CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Pepsi Co. cans are run through assembly machinery at the Kapolei Ball Corp. plant earlier this month.
Doing the can can
Ball Corp. puts its own imprint on Hawaii's soda, juice and beer receptacles
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More than 30 million cans sit side by side, coated in green and yellow, or silver and red, creating a canyon of shiny colors in a large warehouse in Kapolei.
Tropicana juice and Maui Brewing Co. IPA cans are made in the thousands, rolling on an elevated conveyer belt through a litany of molding, design and safety procedures before being packaged for shipment.
Broomfield, Colo.-based Ball Corp. manufactures 300 million cans a year in Hawaii, with at least as many imported from the mainland.
It is the company's smallest plant both in square footage and in production, but the types of cans produced here are unlike any other in the country.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bob Volkwein, quality assurance manager, left, and Paul Labbe, plant manager, have worked at the plant for a combined 44 years. They oversee plant operations as well as supervise 61 employees.
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The 140,000-square-foot Ball Corp. plant in Kapolei.
Two rolls of aluminum sit coiled at the end of a long stretch of humming machinery.
Soon they will each be cut and molded into hundreds of thousands of cans, which when shuffled through a network of sprayers, ovens and ink plates, will be sent whizzing down thin strips of conveyers to be packaged for shipment in a mere 20 minutes.
Amid a sea of warehouses bordering the Tesoro Corp. oil refinery in Kapolei sits Hawaii's only can-making facility, where 1 million cans are manufactured each day for isle soda, juice and beer distributors.
At 140,000 square feet, it is the smallest -- and one of the most unusual -- of the 18 can plants owned by Broomfield, Colo.-based plastic and metal packaging maker Ball Corp. The largest plant, located in New York, is nearly twice the size and makes 9 million cans a day.
"There is nothing normal about this place," said Bob Volkwein, a quality assurance manager who has worked at the plant for 15 years.
And that starts with the cans.
As aluminum prices continue to rise -- Coca-Cola Co. reported a 9.5 percent jump in ingredient and packaging costs per case last year -- manufacturers have trimmed metal use by reducing the diameter of the can top. Hawaii followed this trend to a point, but continues to make cans larger than the industry standard to stay consistent with its five local distributors.
Pallets of empty aluminum cans stacked in the plant warehouse earlier this month. The warehouse was holding about 35 million cans, below its capacity of 52 million.
As can tops started to shrink around 1980, they also lost their neck ridging, leaving Hawaii as the last state to produce cans of this style.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. order the majority of the 300 million cans produced annually at the plant, while another estimated 250 to 300 million are imported from the mainland, according to Plant Manager Paul Labbe, a nearly 30-year plant employee.
"If they have a label that the volume is just so low locally that they can't economically just mix up the batch and fill it, they will bring some of that in," Labbe said. "Everything that's got any degree of volume at all they will fill locally."
The smallest and newest customer is Maui Brewing Co., which opened a production and canning facility in Lahaina last year.
Maui Brewing owner Garrett Marrero said he buys the cans as part of his mission to produce an entirely local product. He orders more than 100,000 cans a month.
"Even though the cans cost more here, we save on shipping and also get to further support our local economy," he said. "Also Ball Corp. is the premier maker of such cans, and the process includes the lining of the cans to keep the beer separate from the metal."
The plant, built by Reynolds Metals Co. in 1979, never reached its capacity of 1.7 million cans a day, an estimate that included business from recently resurrected Primo beer, which shut down the same year. Ball bought the facility 10 years ago when it acquired canning operations from Reynolds.
Cans are discharged at the bake oven before being sent to be necked ...
The production facility is flanked by a warehouse of cans -- currently about 35 million in all -- stacked four pallets high, the interior rows creating a canyon of colored, shiny aluminum. One pallet is emblazoned with the silver and red of Coke, while another is stamped with purple Tropicana twister designs. At the end of a row sit two pallets boasting Maui Brewing's blue Big Swell IPA label, awaiting interisland barge shipment.
A small handful of employees walk about, stacking cans onto palates or adjusting color levels for a specific design. The hum of machines is a constant, with operations spanning 24 hours a day, five days a week.
... and edged, a process that puts the ridges and flange at top.
Cans were made from steel prior to the mid-to-late 1970s, and involved affixing ends on both the bottom and top. Today, only the top is placed on by the bottler.
"Sometimes you hear people talk about the metallic taste in cans," Labbe said. "The metallic taste that was in cans was actually the weld that put the tin plate together for steel cans."
Much of the aluminum shipped from the plant's supplier in Kentucky is reused.
"Once aluminum gets recycled, it is basically virgin aluminum," he said. "It doesn't lose any of its strength."
Ball warranties that integrity for one year, but Labbe said he has a Fresca product made 20 years ago "and the can is still very good."
Did you know?
Five soda, juice and beer distributors fill their cans in Hawaii. Most beer and generic store brands are filled on the mainland.
» Coca-Cola Co., which also fills Diamond Head soda
» Pepsi Co., which also fills Tropicana
» Ito En, which also fills Aloha Maid juices and Royal Mills coffees
» Hawaiian Sun
» Maui Brewing Co., the only brewer to fill its cans in Hawaii
The making of a can
Workers feed two rolls of aluminum sheet coil at a time into cupping presses that produce a short, flat cup. Each 26,000-foot-long coil weighs 10,000 pounds, producing 345,000 cans. The Kapolei plant makes 1 million cans a day, five days a week, less than its capacity of 1.7 million cans daily.
The cup is fed into another set of presses that draw and iron the aluminum, turning it into a traditional can shape. Metal only can be worked to a certain degree without fracturing it, requiring a two-step process. When the can comes out of the second set of presses, it goes through a washer to remove coolants and oils.
A printing process applies up to six colors at a time with plates. The can is run through ovens to remove tackiness and sent into a spray station where an interior water-based lacquer is applied. Another oven finishes the baking process for the inside and outside.
The can is then necked and edged, applying the ridges and flange at top, and stacked on pallets in the warehouse to await pickup. Each pallet holds 8,169 cans. Cans in each batch also are put through an internal inspection system. They are delivered to distributors who fill them and apply the lids.
Tell the difference?
Hawaii is home to the only U.S. plant that still manufactures cans with ridges on the necks. All cans with smooth necks are imported from the mainland.
Since 1980, can makers have been reducing the amount of aluminum used in cans by making the lids smaller, changing the shape of the necks and the size of the opening on the can end.
Cans originally were manufactured at a 211 measurement, or a diameter of 2 1116 of an inch. They gradually have been scaled down to an industry standard of 202. In Hawaii, cans are made at a 206 measurement because isle bottlers have equipment tooled for that type of filling.
An olympic effort
The plant needs about three weeks to a month to prepare a regular order. Cans designed for major events are printed several months ahead of time. For example, the Kapolei plant has produced cans for the Beijing Summer Olympics in August.
"If it has anything to do with a sale or a totally local promotion where one customer wants to try to get the edge on another customer, everything gets to pretty much be the last minute," Plant Manager Paul Labbe said.
Source: Ball Corp.