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Article | October 31, 1996
R&D managers urged to see the global picture (sidebar)
The perils of international sourcing
As Anheuser-Busch has become a global player in brewing its packaging development staff has learned a few lessons about dealing with suppliers in second- and third-world countries. A-B's Norm Nieder group director Packaging Technology Group points out that learning to adapt will be a vital skill for packaging R&D professionals at the turn of the century. And it's a lesson he and his staff have learned well. Here are some of the local conditions Nieder and group encountered: China. This was both a very difficult and a very easy country for A-B to source packaging. "It was easy on the can side because Ball is a major player there" Nieder says. "And they're a large supplier to us here." Glass bottles were a very different story. He recalls walking into the brewery and seeing something like 20% breakage on the glass filling line. His first reaction was "How can this be? This isn't real." Later he says you realize that incoming glass bottles come in burlap bags via a river barge "and you know you have a problem." Corrugated was another issue. "We discovered that what we call OCC for old corrugated containers isn't quite the same in China. We call it VOCC for very old corrugated containers because they throw nothing away there. "You can guess what happens when you use one of these VOCCs to hold 12 glass bottles each weighing a pound. And this is in a box that has no wet strength in a place close to the Equator that has 100% humidity most of the time. Would you expect that case to be intact after it's traveled 1 kilometers to a customer?" The Philippines. A-B is working in this market now and it wanted to start off with a relatively lightweight glass bottle. It turns out that the sand quality there is not good. "We all think sand is sand" says Nieder. "We found out the grains of sand are too coarse and not uniform in the Philippines and they contain too many minerals. So we have to compromise on the bottle specification and make it heavier than we'd like to run." Spain. When A-B packaging development people sat down with their Spanish glass supplier they tried to explain their specification for amber beer bottles. The glass bottle representative responded that he can't make that color and that the generally accepted Spanish amber bottle is more green. "So we press the issue and ask why he can't give us the color we want" Nieder recalls. "That's when we learn that the company's furnace isn't deep enough to produce an oxidized glass in a deep brown color." So A-B faced the issue of how to protect the product by making changes to its secondary packaging. These are examples Nieder says of how you learn to adapt to the systems in place around the world. The result he adds is that A-B is introducing packages that are up to 15 years or older than the designs used in the U.S. "In cans most countries are at least eight to ten years behind including foreign plants of U.S. companies. Even in the United Kingdom canmakers are still producing 209 [diameter] ends with ring-pulls. And we're now doing 204s. They're already two diameter moves behind us and their cans can't even be crushed with your bare hands!" As difficult as that is to adjust to for U.S. R&D types there is a silver lining Nieder says. When he presents the progress that A-B has made in aluminum cans to canmakers from around the world those international canmakers realize that the aluminum can still has a future. "I learned that Ball videotaped a presentation I made about the future of aluminum cans to their international licensees at a meeting in Mexico City" he says. "Months later I met an old friend from PLM the Scandinavian can manufacturing company. He told me that he showed the tape to his colleagues. It gave them hope in Sweden one of the countries with the toughest regulations against aluminum cans. He told me they would use the tape to help defend the potential of that can."
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