Aluminium Bottlecans – The Next Packaging Sensation?

Bottlecans could take over from glass bottles for beverages

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A relatively new system, the aluminium bottle-shaped can, is one of the most beautiful and attractive containers one could hope to see. While conventional aluminium cans and aluminium monobloc aerosol containers have been around for a while, the bottle shaped aluminium beverage container was developed only in 2000. It was first perfected and introduced in Japan in that year and made its debut in the USA in 2002. It is now known in industry as the bottlecan. It has made a tremendous impact both aesthetically and on consumer friendliness but its usage has been relatively low because of its exorbitant cost outside of Japan.
It has tremendous advantages going for it. These are:
– It provides very high barrier properties.
– It is recloseable.
– It can be made with a wide variety of neck finishes that are compatible with all kinds of closure systems ranging from ROPP reclosable caps to crown caps to screw caps, lug caps and snap-on closures.
– It is suitable for both carbonated and non-carbonated drinks.
– It can be used for dispensing both hot and cold beverages, especially in vending machines (one reason why it is very popular in Japan).
– It is shatterproof and safe.
– It is easy to cool and is cold to the touch.
– It is much lighter than glass bottles.
– It is 100 per cent recyclable. Some variants can be crushed by hand after use.
– It can be run on existing filling lines without any major modifications.
– It has immense flexibility in its design, shoulder shape and neck length. This enables differentiation and creation of unique brand identity.
– The graphic potential is incredible – it can be produced with a wide variety of surface finishes by way of printing and varnishes. It can even be debossed to enhance its tactile effects. The accompanying photographs amply reinforce this feature.

So, what is holding it up? The cost of the bottlecan is dependent on the process used to make it. To be more specific, it is the wall thickness one can go down to that determines the amount of metal usage and, therefore, its cost. There are three different processes currently being used in its manufacture. The processes involve making the can body first and then shaping its neck to give it the contours of a bottle in much the same way as with monobloc aerosol cans.

Why cost is high
As with conventional cans, the lowest wall thicknesses are possible only by the drawn wall ironed (DWI) technology but can bodies made this way are extremely difficult to shape into bottles with standard ‘necking’ machines. There is only one company – Daiwa Can of Japan – who have developed the ability to produce a one-piece DWI bottle. Another Japanese company called Takeuchi Press can also produce very thin walls using the DWI technique but their bottle uses a separate base that is seamed on to the body (see photographs). These processes are patented and both Daiwa and Takeuchi are extremely reticent about licensing their technologies (only Mitsubishi have a licence from Takeuchi to make bottlecans).

The European and American manufacturers of bottlecans like Exal, CCL Containers and Nussbaum produce the bodies by impact extrusion and so their wall thicknesses are very high as compared to Daiwa or Takeuchi. These bodies are then necked in using special modified machinery from Frattini of Italy. In effect, they are really no different from monobloc aerosol cans. This makes them extremely expensive and, according to my information, they cost three times as much as a glass beverage container. On the other hand, Daiwa and Takeuchi bottlecans are affordable because they are lightweight and are being supplied at almost the same price as that of a coextruded high-barrier PET bottle. In fact, when the recyclability of the bottlecan is taken into account, the price difference is reported to be negligible. Both the Daiwa and Takeuchi cans can be crushed by hand after usage similar to the conventional DWI beverage can. The Japanese manufacturers sell over 2.5 billion containers per year whereas the Europeans and Americans manage only a little over 300 million a year.

Brand – owners’ plans
And what plans do brand-owners have in mind for the bottlecan? The first beverage manufacturer to use this system in the USA was Snapple, who launched Mistic RE in 2002 and followed it up with Snapple Elements in 2003. The first brewery to launch beer in bottlecans in the USA was Pittsburgh Brewing Company when it introduced Iron City Premium Lager in 2004. The company shipped 20,000 cases to distribution centres in 30 states and these initial units sold out within 24 hours of hitting the shelves. A photograph of the Iron City aluminium bottle was the most viewed photo on Yahoo! the day following its launch and it was named one of Business Week’s “Best New Products of 2004”.
The world’s largest beverage manufacturer Coca-Cola has marketed two Powerade brands in aluminium bottles and, in August 2007, they launched their Caribou Coffee line using aluminium bottles. Beginning in early 2008, they are also due to test-market Coke and Coke Zero products in bottlecans. Both Pepsico and Anheuser-Busch have had success with this system. In May 2007, Mountain Dew became the first carbonated soft drink in the USA to use this system and Bud Light, Budweiser, Michelob Lager, Michelob Light, Michelob Ultra and Anheuser World Select have all been sold in aluminium bottles. Heineken also launched its H2 brand in bottlecans in 2004. However, volumes have thus far been limited due to the high container costs.

Premium positioning
What the brand-owners did was to classify their launches as “limited edition” premium products or to sell them only at special events. Consumer response for these was simply overwhelming. According to Anheuser-Busch, sales of beer in bottlecans grew by as much as 33 per cent in 2007. A-B has also launched its “Chill Chambers” at stadiums and some other locations where the beer is chilled in aluminium bottles to 22 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which the conventional glass bottle would explode.

The future looks bright
But here is the silver lining. In November 2007, Rexam, the world’s largest manufacturer of beverage cans, announced at Brau Breviale 2007 that they have now jointly developed, with Frattini, Europe’s first lightweight aluminium bottle called Fusion made from a body using DWI technology. They have installed a pilot line and a special Frattini bottle necker at their Milton Keynes R & D centre in UK, production from which is expected to commence from February 2008. They will then extend this to production centres all across Europe. The Fusion bottle will be suitable for both carbonated and non-carbonated beverages and comes in ROPP recloseable or crown closure versions. If the price is right, this might just be the spur that will send bottlecan volumes through the roof.