The global metal beverage can business is huge – about 300 billion cans a year – but a couple European companies innovating with plastics aim to disrupt that sector a bit, and grab a share of the action.
Munich, Germany-based Xolution GmbH continues to chase one of that industry’s Holy Grails – creation of a safe, effective and affordable means of resealing beverage cans. Founded in 2003, Xolution has spent years developing its XO closure system, which first made its debut a few years ago.
(An existing resealable can closure, the BRE from Ball Corp., is the current industry benchmark. It features an injection molded plastic component that rotates to reclose the can, but – unlike the XO – it slows down filling and can-seaming operations.)
Separately, a Warsaw, Poland-based company called Invento Group has developed a clear plastic, blow-molded PET can for carbonated cold-fill and hot-fill beverages.
In an interesting twist, the two groups are currently exploring the concept of applying Xolution’s resealable end to Invento’s PET container.
XO-equipped cans have lids with an integrated plastic opening mechanism that allows the can to be reclosed and then opened again for later consumption. The resealable mechanism is joined to the aluminum shell and contains a tamper-proof seal. It can be used on cans ranging from 200 ml to 1 liter. Resealed cans are pressure stable and are gas- and liquid-tight.
Xolution has just released XO 2.0, the second-generation version of what it calls the XO Slider – a three-part plastic sliding flap that is compatible with existing can production facilities. The closure is made from a custom OnFlex S FG grade of thermoplastic elastomer specifically formulated by PolyOne GLS Thermoplastic Elastomers for Xolution.
PolyOne developed a material for cold-fill applications that maintains an internal pressure of up to 6 bar and adds no taste or odor. The material also provides excellent adhesion and good flow properties for use in two-component molding.
The design includes complicated part geometries that are challenging to fill, so the material flows easily to fully fill the part. In addition, the custom formulation is dimensionally stable and provides the high levels of compression set and mechanical performance needed to maintain the seal during transportation or storage at extreme temperatures and over long time periods. The material also meets the requirement to comply with EU 10/2011 and US food-contact regulations.
Xolution CEO Marc von Rettberg said: “It took us more than four years of intense R&D to develop and finish the current XO resealable end design to withstand even the toughest demands on a beverage can. We are confident that the current XO end has all the credentials to be a game changer for brands and the beverage can industry.”
With customers already in the U.S., Switzerland, Brazil and Russia – and other agreements in place in Australia, Mexico and South Africa – growing demand is prompting the product’s molder to boost production capacity by tenfold. By next January, Alpla Werke Alwin Lehner GmbH & Co. KG plans to increase capacity at its plant in Hard, Austria, from its initial rate of 40 million XO ends a year to 400 million.
That’s still a modest number in the beverage can industry, but the XO system is not for everybody. Since most 12-ounce cans are considered single-serve portions, it is cans of 16 ounces and larger for which portioned consumption makes more sense. Given its fairly high (but undisclosed) price premium, the XO end is finding favor mostly in higher-end beverages such as sparkling water or functional and energy drinks.
XO 2.0 features even thinner plastic parts to reduce both total weight and the stacking height of the XO ends. State-of-the-art plastic technologies are incorporated to increase heat resistance during the filling process to support high-temperature pasteurization and hot-fill. Xolution says shelf life of filled beverage cans with XO ends is expected to be between 12 to 18 months. The XO ends can be produced in custom colors and will support new-generation shell profiles dimensions.
Meantime, Invento is pushing ahead with development of its clear PET cans. It commercialized its plant in Poland two years ago. Founded in 2004, the firm introduced its product to the North American market only in the past year, despite it being available in Europe since 2008.
Bill Brandell has had a foot in both camps. After nearly eight years as a senior vice president in Rexam’s $2 billion aluminum can business, he set out on his own in 2007. In a recent phone interview, he said his consulting role led him to engage first with Xolution, where he helped to introduce the German firm to beverage brand owners and co-packers.
Brandell then founded Innovative Beverage Containers LLC, a distributor of packaging innovations to the beverage industry, and in 2012 engaged with Invento Group, taking his leadership role with Invento Americas in January 2014. Being intimately familiar with both products, Brandell sees promise in possibly combining the two innovations.
“XO has gone their way,” he explained, “I’ve gone down this path, but because of my relationships with the beverage people … I think there’s an opportunity to potentially put the two pieces together.” Brandell acknowledges that he’d need authorization from Xolution to go down this path, but says there has been some interest expressed by one company for such a product “that could be quite significant potential.”
All parties agreeing, PolyOne also would like to be able to show off such an innovation at its Pack Expo booth in Las Vegas this Sept. 28-30, Brandell noted.
As for Invento’s clear can, he says the greatest customer interest so far has been in using it to package either clear beverages, such as sparkling water, or vibrantly colored beverages such as some of the energy drinks. Being able to show the liquid contents helps to drive brand recognition. And one also has the ability to do “some really amazing things” with labels. This becomes a real marketing driver, he said.
And then, when you put the plastic can together with the XO end, you’re adding functionality to larger drink packages that allow the user to open and close them.
Of course plastic bottles already offer this functionality, but Brandell suggests there is a good line-extension opportunity for beverage companies to also adopt the PET can option. Cans offer certain inherent advantages, such as logistics, that make them attractive to the brand owner.
Invento’s PET can is produced from a preform via a two-stage stretch blow molding process (see a video of the process here). The firm submitted its first patent application for the preform shape back in 2005 and shortly thereafter launched the prototype blow molding machine for this product. In 2008 the firm built its first line to mold the cans, and gained its first commercial contract in 2011. A couple years later, using some European Union funds, it developed hot-filling technology for the process.
Invento today holds patents on its product in more than 100 countries, and its blow molding line now turns out 10,000 cans per hour.
Both the clear PET can and the XO resealable closure are likely niche products in a massive beverage packaging industry. But both represent innovations in a metal-dominated market that are driven by the properties and performance of plastics, and offer branding opportunities for beverage companies and convenience features for consumers. That, it would seem, is the purpose of innovation.
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