Mr Thomas reports.

Crown Food Europe is also developing customised shaped cans for the processed foods market such as the 800g Stockmeyer soup can range and the 100g eat-from Covitray for cat food.

Last year Corus Packaging Plus pioneered a breakthrough in food can technology that combined a shape revolution with its Easy-Peel-Off-Lid system. EPOL comprises a heat seal aluminum membrane, which needs no seaming, with a polymer coated steel ring. The square steel can was piloted in the UK at Sainsbury with its own brand of 400g cream of tomato soup.

Square Can’s benefits are said to be a shortened cooking and sterilisation process due to heat getting to the centre of the product 15% faster, and a 20% space saving with advantages for distributor and retailer.

After an apparently successful trial – selling out in a week from one Sainsbury store – the square can is now off the market. Both square can technology and peel seam ends are developments requiring the go-ahead from full-scale commercial projects before real progression can be made.

“People will pay extra for convenience and novelty value in the short-term, but then they will lose interest. It is only when volumes are up and the additional cost can be brought down that they become commercially viable,” says Tony Wood.

Polymer coated steel is another area under development. The technology itself has been around for over a decade, but the drive to create new branding opportunities is paving the way for more commercial applications.

Corus Packaging Plus is at the forefront of polymer coated steel production.

It obtained the license from Metal Box for Ferrolite, the first polymer film coating, in 1992. In 1999, CPP was the first in the world to produce polymer coated steel through direct extrusion at its plant in Duffel, Belgium.

The combination of steel-coated with PP or PET provides a multi-layered packaging material that is chemically inert and which eliminates the lacquering process.

CPP is currently developing two-piece food cans for the fish sector, which is particularly prone to tainting from can lacquer. This has included a salmon can for the US.

The design opportunities for polymer-coated steel, which resists abrasions, are being put to use in a number of can and specialty packaging applications. Branding potential is expanded by the possibility of using more inks, varnishes and coatings to provide novel effects. CPP can add sparkle with its holographic Promica Chimera brand, adopted by Baileys for its Christmas can.

But it is more expensive. So, like other metal packaging developments, it is held back from large-scale take-up until sufficient demand kicks in.

There have been significant in-roads made by most of the manufacturers with shaped canning technology. US Can was the first to market shaped aerosols in the UK and US with the blow moulding shaping process, which is now being used on Tesco shaving gels.

On the machinery side Sig Cantec has developed the Can-O-Mat system, which offers die necking, spin-flow necking and spin-flow shaping.

Outside of cans, metal packaging has become something of a fashion accessory. Roberts Metal Packaging is taking full advantage of markets hungry for the alternative, added value look that metal can generate. The company’s recent projects involving slip lid aluminium tins have included US beauty brand Bumble & Bumble, Andrew Collinge hair care and Aroma Air Fragrances.

Its acceptance as a style icon, has enabled metal packaging to move into new product categories.

Impress Metal Packaging recently developed a 2.5l can for ICI Paints’ New Once, which features an unusual plastics-coated internal ring to prevent corrosion on the lid and ring area.

All together, metal packaging shows promise as a pack form as long as it can shed its old fashioned image. This can only happen if more companies are brave enough to pick up the gauntlet and run with technology that could make a difference to consumer perception.