Steel for packaging, designed for efficiency

Steel was first used as a packaging material more than 200 years ago.


Old images reveal that early design was very functional. The can was closed with a dome-shaped top with a ring attached to carry the can. It featured a hand-written label to identify the contents and where they came from.

This may have been a primitive design, but it had almost everything we’d recognise in modern packaging: protection, product identification, convenience and portability.


The steel can was a revolution in the world of food packaging, providing the first successful industrial scale conserving and packing of food.


As prosperity grew in the second half of the 19th Century, steel became the packaging material for many every day and luxury food products. The ability of steel packaging to preserve food indefinitely, combined with its strength and protective properties, meant canned products could be transported safely over long distances. As a result, demand was particularly strong from armies and navies who needed a reliable supply of nutritious food and from settlers in far-flung European colonies seeking a taste of home.

The excellent characteristics of the steel can were quickly recognised in other industries. The American, Sherwin Williams succeeded in making ‘ready to use paint’ packed in a resealable can and patented his invention in 1877. This was a totally new concept because previously paint had to be mixed freshly from harsh chemicals and pigment onsite and could not be stored. In addition, the can was resealable ensuring the paint could be used at a later date. This development highlights the ability of packaging to drive product innovation and development and to prevent product spoilage.


Whilst the ability of steel packaging to protect products, reduce waste and extend shelf-life was key to its early success, the development of modern transportation infrastructure cemented its importance. The replacement of the dome with the now familiar flat top, allowed cans to be stacked, significantly increasing their efficiency through the distribution chain.


Further developments followed. In 1935 the first beverage can was invented. It was clearly inspired by a bottle with a crown cork, but it was the start of another evolution in the use of steel packaging: thinning of the plate and the concept of drinking directly out of a can.

A packaging material without rival


The characteristics of steel as a packaging material are such that still today no other material can compete with it.


Steel packaging provides an excellent barrier for gasses, humidity and UV-light, combined with high strength and heat resistance which together offer greater protection than any other packaging material. These characteristics have led to new uses such as pressurised aerosols for a range of household and personal care products, as well as extensive use for chemicals and industrial products.


Meanwhile process improvements in today’s food industry mean that steel cans have become synonymous with high quality, nutritious foods – indeed canned vegetables and fruits are used as additions to meals for athletes before competition and canned fish is used in the highest quality restaurants across the world.


In turn, as greater and greater demands have been placed upon steel packaging, manufacturers have responded, through processes such as lightweighting which has seen a continuous thinning of the tinplate used to make cans without loss of shelf life or strength.


In the last 20 years, the weight of steel cans has been reduced on average by 33%. And the average thickness of 3-piece food can is down from 0,20mm in 1986 to 0,13mm. At the same time, many new shapes, sizes and opening mechanics have been developed so that today even consumers with limited mobility are able to open food packaging without using a can opener or other tools.


The decorative properties of steel for packaging are also important.


Providing information about the can’s contents and origin is an important function of packaging. It started with paper labels, but now cans can be directly printed. This gives the opportunity to use another characteristic of steel: the gloss. Many packaging materials reflect light and although the level of gloss can be adjusted by various surface treatments, the gloss of polished steel remains superior primarily because steel causes less scattering of light, giving a high-quality appearance.


By printing, embossing or the use of the gloss, innovative and sophisticated designs can be achieved. This enables brand owners to give the products ‘shelf-standout’ a vital marketing tool for many fast-moving consumer goods.

With more ‘time poor’ consumers than ever before, the ability of a product to stand out from competitors is vital. Brand loyalty is decreasing and the design of the packaging plays an important role in a pack’s ‘stopping power’ in the store. Using gloss is especially effective in attracting attention in-store.


Brands are increasingly using techniques such as embossing and debossing, often combined with matt lacquers applied to high gloss cans, to create packs that convince shoppers and have ‘holding power’. The way in which polished steel reflects light to create a high-quality appearance is an additional consideration for brands seeking to create this holding power.


The buying decision is finished by the “closing power”. Steel packaging has a large surface area making it well suited to branding and decoration especially with the use of pictures to communicate emotion combined with product claims such as ‘new taste’, 10% free etc. The combination of these elements creates the total image of the pack, which can be very powerful in persuading shoppers to purchase


The future of steel packaging


The future of steel for packaging looks promising, although there are a number of factors which will have an influence on its development.


In terms of design, two directions can be distinguished: luxury and authenticity. Steel can play a role in both. Matt appearance or the use of gloss, as well as printing directly on the can or using printed paper labels, all influence the final look and feel of a product. As a result of further work to thin steel, there may be opportunities to use steel for packaging fresh products as well. This will need some innovations in openability because consumers can have some reservations in accepting steel packaging, but new concepts will no doubt be developed.


Designers also use steel as the base for creating luxury packaging in which active elements like temperature indicators as well as UV and temperature sensitive inks for special effects are being taken up.


But the packaging market is volatile and packaging choices are not always based on rational facts alone. Misconceptions about steel packaging persist, particularly in the area of sustainability.


Steel packaging has been the most recycled packaging material in Europe for the last 10 years. Yet many consumers are not aware of this high recycling rate. Indeed, not all consumers understand the differences in recycling rates and even for those that do there are few opportunities to choose products based on their packaging format.


However, the environmental concerns of consumers are growing and appear likely to exert greater influence on their opinion and behavior than ever before. Given that steel packaging is able to reach the targets set by the European Circular Economy Package, this presents an ideal opportunity for the industry to reassert its excellent recycling performance in a way that engages consumers.


High recycling rates combine with many years of successfully reducing both the amount of steel that goes into making a package and the amount of energy used to make new packs. And further progress is ongoing. Yet the role of shelf life and its effect on food waste are not yet fully recognised in many Life Cycle Assessments (LCA).


To remain competitive in the volatile world of fast moving consumer goods, the industry must ensure that other benefits offered by steel packaging, such as long shelf life and reduced product loss, are more widely understood. Illustrating the possibilities to students who are destined to become our designers of the future, as has been done at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, is just one of many small steps required.


Steel remains an unrivalled solution for shelf life, transport, storage, use and recycling. Yet the design features and benefits of steel packaging must first be sold to the brand owners and consumers, to make them aware of the continual improvement in environmental performance that steel packaging provides.


Then there is every chance that the steel can which first appeared more than 200 years ago, will continue to protect and preserve our products for many years to come.


Roland ten Klooster, Professor Packaging Design and Management, University of Twente

Chair being paid by the NVC Netherlands Packaging Centre with support of twelve companies to raise the level of professionalism in the field of packaging


Designer/consultant at Plato product consultants

Executing structural packaging design on a higher level. One of the inventors of the Orbit cap (produced by Crown) and the Spring Latch (produced by Ardagh Group)

award-winning example of deep embossing decoration on a beverage can

award-winning example of high quality printing on a luxury container

award-winning example of detailed body embossing and ornate design work on a 3-piece food can

award-winning example of 15% material-saving in a 2-piece food can

award-winning example of high quality printing on an aerosol can

Cans of the Year award winning designs, images courtesy of the Canmaker