High Volume Manufacturing

I came upon this video recently, and found it utterly fascinating. Although they seem like a mundane everyday item, aluminum beverage cans are pretty much the ultimate in complex, precision high volume manufacturing. The number of steps required to create a can is incredible, as are the worldwide yearly production stats. Some 500 billion of these cans are made each year. Just think about that – 500 billion! That’s over 70 cans for each person on earth – per year. Produced at the rate of 15,000 per second.

With such staggering volume comes the motivation to optimize the design to use the very least amount of material possible. Details like the domed bottom allow for thinner material to be used. The savings from even small optimizations add up very quickly at these massive production volumes. For example, over the last 50 years, cans have been redesigned to achieve a 6mm reduction in the top diameter. This one optimization alone saves 90 million kilograms, or almost 100 tons of aluminum per year.

Incredibly, once sealed, this container can withstand 90 psi, yet can be opened easily without tools. The stay-on tab opener is a very clever bit of design all on its own, solving the problem of loose tabs and tool-less opening in one elegant design.

The single-material nature of beverage cans make them easy to recycle. The aluminum is an ideal material for recycling, resulting in 70% recycled content being present in modern cans.

I highly recommend watching the engineerguy video above. If you still want more, this Discovery Channel video fills in a few gaps and shows the actual production machinery (which I personally find fascinating). The detail on the printing process is especially interesting.