The evolution of the drinks can

The Can Makers, a trade body representing the UK companies responsible for the manufacture of beverage cans, examines how the drinks can has changed and developed over the years

We all know that Apple’s Steve Jobs was an innovator, always striving to invoke excellence in his products and society. Society is constantly evolving. If we look back to where we were only 80 years ago, it’s not hard to recognise the changes. No world wide web, no mobile phones and certainly no man on the moon.
As people and society have changed through the years, so too has the beverage can. Dating back to the 1930s and the first drinks can, this report will explore the origins of the drinks can and how it has developed and changed.

The reality is that cans have been around since the 18th century, when Napoleon offered a prize for the best method of preserving food for his armies. From then, the can evolved over the years, but the beverage can itself was not developed until 1930. Made from tinplate, it was due to technology changes that this invention became possible. British producers introduced beverage cans shaped like bottles that were constructed from three pieces of metal and featured a cone-shaped top.
Originally developed in America in anticipation of the end of Prohibition, canned beer was introduced to the UK in 1935. Globalisation and the ease of travel made this development possible.

If the 1940s and 1950s saw war, upheaval and then the big rebuild, the 1960s, debatably, was the decade of change in big ideas and society’s values. With the relaxation of licensing laws more supermarkets started to sell alcohol. Cans were the most suitable form of packaging for this type of outlet as they were light, required minimal shelf space and did not break.
In 1963, Ernie Fraze, an American, of the Dayton Reliable Tool Company, working with Alcoa, invented the aluminium easy-open end, although this was not introduced to the UK until the 1970s. This development had a dramatic effect on the growth of sales of cans as containers for beer and carbonated soft drinks, since it brought a new level of convenience to the consumer. Until that time, beverage cans relied upon a separate triangular steel opener to puncture holes in one end.
In 1964, the two-piece draw and wall ironed (DWI) can was developed in the US. This was an important step forward, since it used less metal than the traditional three-piece can.

The 1970s saw the demise of the returnable system, a deposit structure for take home beer and soft drinks, which had been primarily sold in bottles.
Social attitudes had changed, but so had supermarkets. There was more variety of products and therefore, less space on shelves. Beverage cans were right for the time and place, as they could be stacked and displayed easily and in different ways. The large surface area for printing designs was perfect for on shelf display. The result – escalated growth in the use of drinks cans.
The 1970s also saw multipacks become increasingly in vogue, specifically in beer.
The two-piece DWI cans were launched in Britain in 1970. Ring-pull ends, developed in the 1960s, became readily available in the 1970s, meaning the drinks can became much easier for consumers to open.

The early 1980s also saw a recession in the UK and worldwide, as well as continually increased unemployment rates. The need for improved manufacturing efficiencies led to lightweighting and the continual innovation of the can. By 1981, two-piece cans led the UK market. The two-piece cans used less metal and, therefore, were much more efficient to produce. Another innovation for the can industry came with the development of the retained ring pull end (stay-on tab) in 1989.
The can industry was looking to innovate the can to fit in with consumers’ lifestyles. With this in mind, in 1986, new equipment for on-line nitrogen injections made it possible to put still drinks into beverage cans, fitting in with consumer lifestyles and healthier approaches.
The 1980s was a decade of contrasts. What began as a difficult period economically, ended with a boom in business and economic growth.
In the late 1980s, the marketplace became much more competitive. Again, wanting to innovate, the can industry introduced a reduced diameter end to save material, known now as the 206 diameter, for carbonated soft drinks in 1987 and then for beer in 1988. By introducing material savings and lightweighting, the industry was able to offer consumers a more cost-effective pack format.

So, where were we in 1990? In terms of consumerism, there was an ever-growing range of products on the shelves – cans had to stand out more than ever. As a result, printing techniques began to improve and develop. In 1997, coloured ends were introduced to coordinate with can body decoration.
The same year also saw the introduction of shaped cans, which meant that cans could come in many different sizes and formats. In 1999, undertab printing allowed symbols and texts to be printed under the tab, allowing for competitions to be introduced via drinks cans.

A change in social patterns became evident in the “noughties”. People were going to the pub less than in earlier years. The “noughties” gave way to continual improvements in manufacturing and technology, enabling cans to be used for still and sparkling wine as well as iced coffee. The resealable can was also developed, offering consumers greater convenience and an easier way to drink on the go. The bottle can was also developed, providing consumers with a resealable option, which was light, durable and recyclable.

The future
The can industry has continually looked to innovate its products, and provide brewers, soft drinks manufacturers and consumers alike with a cost effective and convenient pack format. Today, 9.5 billion drinks cans are sold in the UK per year, an achievement resulting from each decade bringing with it more opportunities for the beverage can and, therefore, more options for the consumer. The coming decades will continue to see cans evolve to fit with ever-changing consumer, filler, manufacturers and society needs. ❑

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