After ten years of receiving its crowns in collapsible metal cages Coors' Golden CO brewery and its crown supplier just completed last month the switch to a returnable shipping container that doubles as a hopper feeding the brewery's packaging line. Previously crowns had to be emptied out of the metal cages into separate metal hoppers which were then hoisted onto the crown feeders. Now the new bins have replaced both the shipping container and the capper feed hopper. The feature that allows the pallet-sized reusable plastic containers supplied by Ropak Material Handling Group (Georgetown KY) to function as a hopper is a slide gate built into the bottom that allows operators to easily open or shut off the flow of crowns at will. The slide gate comes in especially handy during changeovers. "If we need to make a graphics change we just close that slide gate" says Coors buyer Randy Reaugh who worked with crown supplier Zapata Industries (Muskogee OK) and Ropak to custom-design the container for this application. "As you push the slide gate in it ejects some of the crowns it comes into contact with to help avoid bending them." Inside the container there are no corners only smooth rounded internal joints that prevent crowns from becoming trapped. Not only does the new process eliminate the transfer step which saves time and labor it eliminates potential mixups. Reaugh explains: "The old process sometimes resulted in crowns for one brand being transferred by mistake into a hopper labeled with a different brand resulting in packaging errors and wasted product." A second big benefit is the fact that the empty bins can collapse quickly and safely. "With the metal" says Reaugh "you could easily pinch your fingers." The 45x48" bins-which allow four-way forklift entry-are 50" H when full and 29" H when collapsed. They hold the same amount of crowns as the cages-about 60 cu ft which lasts about four hours on the packaging line. Stacking in the warehouse is also safer. The metal cages tended to be unstable when stacked especially when empty. This stacking problem even occasionally resulted in damage to trailers that transported the cages. Coors stacks the plastic bins two-high when full and five-high when empty freeing additional floor space. The lightweight bins are molded by Ropak of high-density polyethylene structural foam using Chevron Chemical's (Houston TX) Hi-D® 9708 resin. "The process is similar to injection molding" explains Ropak's Larry Porter. "Gas is injected into a chamber and as it's heated it's mixed with [molten resin] and that's pushed into the mold. The product has a smooth exterior skin that makes it look like it's injection molded." The heavy-duty bins weigh 350 lb empty and about 1 lb full. Corners are specifically reinforced for extra load-bearing capacity and durability. In fact Coors and Zapata each of which purchased half of the 300 bins that are used at Golden expect to reuse them indefinitely not just for a certain number of trips. For its part the main benefit for Zapata is satisfying a customer requirement. However Zapata has other customers interested in switching according to Jorge Lorenzana Zapata's director of international sales. That could translate into reduced costs because it will allow Zapata to move away from corrugated boxes and bags used for several of its accounts. "We will also save on labor" he says "because instead of having to palletize boxes we'll have just one bin." When asked about the economic payback Coors' Reaugh shied away from specifics saying it's too early to quantify labor and cost savings. But he does say that streamlined handling decreases in damage reduction of packaging errors and elimination of worker injuries "significantly increased productivity" and "substantially reduced our production costs."