Any form of innovation in the 21st century seems to require vast resources both from a financial point of view as well as sheer size of manufacturing plant. Gone are the days when globally important inventions are created in the garden shed says Steve Thomas-Emberson

If this is the raison d’etre then America is the prime candidate to lead the way. Packaging companies are vast and split up into specialist divisions in order to keep up with market requirements and here lies the rub. Market requirements in the packaging industry drive the innovation.

A few years back lightweighting was all the rage – plastics complete with gas fillers, as part of the structural entity, was just what the supermarket needed. It did not stop at plastics. Metal got in on the act as well. It was all about cost and this is the driver at the forefront of packaging today.

What then of the US market place as a beacon of innovation? A person to give a quick overview to set the scene is the Institute of Packaging’s chief executive John Webb-Jenkins.

“What one has to remember is that America has a fantastic manufacturing base so they can afford research and development,” he says. “While there have been changes in metal and glass around shaping, it is plastics that the US has been so good at developing. American technologists have pioneered PET for carbonated drinks as far back as the 1979 Pack Expo.

“Since then they have developed PET to become one of packaging’s leading materials. They even steered it through the American Federal Drugs Agency, which was no mean feat! In the development of PET they are simply way ahead of anybody else.

“They have managed to colour it, enhance the visual appeal and continue to improve the barrier properties. Bio-degradables through starch based materials have fallen by the wayside after showing some popularity in the States. Plastics is the key to American innovation.”

The American economy has proved that size does matter. The nation has a simple but effective philosophy – let’s all join together, save money, improve production and take on the world!

Companies such as Crown Cork Seal, Smurfit Stone, and Chesapeake Field have all been built up by joining together to build up financial muscle.

Although acquisitions and mergers still take place, there is now a heavy accent on trading partnerships emanating out of America and this culture is now driving innovation forward.

One could say that these very important phenomena could just start a golden age of packaging – pack people working together over years [not months] to develop products, which are beneficial to all. This is where Europe can play a full and active part and, to be fair, some companies are.

What then of material growth and innovation in the US packaging market? One thing is clear – that market penetration of the key pack materials is not the same as Europe.

The use of PET bottles for containing beer and other alcoholic beverages is very prevalent in the American market place, whereas in Europe there is still a strong hankering for glass and metal.

Card, board and corrugated has long since been in a decline as a major player in end use consumer packaging as plastics has taken over. In America it is still popular and is finding new specialist market places as Jack Anderson of Hornall Anderson explains.

“Paper and board is still very popular with the American consumer and I don’t see it as being cut back. Until recently, it was always cheap visually and shouted the brand message rather than it being understated.

“What we are now seeing, following European influence, is card and board packs that are a lot more sculptural and this is new. These packs are also holding higher value consumer products than previously and the consumer has a perception that the box is either degradable or recycled.”

With partnerships comes innovation and one of the key elements in pack development world-wide, but probably seen with more clarity in the States is the combination of material innovations.

Plastics coupled with ingenious ink technology and metals with plastics seals – in short a bringing together of great minds. This is where the fun really starts and the end user gets a pack that, in some cases, exceeds expectation. It gives added value and promotes customer loyalty.

One such example, and there are many, is the new Twinings Loose Tea pack designed and developed by Crown Cork and Seal’s speciality packaging division.

It is a long way from the rectangular tin that had a lid that took your nails off when you opened and then deposited the tea all over the floor! Twinings group packaging development manager Barry Pritchard explains: “Continuing success for our product requires constantly refreshing the image with consumers.

“By developing a completely new packaging strategy for loose tea, we were able to appeal to new customers and capture a greater market share.”

This new packaging solution required new strategic, technical and design elements. The old style requiring customers to ‘pop’ a lever before opening had been around for centuries.

What was required was a more modern look. The traditional lever lid was replaced with a slip lid, allowing for simple opening. Most crucial to the new packaging solution is the special heat-sealed foil diaphragm underneath the lid.

Designed to replace the film over-wrap used in the previous packaging, the tamper proof foil provides consumers with clear evidence of freshness and features a pull-tab for easy opening.

In addition to being the most important aspect of the pack, the heat-sealed foil diaphragm proved to be the most complicated to implement.

Crown technicians had to carefully select the correct foil laminate. Problems did not end here as the packaging machines heat seal heads were not performing as required so the heads themselves were redesigned, ensuring that the required temperatures were reached and that they heated evenly.

  “As a result of working with Crown, our production line is faster, more efficient and offers significant cost reductions,” says Mr Pritchard. “Crown created a solution that was even better than we could have imagined.”

Selling beer in plastics bottles in Europe has been and is an uphill struggle. Barrier qualities have not been good and the consumer still has an affinity with glass but what would happen if a packaging company with a vast knowledge of glass bottles in the beer market together with experience of plastics mixed the two to create the ‘ideal’ plastics beer bottle?

This is the scenario behind the Owens-Illinois-Voridian-Heineken partnership project to develop a PET plastics beer bottle. The company responsible for producing these bottles is Owens-Illinois in the Netherlands, using a Voridian PET product made by a division of the Eastman Chemical Company.

The basis of the partnership was to create “a package that would combine the lightweight and re-closeable advantages of a plastics bottle with the high quality standards of a glass bottle,” says Owens-Illinois director of operations Chris Meesters. A very tall order!

What is obviously essential are quality materials to go with innovative thought. That is why Voridian PET 9921W – a multi-purpose polymer – was selected. Voridian European market manager Jean-Marie Le Fevre explains the qualities: “PET is not cheaper than glass but it is lightweight. Our product allows Owens-Illinois to produce bottles with little or no ‘off taste’ that occurs with low-quality PET resins.

“These have high acetaldehyde levels. The quality of the resin allows the preservation of the original flavour of the product.”

Owens-Illinois developed for Heineken a special patented five-layer plastics bottle. The outer, middle and inner layer of the bottle is made from the Voridian PET 9921W. These three layers of virgin PET protect two layers of Owens-Illinois own barrier material.

This improves shelf life and ensures product quality to prevent oxygen from entering the container, minimise CO2 losses and provide UV protection. The end result is that Heineken bottles have a shelf life of six months.

This alone will not convert glass worshippers to PET but it certainly goes a long way. What else could help the marketing? A simple word ‘design’. Heineken has gone for the creative jugular with bottles featuring an embossed image of their logo – a man drinking a mug of beer – adding up to a highly attractive pack.

What is an important element to this project is ‘partnership’ as Mr Le Fevre explained: “We have been working with Owens-Illinois for years on several projects all over the globe and it is a successful relationship.

“Europe is a big market with its own innovative requirements. Our most recent resin 9921P which is targeted at thick wall applications was originally made in the US but demand for it together with a low cost market requirement meant that we had to export the product and have it made in Rotterdam, Holland.”

Another flagship example of partnership is Flint Ink’s work with the Milwaukee-based packaging company Kendall Packaging Corporation. The company was ticking over just fine but Flint Ink had a proposal to help increase efficiency and therefore profit.

Kendall is a 24/7 enterprise that surface and reverse prints flexible packaging for various food products such as pasta. The first Flint Ink find was that Kendall could improve printing efficiencies and reduce costs by refining its ink systems. A change to a Chromabond CMYK system, a proprietary white for lamination, and Polygloss for surface printing, were the three changes.

With the new ink systems in place, together with an improved four-colour printing process, Kendall Packaging saved nearly $15 000 in ink costs in the first three months and an ability to produce only the inks required for a job, so driving down costs further.

It is now easy to see that innovation in materials and their uses goes hand in hand with innovation in partnerships. The US packaging industry has grasped this and is quite literally showing us all the material benefits but Europe still has a lot to learn.