How metal bottles are challenging glass and PET

When lightweight drawn and ironed (D&I) aluminium bottles hit the market five years ago, the hope for some was that they would mount a challenge to glass and PET containers, reports Tom Woerndl.

Encouragement could be taken from the Japanese market for aluminium bottles, which was established in the 1990s, and now boasts high volumes and significant brand owner participation.

The benefits of aluminium bottles seem self-evident: they are light, durable, safe, recyclable, and chill quickly. Yet, outside of Japan, they largely remain a niche pack choice for brand owners, which use the packaging for a special beverage launch, or to augment an existing range.

The big players in the industry tend to back up this strategy. “The aluminium bottle is not intended to replace core packages,” explains Susan Stribling from the public affairs and communications department of Coca-Cola Refreshments, which has been using limited volumes of bottles made by Exal for many years.

“We will grow our strategic use of the bottles over time, leveraging them in proper channels and occasions. But, overall, our focus is on using aluminium bottles as representative of Coca-Cola’s innovative spirit of continuing to evolve and modernise our brands to maintain relevance among consumers.”

D&I bottles are an important technical development for the industry because they go some way to solve the cost issue associated with impact-extruded bottles. These lighter bottles, which are supplied by Exal (C2C), Ball (Alumi-Tek) and Rexam (Fusion) weigh about two-thirds that of impact-extrusion bottles.

However, production volumes and cost per unit remain key issues for fillers. Compared to typical cans, which cost about $100 per 1,000, impacted-extruded bottles cost more than three times, up to $350 per 1,000 units.

As such, beer and beverage companies have continued their use of metal bottles for high-value premium products where the margins are more attractive. Lightweight D&I bottles would become more cost-effective for fillers if prices dropped to about $150 per 1,000, although global output would need to increase significantly.

A step in this direction has been taken by Rexam, which now boasts a yearly capacity of about 60 million units at its Fusion bottle manufacturing site in Ejpovice, Czech Republic. Yet, the canmaker remains cautious about how Fusion will progress within the company’s broad packaging mix.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, so can’t say where Fusion will be in the next ten years, but at the moment it’s an evolutionary process,” explains Mark Bunker, senior communications manager for Rexam.

“The response we’ve had from major brand owners has been extremely positive, with Heineken and PepsiCo now using the technology, but it’s difficult to compare Fusion to PET or glass because they have been in the market for many years.”

Fusion comes in 25cl and 33cl formats with either crown or resealable ROPP closure, which has proved the most popular thus far with brand owners.

Bunker believes that, over time, the cost implications of Fusion will be lessened as the technology for manufacturing the bottle improves.

“It’s no secret that Fusion currently costs more for a brand owner than a can,” he says, “but we’ll continue to perfect the bottle and make it more cost competitive.

“We are happy with where we are at with Fusion, bearing in mind we are only a few years into the process and we already have major brands on board.”

Until technological advancements make the package more cost-effective, Fusion is being successfully employed for a number of short-run launches, the latest of which is for PepsiCo. The global soft drinks giant has used the bottle for a trial run in Italy of its lemon-flavoured cola Pepsi Twist.

PepsiCo Italy says it designed the new Pepsi Twist bottle to appeal to young, dynamic consumers, seeking new trends and fashionable drinking solutions.

Speaking at the launch earlier this year, Massimo Ambrosini, general manager of PepsiCo Beverages Italia said: “PepsiCo is always keen on looking out for new marketing solutions and taking on challenges to bring innovation onto the market. We very much believe in the potential of the Fusion bottle for out-of-home consumption and have chosen our Pepsi Twist drink for this launch as it is the most innovative drink from our range of products.”

Kym Hamer, marketing manager, new product development at Rexam, says Fusion is also proving popular in emerging and high value beverage categories like beauty drinks. “The sleek look and feel of the aluminium provides a sophisticated packaging solution to compliment premium consumption environments such as health spas, salons and well-being retail outlets.

“The award-winning partnership between Pure Products in Germany and Rexam has seen beauty drink Ocóo packaged inside a beautifully decorated, 25cl Fusion bottle with resealable closure, providing consumers with a unique and luxurious drinking experience.”

Hamer says another growing market for the Fusion is in wine-based cocktails and ready-to-serve drinks. “Leading brands in this segment are looking for exciting and innovative pack formats to appeal to younger female consumers aged between 18 and 34 and Fusion is well-suited to this audience, with Italian business Canella using this particular size for their Bellini cocktail drink.”

For packaging the bottle, Rexam continues to work with two co-packers: DIS, based in Sittard, the Netherlands, and Fava Bibite, near Como, Italy.

“Filling locations are largely driven by customer needs so Rexam supports both contract and own line filling requirements and our CTS teams work closely with customers to provide the most appropriate solution to bring their brands to market,” adds Hamer.

Where volume production of bottles is really taking off in North America is with Ball’s Alumi-Tek package, which is a development of containers first launched in Japan in the early 1990s by Takeuchi Press and then Universal Can Corporation (UCC).

The technology for bottle making, which is an adaptation of the same D&I process used for beverage cans, except that necking and finishing techniques are employed, was then licensed by UCC to Ball. The US company is now able to manufacture bottles weighing slightly more than an equivalent size can at 22g.

The first high-speed manufacturing line was installed at Ball’s Monticello, Indiana, plant in 2009, with a second line recently commissioned at its site in Golden, Colorado. Overall annual volume of the two lines is thought to be about one billion units.

“Production from our two Alumi-Tek lines is sold out and Ball may invest further in Alumi-Tek to meet market demand,” says Scott McCarty, director of corporate relations at Ball.

“It’s a popular package for beer especially, and we have seen continued growth with Coors Light, energy drinks and soft drinks, as well as a craft beer.”

In collaboration, Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado, and Sun King Brewing in Indianapolis, Indiana, recently introduced Chaka, Belgian-style craft beer packed in 16oz Alumi-Tek bottles.

“Unique packaging like the Alumi-Tek bottle provides both Oskar Blues and Sun King the differentiation we needed to make our limited-release beers distinct from our core lines. Plus, the sleek bottle shape is appealing to our customers,” says Chad Melis, marketing director at Oskar Blues. “Craft beer in aluminium bottles is another step forward in the evolution of beer.”

For filling, Oskar Blues uses an existing Cask line for the bottles. “We purge the bottle with carbon dioxide and then fill from the bottom up with a long fill tube,” adds Melis. “The technical challenges with filling have been the speed of the line, because changing from a standard can to a bottle is time consuming.”

The brewer is planning another launch in the bottles for the Great American Beer
Festival, to be held in Colorado, in October this year. “We’re looking at ways to progress the Alumi-Tek project here at Oskar Blues,” concludes Melis.

US brewer MillerCoors is the most high-profile customer for the bottle, having rolled out its Miller and Coors brands nationwide.

McCarty says that Alumi-Tek business is growing, although it still remains part of Ball’s speciality beverage packaging segment, which represents about one-fifth of its global output. The company now has the capability to also manufacture 33cl and 50cl impact-extruded bottles for the European market at Ball Aerocan’s plant in Velim, Czech Republic.

“Alumi-Tek is an occasion and a convenience package – really more of a market expansion than taking share from existing packages, though some of that occurs,” adds McCarty.

“Consumers like the feel and look of Alumi-Tek, especially with the additional features added by some customers such as temperature-sensitive inks. Consumers also like the convenience of the reclosable top and the added portability that brings to the package.”