Customers tell cap makers: 'We want diversity'

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Panel discussion during Plastics News Europe's Caps & Closures 2015 conference in Nice

For this feature for Plastics News Europe, James Snodgrass travelled to the French Riviera to hear the world’s experts in the field of caps and closures.

The sun smiled on plastics caps and closures last November, as the French coastal resort of Nice was visited by unseasonably good weather. A short stroll from the beach, in the grand old Plaza Hotel, delegates from around the world assembled for Plastics News Europe’s annual conference on Caps & Closures. The two day conference brought together experts in the field, from designers to convertors, regulators and retail groups. 

The opening presentation was given by Michael Nieuwesteeg of NVC Netherlands Packaging Centre. NVC is a trade body representing more than 550 companies in the packaging industry. Nieuwesteeg noted that caps and closures are key to packaging but stressed the need for innovation. “Innovation is not about making something complex,” said Nieuwesteeg. “Innovation is making something that is perceived as better.”

Talking on the notion of sustainable innovation, Nieuwesteeg called for a show of hands: “Which is most important: people, planet or profits? Nobody is putting their hand up for ‘profit’ are they?” Then he joked: “Hypocrites!”

Tackling caps and closures from the retail perspective was Paul Earnshaw, head of packaging at Europe’s largest retailer, Tesco. Earnshaw came to the stage, suited, but with open shirt, his long, brown hair tied into a bun. Looking like a barista who had returned to work after a year’s retreat in Goa, Earnshaw talked about perception. “Look at me,” he said, “you’re probably thinking, ‘how does someone with hair like that rise to middle management in a company like Tesco?’”

Earnshaw then whipped off his luxuriant hairstyle which, it transpired, was a wig – practically demonstrating the power of perception (or prejudice). In a theme he would return to in the Q&A session, Earnshaw berated the plastics industry for not speaking the customer’s language.

“Customers are concerned by how difficult packaging is to get into, and how much waste is produced,” said Earnshaw. “We shouldn’t be talking different languages, the person we need to have on side is the customer. They don’t care whether you have a faster nucleating polymer in your injection moulding tool.”

During a panel discussion, Earnshaw returned to cap makers’ lack of regard for the end user’s needs. “We need mutual comprehension between the two industries,” said Earnshaw from the floor. “We just want a nice shiny cap that pours easily and doesn’t drip. I would not put you [cap manufacturers] in front of buyers without giving you some serious coaching. They need to know: what does it do, what does it cost. I have to act as a translator between packaging companies and what buyers and marketeers want to hear.”

David Rose, packaging development manager at beverage group Britvic GB, also had a message to the industry: “We want a lot more diversity. Oh, and we want it cheaper and quicker!”

He spoke on Day 2 of the conference about the development of Robinson’s Squash’d ultra-concentrated cordial. The tiny packages are designed to squirt a dose of cordial into bottled water. The cap, and its flexible dosing valve, was specified to dispense at an angle no more than 12° from vertical.

Retail concerns were also key to the presentation of Richard Inns, director of PEC Partnership. Entitled “Latest Developments in the Definition and Measurement of Sustainable Products”, Inns’s presentation tackled the notion of sustainable packaging. Inns contended that: “The issue is not about sustainable packaging but the role of packaging in sustainability.”

He said: “Nobody has ever defined what environmentally-friendly packaging means. Companies like Marks & Spencer are looking at food waste reduction through research into shelf life extension. But protecting food in the supply chain is also important, and packaging can be part of that.”

Arno Rabie, managing director of UK-based Smooth HIP, said: “Many industries think of the consumer closure experience as a secondary experience.” Addressing the use of caps and closures to create “brand stickiness”, Rabie said that products should challenge human nature and appeal to all senses. He also talked of the growing interest in “secondary use” products, an example of this being the Stack Cap concept that his company has developed with German closures manufacturer Bericap. After use as a beverage closure the caps can be re-used as an interlocking construction toy.

Answering the call for greater innovation in caps was Yoav Hoshen, co-founder and senior VP of business development at Israel-based technology firm Water.IO, who brought a bit of Silicon Valley blue-sky thinking to the proceedings. His company’s technology is an “internet of things” for bottles and cups – embedded RFID chips that, via a smartphone app, can help monitor liquid intake.

Noting the importance of the sports cap to bottled water products was Carsten Pfromm, vice president technical marketing and business development, at Bericap. He mentioned his company’s own product line of “thumb-up” crystal openings with a hinge that stays open at well over 180°.

Pfromm’s presentation went on to emphasise the importance of neck design and neck quality on the performance of closures. This was particularly important in emerging markets, where there is a high incidence of re-use, he suggested.

He described how Bericap is addressing water wastage during the storage of large water bottles, the water coolers found in most offices. Distributors have been warehousing large water bottles horizontally, which puts a greater stress on the cap than vertical storage and can lead to leakage. Pfromm noted that, within 24 to 72 hours, 70% of stored water bottles will exhibit some leakage. Bericap has developed a cap specifically designed for horizontal storage that it hopes will stem this water loss – the Valvelock 2K.

Stephen Wilkins, chief executive of industry body Child-Safe Packaging Group, outlined his attempts to define a new international standard for the testing of openability. Resistance from brand owners and the pharmaceutical industry had, in Wilkins’ words, “put this on the buffers” but the group managed to get the idea through as a TS (technical specification). This has since been superseded by a joint effort with the JIS, the Japanese standards body, to create an ISO standard for openability.

The problem of combatting counterfeiting was addressed by Lance Pearson, sales director of Global Closure Systems (GCS), the company that patented the first snap-hinge closure in 1971. The problem is particularly acute for makers of bottled spirits partly because, as Pearson noted wryly, after two or three servings the consumer is no longer best placed to discern whether or not the drink is “the real thing”.

Pearson noted various anti-counterfeiting measures his company has developed but suggested that it is easier to combat bootlegging in Europe and the USA, where there is a shallow distribution route – “there’s only one bottling plant between us and Tesco” – than in China, where products can go from plant to plant, province to province, before arriving at their retail destination.

On the second day of the conference, Pearson’s colleague Derek Hindle, marketing director of GCS, gave a technical presentation on the challenges presented by the increasing use of squeezy bottles with silicone valves. Four variables are looked at when measuring the evacuation of product from the packaging: opening pressure; closing pressure (venting back); flow rate and dispensing window.

Hindle said: “A really great valve with a bad bottle is going to give a bad dispense.” The secret to getting great dispensing packaging is research, computational fluid dynamics and software modelling.

Elie Saadé, an engineer from French lab equipment manufacturer Alpha MOS, discussed safe and odour-free packaging. Saadé noted the disastrous consequences when packaging odours leach into food: an incident in 2010 cost Kelloggs in the US more than $300m.

Saadé’s company manufactures “e-noses”, electronic devices that can detect foul odours and VOCs with more discernment and reliability than a human nose. The problem with our noses is that they rapidly saturate. Once we have picked up a scent, we can’t simply reset our sense of smell.

Jordan Robertson, general manager of business development and marketing at Canadian mould maker Stack Teck, gave a presentation on his company’s developments with multi-cavity moulds. The company builds a two-face stack mould with 128 cavities (64 on each side). Robertson noted that most of his customers now require in-mould closing: “In the last two years, over 90% of the moulds we are building with this technology are having the caps closed within the mould rather than ejecting them and handling the parts later with robots.”

  • The next Caps & Closures Conference, organised by Plastics News Europe, takes place on 9-10 November 2016. For more information on taking part as a speaker, sponsor or delegate, please contact Donna Bushell


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