PRINTED ALUMINUM CANS—HOW THE MESS STARTED AND OPTIONS TO GET THROUGH IT
How We Got Here….
Over the past 5-10 years or so we saw a steady — and then sudden — increase in the usage and acceptance of printed aluminum cans again. Correct…”those” aluminum cans we saw in trash bins, the side of the road, even street people prized them for what they could fetch at a scrap dealer…Iron City Beer, Schlitz, and all the others…pictures of football teams, logos of college athletics…you name it. But why did this happen? What caused this shift? And what is causing the current “crisis” (as it is to many in the craft brewery and beverage business) and is it possible to avoid it?
There has been such a huge push away from plastic frankly because we were seeing it everywhere. Our world has been awash in plastic…because it is effective for packaging, has low cost, and is easy to buy in small and large lots. Here in the US, however, a part of the problem has been that we sell and ship a large portion of our scrap recycled plastic to China, who would then reuse and repurpose it for products they would make…and sell back to the US and the world (think kids toys, plant holders, plastic lumber, pallets, street signs, etc). When the Trump administration started fighting with China and imposing sanctions on Chinese imports, one of the first things China did was refuse to take our plastic garbage. Quickly this garbage built up and started overflowing our system. Our recycling programs in the US and North America were not set up to handle this amount of waste, so it wasn't long before we saw plastic garbage everywhere.
Other industries soon took notice, and one was the aluminum industry. Despite aluminum costing much more — requiring 3-4 times the amount of energy to make — printed aluminum cans soon became the “look” of a company who could “relate”…who was “taking a stand” against the scourge of plastic. What was once only for beer and soda soon became the preferred vessel for water, juice, sparkling water, milk, cream…and of course the massive influx of small craft beer products.
Then What Happened?
Business 101 would say when demand spikes, so do prices…but that didn’t really seem to matter. These items (even water, now packaged in an aluminum can) were marketed and sold as “premium” and “cutting-edge” and “had-to-have,” so the rising price of aluminum and the already higher cost of printed aluminum cans (over plastic or any other type of packaging) was simply and easily passed onto the consumer. This works...when the economy is flush with cash. There seemed to be no end to this steady supply of aluminum and consumers continued to consume in record amounts.
Then Covid hit…people were forced to say home…and yet, access to cash and cash reserves made giving up their premium products like water in cans, craft brews, and premium soda something that many were unwilling to do (in fact, it was exactly the opposite — consumers ate and drank in record amounts). However, Covid did affect the factories’ ability to continue to produce and pump out more and more aluminum and, of course, printed aluminum cans. Factories in the US and those countries that exported aluminum to the US were shuttered or running short-staffed, the price continued to climb, and now…
The biggest of the big survive and all the others get the table scraps. Budweiser, Coors, Coca-Cola, and all of the other big-boy customers of the printed aluminum can makers all got front-of-the-line “Fast Passes,” so-to-speak, while all those who were medium-size customers…or planning to switch to printed cans (there were hundreds if not thousands of companies) got screwed — as in full on Capital “S” Screwed!
How Did They Get Screwed?
Printed aluminum cans are not stock off the shelf for anyone. A company needs to be set up to not only fill the cans but center their entire Marketing and Sales efforts around printed aluminum cans. For a craft brewer who's not able to use printed aluminum cans, their alternative is using blank (unprinted) cans and then applying a label. Not only is this 3 times more expensive than a printed container, but the cans must be filled before the label or shrink sleeve label is applied…a long, laborious, and costly expenditure….over and over and over.
One of the major reasons these small to medium-size brewers are in such a bind is the printed aluminum can companies — Ball and Crown are the 2 main options — kept taking orders and deposits on orders without ever letting the customer know of impending doom. Impending doom? Yes. Imagine being a customer (not a prospect)…an actual customer getting a call from your Ball Corp rep (Westword Ball Corp Article) saying, "Unless you increase your orders to 5 TIMES what you normally order…or have ordered per flavor/version…you are out. We won’t run your current order and you no longer will be a customer of Ball Corp." What the #$ck?
5 times what they normally ordered per flavor/SKU…so instead of 1 truckload per flavor, they now need 5 truckloads. Oh. Now what? Where would a small-to-medium-size brewer store 5 truckloads of printed cans, let alone pay for them? Think Ball Corp cares? Think Crown cares? No way — they are printing money with the big boys.
How do I know Ball Corp doesn’t care? Check out this promo for Budweiser. Care to guess who Budweiser’s can company is for this promotion? At a time when others can’t get cans?
What Are Their Options?
Blank Cans with Applied Label
I talked at length about blank cans above. This is the last resort many brewers or anyone else (soda, water, energy) would want to explore. Labels are time-consuming, expensive, and inefficient. Here, the filling must be done first into blank cans and then the cans are cleaned and dried…and must be labeled after that.
Find New Suppliers… But Where?
It is amazing how many companies have relied solely on inexperienced and lazy buyers and clerks over the years. The decision makers at these companies have inserted “Betty the Buyer,” who has a smoke break at 10 AM, lunch at noon, another smoke break at 2, and bolts home at 4:59. My point: These folks have no experience (other than what someone told them) about finding alternative suppliers. Sure, they’ll look on Google or the Phone Book or even Thomas Register…but going beyond an introductory phone call and a few miscellaneous questions (“Do you have printed aluminum cans?”), they consider this “doing their job,” which in my opinion is one of the main reasons why no one knows of alternatives.
Did you know some of the most sophisticated printed aluminum can companies are overseas? Did you know they have technology so far beyond Ball and Crown, along with staff willing and able to work, that they could run and ship printed cans in 30-45 days? Did you know with the right partner, a US company could not only tap into and use these manufacturers but run their smaller quantities, ship them to the US, and even eliminate any and all lead times going forward?
Supply Chain 101
Imagine a company ordering what they needed per flavor/version, sailing them to a secure US warehouse, and then releasing them as they needed. Here they would get quantity pricing, have them in the US already, and be able to pull them into production and fill when needed. This would be a game-changer.
This not only is possible...it’s a reality. Warehouses in the US are ready, able, and willing to store and ship as needed. Even further, overseas factories are willing to palletize and stack printed aluminum cans however a customer and their equipment would like them staged. No more stacked and stretch-wrapped pallets 14 feet high. No more paying for workers to re-pack printed cans by hand onto cardboard trays because Ball or Crown refuses to pack them the way a customer needs and their facility demands.
2 Of The Ways This Could Work
Run and hold printed cans overseas, then hold them in an overseas warehouse. Wait for distressed and canceled shipping containers to pop up, and proceed to ship them at a 60-70% discounted rate into the US.
Or...run them, ship them into the US, and have them held and ready to ship at a moment's notice. Either way, this is much cheaper (and a better impression) than labeled or cans with shrink sleeves.
Alternative Styles of Packaging
As you can see from the different pictures below, a strong case can be made for flexible packaging for beer and other carbonated beverages. While we all know (and may prefer) cans and even bottles, they are becoming very difficult to find and ship. Flexible packaging could easily offset this pain point.
The Case for a New Partner — To Open Up The Entire Global Supply Network
US and North American suppliers of printed cans are at capacity. They don’t want the additional work, can’t find workers to pass a drug and safety test…or just can’t find workers. What Ball Corporation (and soon to be Crown) did was bogus, and they are shafting some of the finest up-and-coming small and medium-size business success stories of our generation. But as this article details, they have options. They (decision makers) need to understand how an overseas supplier (with US support) would work.
Betty the Purchasing Clerk…How’s That Working Out For You?
As much as this will offend some, many will agree if they just listen. For the past 25 years our country has eliminated TRUE, old school buyers — Procurement Professionals — and replaced them with low-cost clerks who order only what their computer auto-generates. Clerks only do the bare minimum work, they’ll call the local rep for a company or two, get the same answer week after week and “think” or rationalize to themselves that they’ve done their job. They are not doing their job. Their job is to find alternatives and present options to help their companies not only survive, but thrive. All too often, Betty the Purchasing Clerk only does what she is told...nothing more, and nothing else. No wonder our economy is a joke.
Printed cans are available…not just for Bud and Coors, but for small and medium-sized companies too. As you’ve seen throughout this article, there are exciting alternatives that are also highly worth your consideration. Do yourself a favor. Evaluate these opportunities and make the call.