When you pop the top and take a sip of your favorite soft drink, how much time do you spend thinking about the bottle you’re holding? Do you consider the weight of the container? The way it feels in your hand? The designs integrated into the plastic and what they might signify? What about the height of the cap?
For Bill Eaton, BCMT ’90, director of R&D packaging engineering and innovation in the Global Beverages Group at PepsiCo, these are just a few of the things he examines when designing and developing a new polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle for Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and the many varieties of these well-known drinks. In addition to the 20-ounce PET bottles that are the top focus for many beverage manufacturers, Eaton oversees anything that Pepsi beverage products are “put in, shipped in, and displayed in,” as he puts it.
An expert with more than 20 years of beverage and consumer goods packaging development experience, Eaton got into the packaging field more or less by chance. After graduating from Wentworth, the construction management major entered a bleak job market in the early 1990s. He nearly accepted a project management position in Kuwait before starting his own business remodeling kitchens and bathrooms in his native Connecticut. A client happened to be a human resources officer at Cadbury Schweppes.
“She mentioned a job in their packaging lab,” Eaton says. “She said, ‘it’s kind of technical—you might be interested.” At his interview, Eaton was introduced to workers who were measuring and testing bottles and thinking, “This is probably not for me.” But he was quickly offered a position with the company with the possibility of long-term growth opportunities. He took it.
“One of the first projects I worked on was called Mott’s in a Minute,” Eaton recalls. “It was a shelf-stable juice concentrate in a can—the first of its kind. We spent a lot of time in our pilot plant running these cans and testing them. You have to ‘hot-fill’ the can with 185-degree juice concentrate, and then cool it down, and the can has to perform in different ways. I learned how to tear down and rebuild the can-seamer, which puts the top on the can. All that technical detail was really interesting to me.”
After 15 years with Cadbury Schweppes, Eaton moved to Pepsico in 2007. His first project was one that had challenged colleagues for years—designing a one-gallon PET bottle for Lipton tea with an integrated snap-on handle.
“My boss said, ‘I know you can do it. Go figure it out,’” Eaton says. “I used a lot of the knowledge I retained from school to design the structural elements that were hidden inside the handle. I recalled bridge theory to design the handle so it wouldn’t bend, and worked with designers to integrate the handle design.” The end product—including the handle and cap—was lighter than the competition’s bottle alone. It was a hit.
Today, Eaton leads a group that works with marketing teams and design agencies to take bottles and other packaging innovations from concept to development. His latest project involved moving Pepsi—which had been in the same bottle for nearly 16 years—and other core brands into new bottle designs. Pepsi and Mountain Dew each received a unique design, while a third bottle was designed for all other brands.
After an eight-month period in which Eaton and his team completed design, development, validation, and production trials of more than 750,000 bottles, the new designs were approved, triggering a two-year conversion process to the new bottles.
“It’s really about keeping the brand fresh and connected with the consumer,” Eaton says. The latest 20-ounce Mountain Dew bottle, he explains, “is kind of edgy. It fits with the consumer who drinks Mountain Dew—the gamer, the skateboarder. The package has design elements that specifically point out those attributes, and consumers really pick up on them.”
The research and testing involved in the production of a typical PET bottle today is staggering. Eaton estimates that the Mountain Dew bottle went through 70 to 80 design revisions, in addition to 10 to 15 computer-model finite element analyses (FEAs) to gauge how the bottle would react under pressure when filled. A bottle sold in India, for example, requires a slightly different design from bottles sold in the U.S. and Europe to accommodate high temperatures that can flatten some of the raised “grip features” of the bottle.
Looking toward the future of packaging innovation, Eaton mentions two keys: materials and speed. When he first started in the industry, blow molders—machines that produce hollow plastic objects—ran at speeds of 12,000 to 15,000 bottles per hour. Today, 50,000 bottles per hour is becoming the standard.
“Every year there is something new in equipment or technology that allows you to do something unique from a labeling or bottling perspective,” he says. “On the packaging side, materials development is going to be the game-changer. The challenge in any industry is marrying up the new innovation with something that fits your cost structure that you can sell and that consumers want. That’s what makes this job really cool and interesting.”