You may hardly notice the plastic handles on your six-pack of cans, but manufacturers are in serious competition to out design and outperform each other in this area. When you spend the day at Pack Expo wandering among giant machines, it can feel like you’re in a little pond when you get to the handle guys, but this is a big business with serious engineering and innovation happening. After all, with the explosion of craft brewers getting into cans, someone needs to hold all that aluminum while customers transport it between the store and their mouths.
PakTech isn’t resting on its laurels
You probably know what a PakTech handle looks like even if you didn’t know that’s what it was called. They’re the colorful, hard plastic carriers that cover the tops of the cans. They’re made from post-consumer recycled HDPE No. 2 plastic and are themselves 100 percent recyclable. They can be manually or automatically applied are self-nesting, and after application they also nest comfortably under another six-pack of cans.
PakTech set the standard for craft brewers looking for an alternative to the familiar, translucent plastic Hi-Cone holders. Then they kept tweaking their design. The new generation of handles, on display at Pack Expo Las Vegas 2017, uses less plastic, is therefore lighter and features a design that still protects the tops of cans from debris while allowing some airflow.
Apparently consumers have complained about difficulty removing their beer from the first generation PakTech handles. I’ve never personally had this problem; maybe I have Ninja Warrior-calibre grip strength or something, I don’t know. Anyway, folks had fun making “how to” videos to help consumers access their brews, but those days are hopefully over for PakTech: They’re touting generation two as an “easy-release” handle.
They also have a version for bottles with similar eco-friendly features. Wait, does anyone want to talk about the bottle handles? No? All right then, moving on.
Roberts PolyPro wants to do PakTech a couple better
Roberts PolyPro continues to challenge PakTech with their injection-molded four- and six-pack can handles. The PolyPro handles feature an open design that uses significantly less plastic than PakTech, permits plenty of air to flow and even lets you show off your colored tabs. The handles still get a strong grip on the cans, and you can easily pull a can out with just one hand, which will be good for your gaming consumers.
PakTech has a range of automatic applicators, while Roberts PolyPro have come up with a nifty entry-level manual applicator. You can apply four six-pack handles or six four-pack handles at a time to a tray of cans, which can significantly decrease time (and strain) for your team on canning day. At $3,900, it’s not exactly cheap, but it may be the right choice until you’re ready for the semi-automatic, robotic applicator, which runs around $35,000.
The Roberts PolyPro handles themselves are also cheaper than PakTech, so you may find it’s worth saying “Roberts PolyPro can handles” every time, at least until they come up with a better brand name.
And depending on how much you package, the total time and materials savings can add up quickly. Chris Turner, director of sales, said The Unknown Brewing Co. is saving about $1 per carton with their semi-automatic applicator. “Their ROI is going to be about four months,” he noted.
WaveGrip is the lightest, most affordable new handle
The lightest and most economical new can handle option is WaveGrip. WaveGrip may look like the traditional Hi-Cone stretchy plastic can handles you still see on soft drinks, but it’s actually made from an advanced polymer that is super strong, can be applied with compression rather than stretching, comes in four colors and, as an eco-friendly bonus, is photodegradable. That is: It will break down in the sun even if you hate the earth and don’t recycle.
Visually, you can tell the difference because WaveGrip has a thicker, solid ring with little circles punched out of the sides. Rather than attempt to appear invisible, they aim to add a visual accent. You can order WaveGrip handles by the pallet rather than truck or half-truck, and because they are up to 1/7 the size of other handles, that pallet could last you a while. It will also cost you up 50 percent less than either the Roberts PolyPro or PakTech handles.
WaveGrip and Palmer Canning have partnered up to develop a compression applicator that can move about 80 cans per minute for a price of around $18,000. Roughtail Brewing Co. in Oklahoma, Down the Road Brewery in Massachusetts and Baderbrau Brewing in Illinois have all opted to start using WaveGrip.
Cardboard may be the best option for branding
I should mention that the folks at Graphic Packaging were also at Pack Expo showcasing some of their very attractive cartons for cans and bottles. You’ve probably seen their work and been duly impressed: They’re the folks who produce Odell Brewing Co.’s can and bottle cartons, as well as cartons for Elysian, New Belgium and Dogfish Head, all of which are notable for their textures, embossing, colors, designs and sometimes even their shapes.
Daniel Ahern, VP of marketing, wouldn’t actually talk to me about materials and printing. “We prefer to start with the client’s goals, then try to find the best way to make them stand out,” he explained. “It may be color, it may be embossing or it may be something else. We can figure that out once we know we want to do it.”
Obviously, cardboard has its limits when it comes to throwing a six-pack in a cooler full of ice, but putting your cans in a box gives you a whole carton of real estate on which to put your beautiful artwork. That really opens up some possibilities.
For bottles, it’s hard to argue with the prestige factors that Graphic Packaging can create. These are packages that not only look appealing but are even attractive to touch (with consent, of course).
Brad Fruhauff is a good dude, a great beer writer and a contributor to Craft Brewing Business. Plus, he wants to write for your brewery. Check out his other work here.