Unpacking the research

In 2023, Industrial Physics notes that in the can making industry, manufacturing demand is no longer outweighing supply

Steve Davis, product line director at test and inspection specialist, Industrial Physics, discusses the company’s latest packaging research and the opportunities that innovation presents for can makers and fillers in the next five years

All images courtesy of Industrial Physics

In recent years, the global packaging industry has undergone rapid transformation. So, what does that mean for people working with metals? And how are attitudes to towards innovation impacting the day-to-day lives of metal packaging manufacturers? To answer these questions, Industrial Physics, global packaging, product, and material test and inspection partner, conducted a survey of packaging professionals operating in consumer goods, food and beverage, and medical or pharmaceutical industries across the globe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority (96%) expressed a belief that innovation was indeed important. The research uncovered that,  in  the  metal  packaging  industry  in particular, innovation has been prioritised to meet changing consumer expectations, as well as the introduction of new sustainability targets and regulatory requirements. It was also highlighted that packaging manufacturers in the beverage industry are concentrating on manufacture-led innovation. There were many goals highlighted regarding innovation, with waste reduction (57%) in the highest priorities. To help achieve this, opportunities such as lightweighting and non- destructive testing are being explored.

The biggest areas of development for packaging innovation over the next five years are predicted to be material choice (53%), production processes (51%) and material reduction (49%). This can already be seen in the beverage industry, where processes such as lightweighting have facilitated more efficient production. Beverage cans today are among the lightest beverage containers available on the market, while maintaining the quality and durability of the packaging type.

For brands switching to metal packaging, it is crucial that the appropriate quality assurance and testing takes place

Investment in can manufacturing

The introduction of new regulations and the growing consumer demand for brands to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability has increased the pressure on manufacturers to reduce the level of PET required in global manufacturing. The latest research from Industrial Physics revealed that 90% have either reduced or replaced plastic and flexible plastic in the past five years. As a result, packaging professionals are evaluating alternative materials, including organic material and metals, to meet their packaging requirements. So, what does this mean for the metal packaging industry?

To meet packaging innovation goals identified in the research, including waste reduction (57%), reducing  the  cost  of  packaging  (55%),  and sustainability (53%), professionals are exploring a broad range of opportunities. Metal cans are already well placed to support sustainability goals, due to their endlessly recyclable nature, which is why we see an increasing transition from PET to metal cans and bottles within the beverage sector.

In response to the increased demand for metal cans and the can shortage during the coronavirus pandemic, there has been significant investment in manufacturing sites over recent years. Over the last decade, metal packaging manufacturing capability was limited by the large upfront cost of setting up a facility. However, in 2023 we’re noticing that the can making industry is benefiting from the fact that manufacturing demand is no longer outweighing supply. As a result, the international capacity is now available to accommodate a smooth transition from PET to metal cans. Subsequently, brands can make the switch and meet innovation objectives without costly and complex processes being required.

However, for brands switching over to metal packaging, it is crucial that the appropriate quality assurance and testing takes place. As a result of the increased capacity, many companies are making the switch to metal packaging for the first time, and are therefore likely to be less familiar with the testing equipment and processes required for metal packaging in comparison to PET. To ensure that the safety and quality of the packaging is not compromised, it is essential that the required expertise and inspection equipment is secured early in the transition period. According to business intelligence group, CRU, aluminium consumption from the packaging sector will increase from 7.2Mt in 2020 to 10.5Mt in 2030, driven mainly by the rise in popularity of canned drinks in North America, Europe and China.

Throughout the lightweighting process, cans must still adhere to stringent regulations, including foodgrade coatings, seam closures and tamper-evident features

Lightweighting in can making

In the can making industry, professionals continue to explore opportunities to meet innovation goals, including waste reduction and cost management. One method that has sharply risen in popularity over the last few years is lightweighting – essentially, this allows brands to reduce the volume of raw materials required in can manufacturing.

Put simply, lightweighting reduces the overall amount of material that is used to create metal packaging, while still maintaining the level of durability and performance required to protect the can’s contents. In metal packaging, within the last eight years alone, manufacturers have been able to reduce the thickness of a metal can by 7% and complete a redesign of the can lids. Moreover, since the introduction of Crown’s SuperEnd, which is a more modern profile, can makers have benefitted from a reduction in materials of up to 10% and lower production costs.

For can makers, lightweighting has facilitated strong progress towards goals for more efficient production.

Across Europe, over the last 25 years, the weight of steel and aluminium cans has reduced by one-third, and CO2 emissions from two-piece aluminium cans have reduced by 31% from 2006 to 2016 – largely thanks to a reduction in material usage. Today, cans can be produced with a wall thickness of 0.097 mm – as thin as a human hair. By using less material in the manufacturing process, can makers can benefit from a reduction in the cost of production and ensure a more efficient use of the raw materials required.

Additionally, by lightweighting, packaging professionals can transport a higher volume of cans with the same fuel usage. As a result, the manufacturers’  overall  carbon  emissions  are reduced, supporting innovation goals for greater sustainability in the packaging lifecycle.

When assessing whether lightweighting is the right choice for a can manufacturing site, professionals must consider factors  including retention of the can’s durability and ensuring that material reduction doesn’t compromise quality. Throughout the lightweighting process, cans must still adhere to stringent regulations, including food- grade coatings, seam closures and tamper-evident features. Therefore, the decision to lightweight must be made with a full assessment of both the benefits and considerations to ensure that safety and quality is not compromised.

Lightweighting in can filling

To ensure that can quality and performance is not compromised during the lightweighting process, testing and inspection equipment is even more critical.  When  filling  cans,  particularly  with carbonated beverages, it is vital that cans are robust enough to withhold the predicted level of pressure without breaching. To ensure that standards are upheld, can fillers have already begun investing in automated inspection systems that allow them to monitor and control the process more closely. The systems allow can fillers to collect a greater level of data and ensure that standards are met.

Limited testing facilities (48%) and current testing methods no longer applicable to new types of packaging (36%) were each identified within the research as challenges, but also key areas of opportunity for future packaging innovation. The testing methods employed for metal can inspection have been refined over time and will need to adapt accordingly as professionals endeavour to make cans even lighter in the next decade.

On top of this, there are financial implications that arise when evolving testing processes to incorporate new pieces of equipment. While lightweighting may reduce the amount spent on raw material costs, introducing additional testing processes will require investment that may prove a challenge in the short-term, despite proving a valuable investment in the longer term.

For the metal packaging industry, lightweighting presents  a  great  opportunity  for  packaging professionals to support goals for sustainability, cost reduction, and reducing waste which were highlighted in the research. However, lightweighting must be approached with packaging standards as a top priority, so as not to compromise the quality and safety of metal cans. To ensure standards are maintained, international data collection and collaboration is required.

  • Industrial Physics surveyed 284 individuals in 2023, from around the world who work for manufacturers and have a role that involves the packaging process. The full report can be found via the company’s website at www.industrialphysics.com

This feature article is restricted to logged-in paid subscribers.

Login or subscribe now to view this exclusive content.

Related content

Leave a reply

CanTech International