The smallest of changes in a can’s design are sometimes a clue to bigger things happening at a canmaker.
On the aluminium bottle produced by Japan’s Universal Can Corporation (UCC) for Monster Energy it was a subtle change in the profile of the neck that caught the eye. On the face of it, this might not have been enough to make the can a Gold winner in the Cans of the Year Awards 2019.
This style of aluminium bottle has been around for more than 25 years, having been pioneered in Japan by Takeuchi Corporation as a development of D&I canmaking processes.
But it was the size of the bottle – 500ml – and a new conical neck profile that suggested UCC had been making some key investments at the plant where it was made.
And so it turned out. Manabu Inomata, general manager of UCC’s technology division at Shizuoka, responded to The Canmaker’s inquiries, saying that a new production line had been installed in May 2019 with the objective of making larger bottles with a range of different neck profiles, rather than simple conical versions. It had been more than 20 years since the last line was commissioned at the plant, therefore the decision to install it was clearly significant. So, when we were subsequently invited to see it for ourselves it was an offer that couldn’t be refused.
UCC was created in 2005 from the merger of Mitsubishi Materials Corporation (80 per cent) and Hokkan Holdings (20 per cent), both of which are able to trace their roots back more than a century and have been making two-piece aluminium cans since the 1970s. One of UCC’s most popular products is the 350ml embossed aluminium can made for Suntory’s Highball.
The canmaker now has six manufacturing plants in Japan – in Yuki, Gunma, Shiga, Gifu, Okayama and Fuji Oyama – making it one of the country’s largest, along with leader Toyo Seikan Group. UCC produces can bodies, bottle cans, can ends and aluminium bottle closures. Production of aluminium bottles began in 2001 at UCC’s Okayama plant, followed by a second line at its Yuki plant in 2003.
While the bottles with conical necks and roll on pilfer proof (ROPP) screw-caps have been produced in Japan for many years, it was only in 2006 that production of them started outside the country when Ball Corporation produced under technical alliance with UCC its Alumi-Tek bottles for brewers such as Miller. Now, around two billion are made each year in the US and are being used for a range of drinks, increasingly mineral waters, many of which are sold in Europe.
UCC’s largest plant is Gifu, started in 1973 and now with five canmaking lines, and where the latest bottle can line has been established. It runs at 600 bottles per minute but with more necking units this speed will reach 1,500 per minute, the same as the line running at Yuki.
Following The Canmaker’s inquiries, we were invited to Japan to see the plant first hand, hosted by plant manager Hideki Taniguchi.
Bottles take centre stage While increasing demand for aluminium bottles has prompted UCC’s investment in the latest technology, it notes that brand owners are less likely to initiate new designs.
Certainly, there is interest in replacing plastics bottles with aluminium, as is the case with Monster Energy, but not because consumers necessarily believe aluminium can be more easily recycled, or is better for the environment.
Tatsuya Hanafusa, senior executive officer for corporate strategy, technology and development, says that in most cases UCC develops the shape of the bottle and takes it to the brand owner, rather than the other way round, because the canmaker has more experience of what is achievable.
With more than a quarter of a century of aluminium bottle making, UCC was approached by Monster four years ago because the energy drink maker wanted a resealable bottle to replace the plastics versions it had been using.
“Brand owners don’t have enough knowledge of shape, so we do it. Our employees do the designing and we apply for the patent,” explains Hanafusa.
The Gifu plant is large, immaculately clean and highly impressive. The fifth bottle making line differs from UCC’s previous ones in that it has a complete floor dedicated to the task.
Each stage of the canmaking process is carried out in a separate room to avoid contamination. The site has the capacity to store its products for up to one month after production.
The new bottle line at Gifu extends this broad capability. To enable the production of 66mm-diameter bottles with a taller trim height up to 230mm, it developed a new design of D&I bodymaker with a longer 30-inch
(76cm) stroke, and at the same time made it more compact with a stronger frame to give better process control and a more stable cup feed. UCC’s constituent Mitsubishi has long experience in the design of bodymakers. Inomata revealed the production speed of the new machine is currently 300cpm, but it has been tested at its maximum running speed of 400cpm and is expected to reach this in production in the near future.
UCC decorates the bright containers before they are coated internally, a process that needs to be more carefully controlled because when the upper diameter of the container is necked, the lacquers become thicker and wrinkle.
To better control the application of the coatings the inside spray machine uses three guns, each of which is adjustable to ensure that the coating weight is correct in each area of the bottle. This is checked with an integral spray inspection function. During coating, the containers are transported on a vacuum system without top guides, which is said to aid cleaning.
UCC doesn’t use laminated materials, but instead concentrates on two different kinds of coatings because it believes they are better for recycling.
“Laminated cans are no good for the future in terms of recyclability,” says Hanafusa.
He adds that embossing is mainly used by UCC for aesthetic purposes rather than for any practical reason, such as keeping the beverage cooler as claimed by some brand owners.
The final part of manufacture is the critical necking operation. The latest reciprocating machines were supplied by Japanese company G&P and have been modified to provide for a wider range of neck shapes. Using an indexer with 56 tool stations rather than the standard 48 and with a longer-than-usual stroke, it progressively reduces the diameter of the neck to create a smooth, rounded shoulder before forming the finish suitable for wide-mouth 38mm ROPP caps.
The introduction of this bottle production line widens the possibilities available to packaging designers using the high-speed D&I process, offering cost-savings.
Technology at its finest
A key part of UCC’s broader bottle design philosophy is the necking technology developed by G&P, which is based in a modern facility opened in 2018 and has a sound system designed by architect Tetsuya Sakuma, also responsible for Tokyo’s famous concert venue Suntory Hall. Low noise levels are a priority, we were told during our visit.
G&P was established in 2015 as the brainchild of parent company the Sankyo Group, which has service bases in the US, China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. Looking around the facility provided the opportunity to see how each machine operates and how the manufacturing processes work together.
Sales and marketing executive Mariko Yamanouchi explained that the company has dedicated engineers for product design, with some of its employees recruited from former canmakers for their expertise in technologies such as bodymaking.
G&P focuses on developing all sorts of canmaking machinery, apart from non-metal forming processes.
While UCC buys most of G&P’s equipment, outside Japan its customers Ball and A-B InBev (through its Metal Container Corporation canmaking subsidiary) are primarily interested in its bottle neckers, of which it has two types. Its standard bottle necker has 50 tools and cans are held and moved by a high-precision indexer, while the one used for the Monster bottle uses 56 tools.
“The bottle’s design and finish are what makes the brand stand out,” says Yamanouchi. “We will be flexible enough to meet customers’ needs.”
G&P also developed an inside spray machine which uses a high precision annular conveying cam drive and operates intermittently at high speed. Its sophisticated defect detection system is new to the industry, according to Yamanouchi.
The company is also at the forefront of D&I bodymaker technology. Yamanouchi revealed that G&P has developed a bodymaker which uses a hypocycloid drive, first developed by Reynolds in the 1990s and later by Mitsubishi. The system is also now being further developed by CarnaudMetalbox Engineering. With a low-vibration drive, G&P’s Nayuta bodymaker has a 24-inch (61cm) stroke and aims to reach a maximum speed of 500cpm. G&P expects to have a prototype ready by the end of March 2020.
“Lots of canmakers see the benefits of hypocycloid,” she says. “We would welcome any customers from around the world.”
UCC in the future
Although in 2017 Eiichi Naitocame took over as UCC’s new president, potentially signalling a change in direction for the company, Hanafusa maintains his post as its strategic lead.
The canmaker is now focusing on making bottle cans for the craft beer market in Japan, which is still small but growing steadily. It believes there is a demand for different shaped bottle cans for each of the drinks markets and, now that it has made strides in the energy drinks market, is turning its sights towards craft beers and, potentially, coffee cans as well.
With Japan’s population stable but predicted to decline slightly, UCC is striving to maintain a big share of the market which has dropped from
2.9 billion bottles per year to 2.5bn over the past few years. Outside Japan, UCC has plans to look for other partners to help drive its bottle cans business.
The company is also highly committed to recycling and utilises used beverage can (UBC) recycling systems that separate aluminium from steel and other organic material. Japan has been a global leader in this form of recycling for a number of years, and UCC is considering increasing the capacity of its current system which stands at 60,000 tonnes a year.