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Fresh milk flirts with 'value added' packaging

Extrusion blown of LDPE and topped with a unique closure injection molded of the same material, this new package could give milk a whole new single-serve image.
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Kids love it. That's the main reason behind the introduction of a new beverage packaging concept known as Squish Paks(TM). Extrusion blown of low-density polyethylene the squeezable containers will make their commercial debut next month when they appear in the refrigerated cases of Publix supermarkets in paperboard six-pack carriers in the Orlando FL area. Each container will hold 8 oz of fresh white or chocolate milk and will be marketed under the milk-it!(TM) brand by Thompson Beverage Systems the Ft. Lauderdale FL firm that invented and patented the package. Filling the 8-oz packages for Thompson is Franklin Park IL-based Dean Foods at its Orange City FL facility. Bottles are to be blown by Constar Intl. (Atlanta GA). Strictly speaking these new packages are only a work in process as PW goes to press. But they attracted a lot of attention at the recent MegaShow in Chicago even as one of the packages they're designed to compete with shelf-stable aseptic brick packs of milk and other beverages commanded center stage at MegaShow. Richard Thompson the inventor who holds a patent on the package design believes Squish Paks are the first truly innovative new dairy container to come along in ages. Designed specifically for children they're easy to open they're portable and most important they're fun. But they also appeal to parents because they're tamper-evident spill-resistant and they encourage children to drink milk. Squish Paks are designed with dairies in mind too because they're said to be compatible with standard rotary fillers currently used in today's dairies. That makes them distinctly different from the fun-to-drink beverages in squeezable packs already marketed by firms like General Mills and Kraft Foods. True entrepreneur that he is Thompson is convinced that the milk-it! line will be so successful in Orlando that dairies will flock to his door for the rights to fill and market their products in his patented container. He expects to hear from juice marketers too. In fact he already has: Houston-based Coca-Cola Foods plans to test Minute Maid and Hi-C in Squish Paks beginning next month. They'll pay Thompson Beverage Systems a royalty to do so. Should the container take off as Thompson envisions dairies may elect to blow mold their own bottles. "A six- or eight-head extrusion blow molder will make them" says Mel O'Leary of Meredith-Springfield (Springfield MA) the design and engineering services firm that played a key role in the bottle's design and development. "On the other hand dairies without blow molding capabilities may want to tap into a central molding source." Other questions remain These and other questions about the bottle's future including the terms of a licensing arrangement remain unanswered. But here's how the bottle has been made and filled thus far for sampling and promotional purposes. Meredith-Springfield blows the bottles in single-cavity molds on a twin-sided shuttle system from Bekum (Williamston MI). "One thing that's kind of unusual" says O'Leary of Meredith-Springfield "is that bottles made of one specific grade of resin are what kids in tests liked best. They could actually pick it out. The bottles just seem to have the right squeezability." The LDPE resin he refers to is TE4538A from Chevron (Houston TX). He admits that compared to high-density PE LDPE does run a little slower. But when volumes get higher this can be addressed he says. He's also investigating "proprietary" injection blow molding capabilities. "When it comes to national quantities we may be able to hold the tight tolerances in the neck area more efficiently with injection blow" he says. Because of what O'Leary describes as a "pedestal" base and the careful design of the sidewall and neck area the 14-g bottle exhibits enough top-load compression strength to withstand filling and snap-fit capping. According to O'Leary the capper exerts 70 psi as it applies the closure. Development of the closure says O'Leary was probably even more challenging than bottle development. Injection molded in two parts by Nepco (Newcastle PA) it too is made of LDPE. "The tear strip is part of the overcap" explains Nepco's Eric Butterworth. "We join the two parts on automated assembly equipment developed here. It joins them by means of a very tight friction fit so tight that they are virtually impossible to separate until you pull the tear strip around the circumference. That causes the tight friction fit to relax allowing the two to separate." After the strip has been pulled the overcap pops off and the bottom cap remains. Then it's just a matter of squeeze and drink. The overcap does snap back on if reclosing is desired. That may not be needed with the 8-oz bottle. But a 16-oz bottle has been developed and reclosability may be useful for that size. Also developed by Nepco is a cap sorter and orienter capable of operating at speeds to 200/min. For quantities filled so far the sorter/orienter has worked in combination with a capper supplied by CKS Packaging (Atlanta GA). The interlocking-bottom paperboard carrier is being applied on a semi-automatic unit from Adco (Sanger CA). Gibraltar Packaging (Fort Wayne IN) converts the 20-pt paperboard carrier printing six colors by gravure. The carrier has to be the complete communicator since individual containers have no graphics other than a molded-in "milk-it!" on the sidewall. What about retail price? And pricing? A six-pack of milk-it! will retail at about $2.80. Marketing consultant Eric Zitelli another of Thompson's partners in the development of Squish-Paks says consumers have already demonstrated they'll pay a significant premium for the convenience of a single-serve container. For evidence he says look no further than a $1.40 three-pack of aseptic juice boxes totaling 24 oz. People buy them routinely when for 60¢ more they could buy a half-gallon container with twice as much juice. "This container provides dairies with margin opportunities fluid milk has never had" says Zitelli. Now the question is will the dairy industry know how to take advantage of this opportunity? "They're so used to perceiving milk as a commodity" observes Zitelli. That tendency has Zitelli and Thompson pondering the fate of their bottle long term. "If all we do is sell dairies little bottles and those dairies continue to treat milk as a commodity they may continue pricing their milk in those bottles lower and lower" says Zitelli. "Then they'll find they're not making any money on the bottle because the packaging cost is too high and they'll give up on the concept or say that it doesn't work. "On the other hand if we sell the bottle at a high enough price we can invest part of our revenues back into advertising and promotion. That might keep the price of the product up keep consumer interest high create demand or at least manage the demand and help the dairies sell more product at a higher price despite their own worst tendencies. In the long run I see us licensing dairies across the country and continuing to spend a few million dollars a year back against the milk-it! brand." As milk-it! nears its commercial debut in Orlando development work continues. A second-generation overcap for instance will have a longer skirt that will extend below the bottle's "transfer bead" to improve its tamper evidence characteristics. Only time and America's buying habits will tell if this package succeeds. If Squish-Paks fail to establish themselves in the dairy industry it won't be the first time a value-added packaging concept bites the dust in dairyland. At the very least the package is an interesting one to watch. As John Pappas at Gibraltar Packaging puts it "If all of a sudden you can get $2.50 or so for a six-pack of 8-oz bottles of milk that's going to get the attention of even a stodgy old industry like the dairy industry."

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