After an extensive period of research and development, Threadless Closures is ready to announce its new Xottle container for alcoholic beverages. Beverage Packaging Innovations talks to Anthony Fraser, the company's founder, about how the container promises to revolutionise the way beer and other carbonated drinks are experienced by consumers across the world.
"What we found strikingly obvious from all this was that bottles hadn't changed in a century and cans hadn't changed since the Second World War," explains Anthony Fraser, CEO of Threadless Closures and co-creator of the 'Xottle' container for beers and carbonated drinks. His tone is almost one of admonition, coming from a man fully ready to confront the disparity between consumer demand for new packaging and its supply by the beverage industry. "People were still drinking out of a tiny hole on the top of the can. Nothing much had been done to address the packaging to match the new consumer behaviour, which was that they really wanted to treat the pack like a glass, but they were never designed that way."
Fraser and his colleagues approached the big players in the drinks industry with the data supporting their case for a new pack that would bridge the gap. "What was really striking was the fact that, whoever we spoke to, the idea had cropped up in their experience," he recalls. "Brand managers had gone bouncing into technical packaging departments saying, 'Hey, we've had a really great idea. We've just done some concept testing, and it looks like the consumers are really excited.' Of course, the answer to them was, 'Get on your bike'."
The reason was entirely technical. When canning carbonated drinks, as soon as the continuous thread system approaches a circumference in the range of 28-38mm, it moves out of its window of engineering utility. "The friction just grows exponentially," says Fraser. "The more you widen the cap, the greater the length of the thread, and that friction has to increase, or the cap will come off. Even so, that friction becomes increasingly impossible for humans to handle with any kind of reasonable force."
This is what makes the Xottle such an advance in the field. Not only has the company devised a method by which the pressure of a drink can be appropriately contained, but it has also come up with a design that will facilitate its use across a range of sectors, across all carbonated drinks.
It's all the more surprising given Fraser's own introduction to the sector. The head of Threadless Closures did not begin his career in engineering or R&D, but in marketing, serving at Procter & Gamble as a brand manager. Fraser managed accounts that included Ariel and Daz. "I became increasingly interested in packaging while I was there," he explains. "I was intrigued by some of the ways in which the product and the packaging, and in particular the dosing systems, interacted with the convenience of the consumer in the home."
Fraser eventually decided to fully capitalise on his interest in packaging by leaving his job at Procter & Gamble and moving to a small manufacturing company at a senior level. The firm centred its production around media packaging. Within that, a new opportunity quickly arose. "We could see that change was coming in the video industry, but didn't know what it would be," says Fraser. "All we knew was that videotapes were likely to get replaced. We did some research and established that there was a high chance that it would be a disc-based format."
So began his first serious foray into packaging innovation. A consortium of film studios led by Walt Disney had specified that the pack had to be more aesthetically pleasing than the old videoboxes, while retaining the ability to be manufactured and packed at high speed. Fraser helped to lead his company's bid for the right to produce what would become the first widely-available DVD case. "We did a lot of work with some really world-class German tooling engineers to optimise the design of our pack," he explains. "In the end, we created a button that locked the disk so that it couldn't come loose, and a special area for the literature."
Sales of the new pack rocketed, and eventually Fraser and his colleagues sold the business to another company based in the US. Having found himself in an innovation role working for a large manufacturing group with many different divisions, the former brand manager started to look for new opportunities in other sectors, and beverage packaging offered several avenues for innovative products.
One idea in particular intrigued him. "It was what you might call the 'pre-packaged glass,'" Fraser explains. "It derived from the insight that in the generation before millennials, consumers had increasingly embraced drinking directly from the pack, particularly those who were living more on-the-go lifestyles. It was really interesting, because that concept was becoming mainstream. You could even go to a quiet, formal business meeting of some kind and people would be drinking directly from bottles."
That was the point at which Fraser approached the likes of Anheuser Busch beers, Heineken, and Coca-Cola with a product proposal that would satisfy this new demand. Their reply was less a clear rejection than an acknowledgement that, were it not for the technical hurdles, this type of packaging would already be on the assembly line. His team went back to the drawing board, conducting additional consumer research but, more importantly, searching for any off-the-shelf technology that could effectively solve the problem of surplus friction on the cap.
When that failed, Fraser and his colleagues began to devise a new concept from scratch. "Originally, we proposed a two-piece closure: a cap and a collar, whereby the thread system was carried onto the collar," he explains. "The collar then snapped onto the mouth of the container and the cap screwed down on the collar. Then, when the cap came off, it would take the collar with it. That was our original idea, and we made a lot of headway with that, but it left some big issues."
One of them was creating a strong enough cap. "The industry tends to use polypropylene and polyethylene for caps," explains Fraser. "We'd proved that you could use materials like PET itself, the very same thing you could make the container out of. Instead of blow-moulding it, though, we were using injection moulding, which allows the cap to be three times as stiff."
The seal, however, was still crude, and was not holding the carbonation pressure at the desired level for nearly long enough. The team began to look at using welded foil to connect to the plastic cap, so that "when you unscrewed the cap it would peel the foil off". Another option was a sophisticated flexing seal that would strengthen in proportion to the interior pressure of the container. In the event, neither worked, but the lessons learned from the experience of using both led to the last breakthrough in the development of the Xottle: the use of an 'o-ring' seal.
"We realised it had all of the properties that we were looking for," explains Fraser. The team found that using an o-ring, or an imitation, improved "the seal function dramatically while reducing the friction in an economical way". By this point, Threadless Closures had attracted hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment from a European client, which was were very keen for the Xottle's cap to be reclosed easily, and incorporate real foam formation. In fact, the entire design had that capability built in, having included a two-stage threading system that would allow the cap to jump from one thread to another, venting gas pressure in the head.
"When you resealed the pack and gave it a slight agitation, the second time you took the cap off, you had a perfect foaming head," says Fraser. "Exactly the same as you would if you put a widget in a can, or poured it out of a dispensing machine at a bar."
After simplifying the design - now only four to six small threads hold onto equivalent ribs on the container - and adapting the product so that it is capable of being filled on existing high-speed canning lines to reduce costs for manufacturers, the Xottle is ready for its debut.
Consumers will have the chance to drink from a container that not only gives the same experience as a glass, but doesn't compromise on flavour. Not only that, it will allow them to enjoy a foaming head on a beer without a long wait at a bar. As far as manufacturers are concerned, the Xottle permits easy branding and a new experience, at no more cost to them than a premium glass or aluminium bottle.
"We're setting out here to launch what we believe is a genuine breakthrough," says Fraser. "Threadless Closures is now able to produce a product that offers a significant improvement in consumer functionality and drinking experience but in a commercially viable pack that can hold its own in a commercial filling environment."