Step changes in the beverage can industry

I have spent many years in canmaking, starting in the two-piece can business with Metal Box in London as a graduate management trainee. For almost two years I learned everything about beverage cans before taking on a supervisory role at a manufacturing plant.

Talking to contemporaries in the business, I realise that we are all now part of a ‘boys’ club’ of ageing canmakers, continually relied upon to keep the engines running. But where is the new talent? There is much talk in the industry about sustainability and the circular economy, but in what is a truly global market for beverage cans, why do we not have schools of learning or a more serious approach to bringing in personnel for the future?

Perhaps this could be funded through our industry bodies and institutions then dealt with in the same way that doctors, lawyers and computer scientists learn their trades so that when qualified they hit the ground running.

Looking back to the late 60s and 70s, the industry was an oligopoly made up of the likes of American Can, Continental Can, Reynolds Metals, Coors and Metal Box. Canmakers then developed their own canmaking equipment, which created a massive barrier for others to enter the industry. The canmakers had to balance machine development costs with increased line speeds, down gauging of both steel and aluminium, and smaller diameters to meet market demands.

The big difference with today is that machines were developed by the canmakers with manufacturing needs at the forefront and markets also in mind. While label changes and size changes were not so much of an issue then, canmakers would have embraced these as part of their development programmes. However, since the entry of comprehensive equipment providers such as Stolle, Belvac and CarnaudMetalbox, I wonder just how much we as an industry manage to influence the design of equipment for today’s market?

Not so long ago talk was all about ‘split back ends’, line speeds of 3,000cpm and the standard seven bodymakers per line becoming ten. Now it surely has to be quick changeover capability and ‘let’s do it in less than two hours’. How much time do we spend trying to hone our production lines to reduce downtime, increase efficiencies and reduce spoilage only to programme a size change where we have to compute run down time, actual time spent on the changeover and then run up time?

The next generation of equipment must surely be designed with this in mind, since downtime costs the industry a lot of money and as we all know not every changeover goes well.

I now work for Helvetia Packaging, an independent canmaker, but our needs are no different from the major canmakers. For a time, I worked for Schuler Pressen and observed how the company interfaced with the automotive industry, which used practices such as single minute exchange of dies (SMED) and extensive use of transfer presses.

While D&I line speeds have multiplied several times over the past 50 years, the basic design of bodymakers and decorators has not changed. We still have to wash our cans with hazardous chemicals and use internal coating processes during which we literally throw material away in overspray.

Thankfully, polyester-coated steel and aluminium are now making a presence in the market – albeit slowly. It has to be the future since it removes the can washing and spraying processes from beverage can lines, providing environmental benefits, while saving cost and reducing complexity.

Elsewhere, the canmaking industry has accommodated demand for smaller can sizes. So why not promote the revival of the three-piece ‘party can’ to replace 1.5- and 2.0-litre plastic water bottles? I hope there will be more changes on the way.