Tangible luxury - premium vodka bottle packaging
Industrial Design Consultancy (IDC) helped a start-up drinks company, Nordic Spirit, based in Stockholm, Sweden, create a bottle for the launch of a new ‘super premium’spirit– DQ Vodka. Felicity Murray talked to Sergio Malorni, Project Manager at Industrial Design Consultancy (IDC), about its development.
Arne Olafsson, Managing Director of Nordic Spirit, felt the one thing missing in the over-crowded super premium vodka segment was ‘a modern vodka where the luxury is tangible’. He wanted to launch ‘the world’s first truly modern vodka with the look and feel of the 21st Century’, and with a recommended retail price of £50, quality bottle aesthetics would be essential. Olafsson also believed a design with connotations of automotive components would allow consumers to ‘instantly recognise the intrinsic value of the product’.
And so, after working on various shapes and materials, Nordic Spirit walked into the IDC studio in Datchet, Berkshire, UK, with a design prototype. The bottle had several interesting features – large aluminium top and bottom caps, a long aluminium tube submerged in the vodka, blue pigmentation partially applied at the rear of the bottle, and mirror-like fine text printing.
Nordic Spirit challenged IDC to design the production solution, ensuring the aesthetics – including the materials – did not change. Additionally, several functional, food safety, and cost issues needed to be quickly resolved as the product was scheduled to enter the market in eight months’ time.
Top and bottom caps
The prototype top and bottom caps were turned from aluminium and computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) machined at the sides and top to incorporate crisp text, lines and highly defined symbols.
CNC machining at times can be cost effective depending on the design, however in this case the amount of material to be machined would have resulted in missing the cost targets for volume manufacturing. Other metal-based manufacturing techniques, such as high-pressure die casting, extruding, stamping and spinning were explored, but none fitted the cost or strict aesthetic requirements.
The solution was the use of plastic injection mouldings coupled with a coating that replicated the metal look and feel. As Nordic Spirit initially discounted the use of metallic paint this left IDC with considering vacuum metalising and electroplating. Eventually, electroplating was selected over vacuum metalising, as it gave a considerably higher quality look and feel. Additionally, the metal coating achieved in electroplating is thicker than vacuum metalising – with the effect of retaining the ‘coldness’ after refrigeration.
Electroplating involves passing an electric current through the submerged plastic part within achemical solution. Because plastics are often poor electrical conductors, a conductive layer is applied that latches into the pits created by the etching process. IDC selected PC/ABS plastic for the caps where the butadiene molecules are removed at the surface during the etching process in order to created the desired pits. From there, metal layers can be applied in combinations for purposes of conductivity, corrosion protection and aesthetics. For this product, several combinations of copper, chrome and nickel plating were explored to achieve the desired look. Likewise, several repetitions were required for the plating process in terms of jig design, electrical current levels, submerge time and component orientation in the bath– all to achieve the appropriate colour, plating thickness, and coverage of the plating on the part.
To further confirm the selection of electroplating as a production solution, IDC commissioned pull and drop tests where moulded, plated bottom caps were bonded to the base of several bottles. Tests showed that electroplating had no adverse effect on the shock resistance properties of the bottom cap adhesive.
Although the final appearance of the plating did not exactly mimic machined aluminium, the achieved satin nickel chrome look and cold feel exuded the sense of quality that Nordic Spirit was looking for.
An integral part of the design was a hollow, shiny aluminium tube to be held in the centre of the bottle as a decorative feature. However, it required a lot of homework before putting it into production. Unlike the challenge for the top cap in terms of manufacturing cost and quality, the biggest questions concerned food safety. IDC consulted food safety experts and test houses, as well as taking steps to ensure the interaction between the vodka and the aluminium was verified to meet European and US guidelines for chemical migration and organoleptics (taste,smell, colour).
Before any tests were conducted, IDC explored several finishing methods for the aluminium tube to retain brightness over long periods of exposure to vodka. Concurrently, IDC exploreda variety of material and construction methods using other metals, plastics and food-safe lacquers to overcome any potential migration and organoleptic issues.
The final solution came in the form of a process called chemical brightening, which is often used on handrails and cubicles for domestic shower enclosures. The process involves placing the aluminium in an acidic bath to give it its shininess, de-smutting (removing other alloy elements and impurities), anodising (for brightness retention), rinsing and sealing.
Industrial Design Consultancy performed preliminary accelerated life testing to see how well the brightness was maintained along with performing informal taste tests. With the initial successful results, samples of the chemically brightened tubes were sent to test houses for overall migration, specific migration and organoleptic assessment. The overall migration test measured the total quantity (in parts per million) of aluminium material released into the vodka. Specific migration verified that known harmful chemicals (such as chromium, which is present in the aluminium alloy) were below acceptable levels. And the 'taint test' verified that the organoleptics of the vodka were not affected.
In addition, strict process controls were defined to remove any issues of debris and contamination.
The bottle seal in conventional spirit drinks is typically achieved by having a foam sheet inserted within the cap that compresses on the top surface of the glass bottle. Due to variances of how hard one screws down the cap, the final position of the top cap relative to the bottle is variable. Such variability could not happen with the DQ vodka bottle, as the debossed lines in the top and bottom caps, along with the bottle printing, all needed to be aligned. This was resolved by integrating indexing features in the top and bottom caps, a bump on the glass threads that defines a controlled end-of-travel of the top cap, and an indexing feature at the base of the bottle that controls the positioning of the bottom cap and printing. Additionally, IDC integrated a feature in the top cap that provides tactile feedback when the cap is screwed down to the desired final position.
Along with producing prototypes and determining the appropriate plastic material requirements, IDC closely collaborated with the Italian glass bottle manufacturer, Bruni Glass, to tune the solution to achieve repeatable positional accuracy and a pleasant closure feel.
The new cap alignment design means that the liquid seal between the top cap and the bottle is to be achieved before the cap is fully screwed down. The use of conventional foamsheet cannot be used as it has a limited compression ratio and would adversely affect the tactile closure. Instead, IDC designed a more dimensional tolerant solution that is typically seen in bottled water cap design – a plastic circular rib that squeezes within the inside neck of the bottle. The solution was to size the top cap’s sealing rib such that sealing is achieved well before the top cap is fully screwed down, with little effect to closure force.
Since the main moulding ofthe top cap is rigid metalised PC/ABS, an insert was designed in HDPE that incorporated the sealing ring and threads, as it is safer for vodka to be exposed to this plastic rather than metal plating.
For this sealing solution to be effective, a precise injection-moulded plastic component (bung) was inserted into the neck of the bottle as the circular seal feature of the top cap needs an accurate cylindrical surface to seal against, where the bare glass neck would have not provided. This bung also holds the tube securely, without vibrating or slipping, and provides a pathway for the fluid to pour through without glugging.
Glass and decoration
Another important feature is the bottle decoration. The back of the original prototype bottle had been painted by hand to be semi-transparent. Likewise the front-of-pack printing had mirror-like, hand applied decals. IDC specified the cost-effective processes of hot-foiling and automated spraying for achieving the high-quality aesthetics.
To incorporate the bottom cap, the base of the glass bottle has smaller diameter than the rest of the bottle and the headspace above the vodka had to be hidden within the limited area of the top cap. IDC managed these aspects that affected bottle volume through computer-aided design and dimensional tolerance analysis.
IDC’s approach to the project was to put food safety first and not let convention define the solution. The DQ Vodka bottle has so many new design features that the only approach was to allow research and creativity to be the essential element to produce a balance between aesthetics and commercially solid engineering solutions.
Sergio Malorni CEng MIMechE BEng, Project Manager, Industrial Design Consultancy Limited, The Portland Business Centre, Manor House Lane, Datchet, Berkshire,SL3 9EG, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1753 547610. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website:www.idc.uk.com