In its 100-plus years in business, US-based packaging supplier Crown Cork and Seal has built up a reputation to become one of the world's leading names for innovation in food and beverage packaging. These days it is responsible for some of the most eye-catching and imaginative packaging designs to be found on store shelves.
Self-heating cans, clover-shaped biscuit tins, bottles with handles… the list is endless. But with over €160 million spent on research and development over the past three years and more than € 60 million going into new product development, it's no wonder that the competition is keeping a close eye on the company's latest offerings. Indeed, at the recent Interpak show in Dusseldorf, Crown Cork and Seal walked off with a number of industry awards, including the Steel Packaging Effectiveness Award 2002 for its self-heating can.
Dan Abramowicz, Crown Cork and Seal's executive vice-president, is one of the driving forces behind product innovations. FoodProductionDaily.com caught him on a recent business trip to the company's UK headquarters, near Oxford.
Although the packaging industry is very much a global concern these days, it is interesting to discover that there are still individual consumer demands that distinguish each region.
"Many of our projects are of a global concerns these days, which is why all our development operations, in both Europe, North America and Asia, work in conjunction with one another," Abramowicz said.
"Having said that, sometimes we do have to adapt both design and production to suit certain market tastes. Take, for example, our Easy Open End, which is mainly used to package pet food. In Europe it has a feature whereby the end of the opening is left for the customers to tear off, whereas elsewhere it just comes off in one easy motion. The European opening was designed differently because market research suggested this was what the consumers there wanted. Although this sort of occurrence is fairly rare, it is something we have to bear in mind, especially during the design stages."
Another characteristic of the various regions is the way that consumers behave towards new packaging innovations. Many new packaging designs are first launched in the US - Crown Cork and Seal's latest beverage end, the Super End, has already been launched in the US and Africa, although it will not be launched in Europe until next year.
In a more global context, there has also been an increasing move towards differentiation within the packaging sector in recent years, as an increasing number of food companies compete in an overcrowded market. What this means for packaging suppliers such as Crown Cork and Seal is that they are having to come up with increasingly innovative, easy-to-use and cost-effective means of winning the consumers over.
"Packaging drives a consumer's involvement in the product. For many food and beverage consumers the packaging not only represents the product, it can even be as important as the product itself. What we are noticing is that advertising is becoming less and less effective, and in turn the packaging of a product goes beyond mere aesthetics. Often a consumer will only pick one variety of bottled spaghetti sauce, for example, because they know it is easy to open.
"We are currently working on a number of new can shapes, including a silver bullet-shaped can which should come onto the market in the near future. Typically we run out around 10 new designs a year. Indeed, in Europe we are launching the first self-chill onto the market next month."
Although the company does work on projects of its own accord - the Super End being a prime example - generally it is the food and beverage companies that go to Crown Cork and Seal seeking solutions.
"It is relatively rare to come up with a design without the customer. In most cases the customer is involved from the very early design stages. We usually get a very broad brief, then we come up with a preliminary design from which we work with the customer.
"We also work on 50 to 60 special projects a year. These usually occur when existing customers want to customise packaging for promotional purposes. A classic example of this was a project we worked on with the UK brewer that produces Strongbow Cider. It wanted a handle on its bottle to give the impression of a jug of beer. Technically this was a challenging project, but the product was recently introduced onto the UK market with great success."
Internally Crown Cork and Seal is working on a number of solutions to improve both efficiency and effectiveness. It is interesting to discover that at this stage of the supply chain, interaction with the end user - the consumer - is usually minimal. However, this is something the company is planning to change in the future.
"We are currently striving to reduce our cycle times as well as the success rate of our programmes. One innovation initiative that I have personally overseen is to try to ensure a better understanding of the companies we supply, by taking measures to comprehend the value of the application through the supply chain. We look for greater understanding throughout the whole chain, which, of course, culminates with the consumer. Historically we have had very little feedback from consumers, but now we are looking for ways to do that - to actually interact with the consumer."
Crown Cork and Seal expects its self-cooling can will be the next product innovation to reach the supermarket shelves, however Abramowicz promises there are many more in the pipeline. Keep your eyes firmly peeled on those supermarket shelves.