Happy 50th birthday to the D&I drinks can

The two-piece drawn & wall-ironed (D&I) drinks can was first produced commercially 50 years ago in March 1964, reports John Nutting, who charts its development and impact on the metal packaging world

Such is the ubiquity and slick modernity of the drinks can – whose portability, strength and recyclability makes it a perfect vehicle for global brands – that many might think it’s a recent development.

In fact, the beverage can as we know it, made using the drawn and wall-ironed (D&I) process, has a long history. In March 2014 it will be all of 50 years since the first such cans were made commercially for filling at the Theodore Hamms brewery in St Paul, Minnesota.

In the past half century, the D&I drinks can has grown to become the dominant format in the canmaking world, with around 300 billion made every year, or roughly two-thirds of all the cans produced.

That success belies the challenges faced by the pioneers of the aluminium D&I can’s development. Both the steel companies and their customers in the canmaking industry were wise to the threat and tried to squeeze out the newcomer, but by sheer force of character the supporters of the aluminium D&I can eventually prevailed.

When the first aluminium D&I cans were produced at a factory built by Reynolds Metals at White Bear Lake, north of St Paul, it was the culmination of almost two decades of experimental perseverance by Swiss metallurgist Ed Maeder, later supported by David Reynolds, chief executive of the aluminium company that his father had founded in the 1920s.

It was on 9 March 1964 that those first cans were shipped, and it was in a time of huge change and uncertainty. It was only five months since President Kennedy had been assassinated and just weeks since the first appearance in the US of a band called The Beatles.

For canmakers supplying the beer and beverage industry, things couldn’t be better. The first canned beers had been produced in 1935 soon after the end of prohibition and their popularity increased during World War II when canned beer was shipped to troops. Post-war, increasing consumer wealth further increased demand. By 1960, almost a quarter of the 44bn cans made in the US were for beer, fabricated mostly from soldered tinplate. Millions of tons of steel were used every year, ranking the business alongside the building and automotive sectors.

In neutral Switzerland, tinplate had been almost unobtainable during the war. Consultant engineer Jakob Keller heard that canmakers were struggling, so adapted a press with ironing dies to form a container from a disc of soft temper pure aluminium. Keller took out patents and by 1946 Ernst & Co in Zurich was making four-inch diameter D&I cans. But they weren’t very strong and were very expensive.

Ed Maeder joined Keller in 1949 by which time tinplate had become available again, so the need for expensive aluminium appeared to dry up. But Alcan had an office in Zurich and like other aluminium companies was looking for new markets for its metal. Alcan funded Keller’s work and in 1951 set up a canmaking laboratory at Banbury in the UK, one of its two research centres, where both D&I and impact-extrusion systems were developed by Maeder, and test packs produced.

Alcan later set up an impact extrusion line at its Gottingen mill and in 1956 invited the leading canmakers American Can and Continental Can, metal manufacturers such as Kaiser and brewer Coors to see what it was doing.

According to Maeder (pictured right), the canmakers thought the process had no merit, but Kaiser, which was able to work on the necessary metallurgical issues required for the D&I process, was enthusiastic as was Coors Brewing, whose boss Bill Coors decided to pursue impact-extruded aluminium can technology, using an integrated system incorporating a recycling system. Despite launching the first impact-extruded aluminium beer cans early in 1959, Coors soon discovered that anything bigger than the 7oz versions it had been using were uneconomic to produce.

Kaiser set up a development centre in Chicago to develop the D&I process and Ed Maeder moved from Alcan to work there in 1957 under Charles Kinghorn. Using a double-ended hydraulic bodymaker fed with drawn cups, a range of shallow cans were produced. Lids from another line were made and seamed on, and some were used for packing ball bearings in oil for the US Army.

Encouraged by this progress, Kaiser set up a pilot D&I production line at Wanatah, Indiana, to make 7oz cans and initiated a programme at Chicago to find the best alloy, which turned out to be 3004-0 ‘soft’. But Kaiser didn’t want to make cans so in 1958 its chief executive, Dusty Rhoades, started promoting the virtues of D&I aluminium cans to the drinks industry.

Again, the established canmakers bridled at this, and threatened to cancel orders from Kaiser’s steel division, which were worth $30m a month. A compromise was reached in which cans would be sold to American Can for shipping to the Gunther Brewery in Baltimore for filling. To back this launch, Kaiser Aluminum took a full-page advert in the Wall Street Journal – coincidentally just as the steel workers went on strike. Word was that the steel companies were trying to replace tinplate with aluminium. Even attempts to launch plain aluminium ends for tinplate cans failed.

Despite Kaiser’s best efforts, resistance against the steel companies and the canmakers appeared futile and its work stopped. Soon after, Maeder was approached by Reynolds Metals which had decided to set up a can development centre at Bellwood. Chief executive David Reynolds told Maeder that “nobody was going to stop Reynolds” making aluminium cans.

He was as good as his word. Over the next two-to-three years D&I bodymakers were developed and a canmaking division established, staffed by former Continental Can people.

David Reynolds had also been talking to the management at the Hamms Brewery, exploring the idea of setting up a plant to supply D&I aluminium cans. Hamms bought a small brewery in Baltimore where test packing was carried out, using 11oz cans made from 0.0195in gauge, 3004 half hard alloy.

The first D&I canmaking plant was constructed at White Bear Lake during 1963 to house three lines with Reynolds bodymakers and Rutherford decorators running at 400 cans per minute, along with an end line to make 211-diameter plain ends.

Said Maeder in 1995 when recalling the work: “It was an enormous struggle to get the plant going: we had continuous equipment breakdowns, can handling and metal problems. At the brewery we had continuous seaming problems.

“If the deal with Hamms had not been made by David Reynolds himself, and he had not believed in the can and stood by it, we would have been thrown out of the brewery. That would have been the end of the aluminium can.”

Once the commercial beer cans were being packed at Hamms from early in 1964, Coors Brewing, which had all but abandoned its impact-extruded aluminium cans at Golden, Colorado, regrouped and acquired the mothballed Kaiser D&I bodymakers. With a lot of experience in the production and handling of aluminium cans, Coors quickly got up to speed using sheet supplied by Alcoa.

Key to the success of the aluminium can would be bigger volumes and recycling systems. David Reynolds’ strategy was to build more plants, the next being at Tampa, Florida to supply Anheuser-Busch, which was followed by another at Woodford, New York.

Also vital to the success of the D&I can was better metal economics than in three-piece tinplate and further lightweighting. The first 211×413 cans were made from 3004-H320 alloy and with 211-diameter ends in 5082 alloy weighed 54 pounds per 1,000 complete, about a third that of equivalent tinplate cans.

Opponents of the D&I can had said that its process produced too much scrap. Maeder countered this in 1975 when reviewing the preceding decade of development, saying: “The original argument about excessive scrap in D&I did not recognise the unique opportunity it offers to distribute the metal available where it does the most good, permitting drastic weight reductions.”

Weight was first taken out from the ring-pull end in 1965 by reducing its diameter to 209, saving four pounds per 1,000. With a harder 3004-H19 alloy for the body in 1969 the weight could be reduced again – to 45.5 lb/1,000 – while retaining the vital 90psi pressure and 400lb column strength requirements of the brewers.

Reynolds later addressed the consumer friendliness issues with the ring pull design by developing the Stay-on-Tab (SOT) and subsequently licensed the remainder of the industry to make the SOT.

In 1980, the first technical divergence between the beer can and the soft drinks can occurred. At the time most of the major brewers were making their own cans while none of the soft drink manufacturers were. Brewers adopted a 207.5 diameter end with a starting gauge of 0.0110- 0.0120in while the soft drink industry stayed with the 209 diameter at 0.0130in.

To improve productivity further the canmakers turned to increased production speeds. In the 1970s speeds were still less than 1,000 cans per minute. In the 1980s speeds rose to 1,750 cpm. At the same time, D&I canmaking expanded into Europe and tinplate was used in the process with development led by National Can and Metal Box.

In the mid 1980s, Continental Can introduced a 206-diameter end (called the B-64) with a special countersink, a smaller double seam and a significant gauge reduction (to 0.0096 inches) that cut weight to less than 9 lbs per 1,000 ends. The soft drink industry, having been using the 209 end for almost ten years, welcomed the 206 followed by the brewing industry about two years later.

Since then D&I beverage can weights have progressively been trimmed, while end diameters for the traditional 211 can diameter have been reduced to 204 and then 202, so that the lightest 12oz aluminum can and end tips the scale at around 27 lb/1,000, or roughly half of those first made in 1964.

What was once regarded as a specifically high-volume container has also been adapted to a wide range of sizes and formats to meet the increasingly divergent needs of drinks companies, with sizes from 15cl (5oz) to 1 litre (33.8oz) and, in the case of the newly emerging craft beer industry, batches as small as 150,000, rather than millions.

Steel food cans were first made using D&I in the 1980s and in the US some 15 billion are made that way, and now that pressurised versions have been developed, further gains are expected.

Before the end of this decade, demand for D&I beverage cans is expected to rise to around 400 billion, produced worldwide and led by Asia.

Ed Maeder went on to help brewer Anheuser-Busch develop its own canmaking operations before setting up his own company, Container Systems International, to build and run plants for the subsidiaries of brewer Modelo in Mexico, which A-B’s packaging chief Norm Nieder described as the best and most productive in the world.

Described by Nieder as the ‘father of the beverage can’, Ed Maeder, who died in 2004 aged 83, thought that David Reynolds, who died in 2011 aged 96, deserved more credit. “Without David Reynolds,” he said, “the aluminium can would never have happened.”

Did you know?

• The Reynolds Metals factory in Minnesota where the first D&I cans were made commercially for the Hamms Brewery 50 years ago still exists. The facility at 1699 9th St, White Bear Lake, is owned by International Paper and produces cartonboard packaging.

• The North American canmaking plants of Reynolds Metals were acquired by Ball Corporation in 1997. Its canmaking equipment division became part of Alcoa Packaging Machinery.