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Archive for June, 2004

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Rewriting the Book

| June 30, 2004

Many “innovative” packs have been launched in recent years; BAT’s wallet pack, produced on machinery from Colin Mear Engineering is truly different.

TR Staff Report

The shrinking availability of public space to promote tobacco products has forced cigarette manufacturers to become extremely creative. In recent years, packaging has emerged as the tool of choice for tobacco companies to make their brands stand out from those of the competition. By presenting their products in unusual shapes or materials, cigarette manufacturers attempt to outwit—and outsell—their rivals.

To date, however, most pack modifications have been fairly modest: a round corner here, a bit of fancy printing there and, in the boldest launches, a slightly altered overall pack shape. Now, British American Tobacco (BAT) has introduced a revolutionary pack that is truly rewriting the book on packaging design.

Designed by the Novel Packaging Group in BAT’s research and development department based at Southampton in the United Kingdom, the pack looks like a regular hinge-lid from the outside. Once the smoker removes the film and lifts the flip-top, however, the pack opens in two directions, as if it were a wallet or a book. One side holds seven cigarettes, the other 13, in a row of six and a row of seven. Closed, the cigarette configuration resembles that of a regular 20-cigarette hinge-lid—three rows of seven, six and seven respectively.

Currently, there are two BAT brands available in the wallet pack—Lucky Strike in France and Kool in the United States, which is manufactured by BAT’s Brown & Williamson (B&W) subsidiary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, BAT is also considering a launch in other markets where smokers are famously eager to try new products—especially if they display mechanical ingenuity like the wallet pack does.

But the pack’s unusual mechanics are not the only opportunity for the cigarette maker to attract attention. Once opened, the “book” presents a sizable surface for communicating messages—one that would be difficult to legislate or to restrict, as it remains on the inside of the carton until the pack is purchased and opened.

This surface can be utilized for regular promotions or product information. In the French market, for example, BAT has deliberately left one half of the inside space blank for impromptu note taking, giving smokers an opportunity to write down phone numbers or other pertinent information.

So far, Colin Mear Engineering (CME) has supplied BAT with two machines—one in Southampton and one in Macon, Georgia, USA. BAT selected CME because of the engineering company’s proven track record in manufacturing packing machinery for novel and niche cigarette brands. CME rebuilds a wide range of secondary machinery and designs its own cost-effective cigarette packing machinery. In addition, the company has an extensive supply of spare parts, sub-assemblies, change parts and ancillary equipment.

CME modified three of its existing hinge-lid packers to manufacture BAT’s pack. The first machine produces the part of the pack that holds seven cigarettes; the second manufactures the 13-cigarette part; and the third puts the two segments together.

Producing such a complex pack obviously posed several mechanical challenges, but CME’s engineers managed to develop elegant solutions for all of them. For example, because the seven-cigarette part of the pack is narrower than a standard hinge-lid pack, it requires an advanced gluing unit. The machine that puts together the two pack segments requires a different, more-sophisticated drying drum. And unlike a traditional hinge-lid, the pack has to be slit on-line to allow the pack to open. Because the innerframe is part of the blanks, the machine has no innerframe cutting unit.

To allow the pack to open in two directions—upwards and sideways— the tear tape is positioned at the very top of the pack, encouraging the smoker to remove all film rather than just the part around the flip top. Because the 13-cigarette side of the pack—the one that swings open – can be accessed from the front and back, its foil must be serrated on both sides. The machine’s conveyors orientate the packs correctly for final assembly. To ensure that all machines move in sync, the entire operation is managed by a cutting-edge control system.

BAT revealed the concept to CME in January 2003 and placed its first order in May 2003. The first delivery to BAT’s Southampton factory took place in October 2003 and the second, to B&W’s U.S. plant, in November 2003. Because of its secrecy, CME operated strictly on a need-to-know basis, involving only those that were absolutely essential to building the machines. Throughout the entire project, no more than 20 people were involved, and construction took place in a special-purpose room that was shielded from non-BAT visitors. “We take confidentiality very seriously,” says David Weatherill, CME’s sales director.

The machines also score well on traditional evaluation criteria such as flexibility and efficiency. “A shift between round corners and square corners can be achieved within one shift, maybe less,” says Gordon Clamp, technical director of CME. The machines also boast a remarkable degree of efficiency. “Despite the fact that the wallet pack is considerably more complex than a traditional hinge-lid, BAT is managing to manufacture it without compromising efficiency,” says Clamp.

If initial customer feedback is any indication, the pack should do well in France and the U.S., and possibly other markets. Pre-launch qualitative research in France, for example, revealed that smokers thought the pack was original, distinguishable, innovative and “never-seen-before.” They said the two compartments allowed them to easier track their cigarette consumption and they especially appreciated the not pad functionality. The pre-launch study’s findings were quickly confirmed in the marketplace: one tobacconist reported selling his entire stock of wallet packs within one week.