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June 1, 2003

7 Min Read
Manufacturers Seek To Convert Paint Industry To Plastics Containers

The metal paint can has been a staple for more than a century, and while it has evolved over time, the basic design has stayed the same. Observers say this level of standardization has greatly slowed the incorporation of plastics into the packaging of paint products.

While plastics/metal hybrid cans have made inroads in the recent past, and a specialty all-polypropylene can debuted in Britain 12 years ago (Apr 91 mp, 146; mpi, 13), the all-plastic can has yet to be successfully introduced into the U.S. KW Plastics, a polyolefins recycler and injection molder in Troy, al, is hoping to change this with its molded KW Can.

The task appears to be a challenging one. “It’s not simple to convert an entire industry over to a new type of container without some type of cost,” says Michael Brown, vp. of The ChemQuest Group Inc., a Cincinnati, oh-based international strategic management consulting firm specializing in the adhesives, sealants, and coatings industries. “There will be retrofitting and procedural changes to the logistics channel, and in the paint and coatings industry, that logistics channel is one of the biggest factors in profitability.”

According to Brian McDaniels, national sales director for KW Plastics, logistical issues were factored into the design of the KW Can, which closely mirrors the company’s metal/plastics hybrid can. In the new container, the metal ring and plug used in the hybrid can is replaced with the same polypropylene grade that is utilized for the body. (The grade is based on a proprietary recyclate formulation that the company uses to mold battery containers.) “One of the key features that we wanted was the ability to work these all-plastic cans into existing systems with little or no accommodation from the paint manufacturer,” explains McDaniels.

While factoring current paint-can standards into the design of the KW Can reportedly did much to maintain consistency in logistics, the inherent differences of an all-plastic container will create a need for some adjustments by paint manufacturers. “For example,” says Ralph Logay, purchasing manager for Ace Hardware’s Paint Division, a leading U.S. retailer, “magnetized belts will not work for all-plastic cans; you might have to switch to a compression system to lift the containers.”

Another issue posed by the all-plastic can is stack height. According to McDaniels, KW Plastics’ product has a column strength that is comparable to beaded steel cans. Industry experts, however, pointed out that side bulging is still a significant concern when storage temperatures are elevated.

Other variations of the all-plastic container that have gotten away from the traditional cylindrical design pose a much more formidable challenge to paint manufacturers that attempt to work them into their existing systems.

“If we were to adjust every filling line in every one of our plants to accept a square plastic twist-off container, the expense would be astronomical,” says Jeff Spillane, senior marketing manager for paint oem Benjamin Moore & Co.

According to ChemQuest’s Brown, however, the switch to an all-plastic container is hardly worth the effort without the design innovations that can be had. “One of the main selling features of plastics is that you can form shapes that steel cannot,” he says. “Keeping the traditional paint can shape doesn’t take advantage of the creative things you can do with the shape and configuration of the parts.” It is these creative features (such as a pour spout or twist-off cap), he explains, that are likely to evoke a significant positive response from consumers.

This is not to say that an all-plastic version of the classic paint can design does not offer its own consumer-friendly benefits. “From a consumer standpoint, they do have value,” says Ace’s Logay. “They handle better at home — they feel better when you set them down, they don’t scrape or rust, and you can feel the lid seal when you press it closed.” The tight lid seal was cited by many experts as a key benefit of the all-plastic can.

Another positive for paint manufacturers is the plastic can’s resistance to dents and corrosion. The reduction in damaged product that the all-plastic container provides could represent a significant cost savings to paint oems.

On the other hand, some industry observers question the significance of damaged-product costs, pointing out that more cost is associated with improper tinting than dented or corroded cans.

While all of these factors indirectly relate to cost, paint manufacturers also have to consider the direct cost of using plastics containers. According to industry experts, steel cans, much like steel itself, have demonstrated significant price stability. The price of plastics cans, on the other hand, will be affected by resin costs, which are much more volatile.

Thinking outside the can:Dutch Boy focuses on ease-of-use

Any packaging that needs a screwdriver and hammer to open and close is not exactly customer-friendly, contends John Nottingham, co-president of Nottingham-Spirks Design Associates Inc., of the round metal cans that have been the packaging standard for architectural coatings for decades.

It is this lack of consumer-friendliness that prompted Sherwin-Williams to partner with Nottingham-Spirks to design a new container that would serve as a cornerstone of the paint manufacturer’s relaunch of its Dutch Boy U.S. brand in 2002.

The development project, which began approximately two and a half years ago, was focused on making the painting process easier and less messy for do-it-yourself (diy) consumers while maintaining compatibility with Sherwin-Williams’ existing production systems.

The result is a square plastic container with a twist-off lid, molded-in handle, and easy-pour spout. Having more in common with packaging typically used for liquid laundry detergent than traditional paint cans, the container, branded Twist & Pour, minimizes spilling and dripping, features a recessed trough that catches drips and guides them back into the container, while the twist-off lid seals tight to improve the shelf-life of unused paint.

For retailers, the new container boasts superior display features, including an 8% increase in shelf-holding power, enabling stores to stock 14 linear facings of the container in the same space typically used for 13 metal cans. In addition, according to Sherwin-Williams, the design provides a significant reduction of dented, rusted, and otherwise damaged containers.

The new packaging is being offered for a variety of Dutch Boy architectural coating products.

According to ChemQuest’s Brown, the introduction of the container is in line with an overall strategy for Sherwin-Williams. “[It is] a broader strategic effort to try to focus on the consumer and differentiate themselves from the products customers would get at retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s,” he says. “It’s a comprehensive response to the threat posed by these home-improvement centers.”

The new packaging design had a staged rollout over 2002, and is now carried in non-specialty retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Sears, as well as regional home-improvement chains, such as Midwest-based Menards.

Sherwin-Williams representatives could not be reached, so the market performance of Dutch Boy products sporting the new container is unclear. However, according to Dan Stendahl, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan, in San Antonio, tx, “from a brand-equity and publicity standpoint, this has definitely been a successful venture for Sherwin-Williams. ceo Christopher Connor indicated the company is seeing the strongest diy demand in a decade, attributing the success to a new lineup of brighter colors and the Twist & Pour.”

It was not known at press time whether the new container is compatible with Sherwin-Williams’ existing production systems. “Metal cans are very standardized across the industry,” says Brown of ChemQuest, “meaning that equipment for filling them, putting them in cartons, shipping, and tinting at the stores has all been standardized to them.”

According to Nottingham-Spirks, these logistical issues were factored into the container’s design, so that the new packaging could be introduced into Sherwin-Williams’ pre-existing production systems with a minimal amount of accommodation from its manufacturing facilities. MP

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