The Ingenious Design of the Aluminum Beverage Can


Every year nearly a half trillion of these
cans are manufactured—that’s about 15,000 per second — so many that we overlook the
can’s superb engineering. Let’s start with why the can is shaped like it is. Why
a cylinder? An engineer might like to make a spherical can: it has the smallest surface
area for a given volume and so it uses the least amount of material. And it also has no corners
and so no weak points because the pressure in the can uniformly stresses the walls. But
a sphere is not practical to manufacture. And, of course, it’ll roll off the table.
Also, when packed as closely as possible only 74% of the total volume is taken up by the
product. The other 26% is void space, which goes unused when transporting the cans or
in a store display. An engineer could solve this problem by making a cuboid-shaped can.
It sits on a table, but it’s uncomfortable to hold and awkward to drink from. And while
easier to manufacture than a sphere, these edges are weak points and require very thick
walls. But the cuboid surpasses the sphere in packing efficiently: it has almost no wasted
space, although at the sacrifice of using more surface area to contain the same volume
as the sphere. So, to create a can engineers use a cylinder, which has elements of both
shapes. From the top, it’s like a sphere, and from the side, it’s like a cuboid .A
cylinder has a maximum packing factor of about 91% — not as good as the cuboid, but better
than the sphere. Most important of all: the cylinder can be rapidly manufactured. The
can begins as this disk —called a “blank”— punched from an aluminum sheet about three-tenths
of a mm thick. The first step starts with a “drawing die,” on which sits the blank
and then a “blank holder” that rests on top. We’ll look at a slice of the die so
we can see what’s happening. A cylindrical punch presses down on the die, forming the
blank into a cup. This process is called “drawing.” This cup is about 88 mm in diameter—larger
than the final can — so it’s re-drawn. That process starts with this wide cup, and
uses another cylindrical punch, and a “redrawing die.” The punch presses the cup through
the redrawing die and transforms it into a cup with a narrower diameter, which is a bit
taller. This redrawn cup is now the final diameter of the can—65 mm—but it’s not
yet tall enough. A punch pushes this redrawn cup through an ironing ring. The cup stays
the same diameter, as it becomes taller and the walls thinner. If we watch this process
again up close, you see the initial thick wall, and then the thinner wall after it’s
ironed. Ironing occurs in three stages, each progressively making the walls thinner and
the can taller. After the cup is ironed, the dome on the bottom is formed. This requires
a convex doming tool and a punch with a matching concave indentation. As the punch presses
the cup downward onto the doming tool: the cup bottom then deforms into a dome. That
dome reduces the amount of metal needed to manufacture the can. The dome bottom
uses less material than if the bottom were flat. A dome is an arch, revolved around its
center. The curvature of the arch distributes some of the vertical load into horizontal
forces, allowing a dome to withstand greater pressure than a flat beam. On the dome you
might notice two large numbers. These debossed numbers are engraved on the doming tool. The
first number signifies the production line in the factory, and the second number signifies
the bodymaker number — the bodymaker is the machine that performs the redrawing, ironing
and doming processes. These numbers help troubleshoot production problems in the factory. In that
factory the manufacturing of a can takes place at a tremendous rate: these last three steps—
re-drawing, ironing and doming—all happen in one continuous stroke and in only a seventh
of a second. The punch moves at a maximum velocity of 11 meters per second and experiences
a maximum acceleration of 45 Gs. This process runs continuously for 6 months or around 100
million cycles before the machine needs servicing. Now, if you look closely at the top of the
can body, you see that the edges are wavy and uneven. These irregularities occur during
the forming. To get a nice even edge, about 6 mm is trimmed off of the top. With an
even top the can can now be sealed. But before that sealing occurs a colorful design is printed
on the outside—the term of art in the industry is “decoration.” The inside also gets
a treatment: a spray-coated epoxy lacquer separates the can’s contents from its aluminum
walls. This prevents the drink from acquiring a metallic taste, and also keeps acids in
the beverage from dissolving the aluminium. The next step forms the can’s neck — the
part of the can body that tapers inward. This “necking” requires eleven-stages. The
forming starts with a straight-walled can. The top is brought slightly inward. And then
this is repeated further up the can wall until the final diameter is reached. The change
in neck size at each stage is so subtle that you can barely tell a difference between one
stage and the next. Each one of these stages works by inserting an inner die into the can
body, then pushing an outer die—called the necking sleeve—around the outside. The necking
sleeve retracts, the inner die retracts, and the can moves to the next stage. The necking
is drawn out over many different stages to prevent wrinkling, or pleating, of the thin aluminum. Since the
1960’s, the diameter of the can end has become smaller by 6 mm — from 60 mm to 54
mm today. This seems a tiny amount, but the aluminum can industry produces over 100 billion
cans a year, so that 6 mm reduction saves at least 90 million kilograms of aluminum
annually. That amount would form a solid cube of aluminum 32 meters on a side—compare
that to a 787 dreamliner with a 60 meter wingspan. Now, after the neck has been formed the top
is flanged; that is, it flares out slightly and allows the end to be secured to the body,
which brings us to the next brilliant design feature: the double seam. On older steel cans
manufactures welded or soldered on the ends. This often contaminated the can’s contents.
In contrast, today’s cans use a hygienic “double seam,” which can also be made
faster. This can is cut in half so you can see the cross-section of the double seam.
To create this seam, a machine uses two basic operations. The first curls the end of the
can cover around the flange of the can body. The second operation presses the folds of
metal together to form an air-tight seal. While the operations themselves are simple,
they require high precision. Parts misaligned by a small fraction of a millimeter cause
the seam to fail. In addition to the clamping of the end and can body, a sealing compound
ensures that no gas escapes through the double seam. The compound is applied as a liquid,
then hardens to a form a gasket. The end, attached immediately after the cans is filled,
traps gases inside the can to create pressures of about 30 psi or 2 times atmospheric pressure.
In soda, carbon dioxide produces the pressure; in non-carbonated drinks, like juices, nitrogen
is added. So why is a beverage can pressurized? Because the internal pressure creates a strong
can despite its thin walls. Squeeze a closed, pressurized can—it barely gives. Then squeeze
an empty can—it flexes easily. The cans walls are thin—only 75 microns thick—and
they are flimsy, but the internal pressure of a sealed can pushes outwards equally, and
so keeps the wall in tension. This tension is key: the thin wall acts like a chain — in
compression it has no strength, but in tension it’s very strong. The internal pressure
strengthens the cans so that they can be safely stacked —a pressurized can easily supports
the weight of an average human adult. It also adds enough strength so that the can doesn’t
need the corrugations like in this unpressurized steel food can. While initially pressurized
to about 2 atmospheres, a can may experience up to 4 atmospheres of internal pressure in
its lifetime due to elevated temperatures; and so the can is designed to withstand up
to 6 atmospheres or 90 psi before the dome or the end will buckle. Why is there a tab
on the end of the can? It seems a silly question—how else would you open it? But originally cans
didn’t have tabs. Very early steel cans were called flat tops, for pretty obvious
reasons. You use a special opener to puncture a hole to drink from, and a hole to vent.
In the 1960’s, the pull-tab was invented so that no opener was needed. The tab worked
like this: you lift up this ring to vent the can, and pull the tab to create the opening.
Easy enough, but now you’ve got this loose tab. The cans ask you to “Please don’t
litter” but sadly, these pull tabs got tossed on the ground, where the sharp edges of the
tabs cut the barefeet of beachgoers—or they harmed wildlife. So, the beverage can industry
responded by inventing the modern stay-on tab. This little tab involved clever engineering.
The tab starts as a second class lever; this is like a wheelbarrow because tip of the tap
is the fulcrum and the rivet the load — the effort is being applied on the end. But here’s
the genius part: the moment the can vents the tab switches to a first class lever which
is like a seesaw: where the load is now at the tip and the fulcrum is the rivet. You
can see clearly how the tab, when working as a wheelbarrow, lifts the rivet. In fact,
part of the reason this clever design works is because the pressure inside the can helps
to force the rivet up, which in turn depresses the outer edge of the top until it vents the
can and then the tab changes to a seesaw lever. Looking from the inside of the can, you can
see how the tab first opens near the rivet. If you tried to simply force the scored metal
section into the can using the tab as a first class lever with the rivet as the fulcrum
throughout you’d be fighting the pressure inside the can: the tab would be enormous,
and expensive. If you’d like to learn more about the entire lifecycle of the aluminum
can, watch this animated video by Rexam that describes can manufacturing and recycling.
A typical aluminum can today contains about 70% recycled material. Also, Discovery’s
How It’s Made has some great footage of the manufacturing machinery. Here are two
different stepwise animations of the entire can forming process. And lastly, these are
two detailed animations of the cup drawing and redrawing processes. The aluminum beverage
can is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take for granted. But the next time you take a
sip from one, consider the decades of ingenious design required to create this modern engineering
marvel. I’m Bill Hammack, the engineer guy. Thanks to Rexam for providing us with aluminum
cans in various stages of production. And thank you very much to the advanced viewers
who sent detailed and useful responses for this video. We read every single comment.
If you’d like you to help out as an advanced viewer check out www.engineerguy.com/preview.
You can see upcoming projects and behind-the-scene footage. For example, you can see a early
drafts of this beverage can video. And you can sign up there to become an advance viewer.
Thanks again.

78 comments

  • pass iton

    Well he's clearly canned it. Drinking from a can, will never be the same.

    Reply
  • pass iton

    Sponsored by Fanta…

    Reply
  • Metro Vick

    Brilliant!

    Reply
  • David Andrecht

    Miss your videos!

    Reply
  • Benbebop

    Give me a spherical soda can. I need it.

    Reply
  • Scipio_Africanus

    I remember making chains out of the old pull tabs!

    Reply
  • Joseph Dillman

    Fascinating!

    Reply
  • Robert Gaudet

    How much did Fanta pay you to have those cans in the background / how fast did Fanta threaten to sue you when you used their cans without permission? Companies have the strangest reactions to free publicity sometimes…

    Reply
  • VoX8two

    I'd imagine a good handful of you missed the comedic ending by clicking out too early 11:37

    @engineerguy Sometimes I catch the scent of a delicious, super interesting, educational and entertaining 'apple pie' sitting in the kitchen window of a home while I'm walking down YouTube Street. This apple pie easily ranks in my Top 10. Thank you for taking the time to nourish all of us with your engineering delicacies served up with a side of comic relief. New Subscriber

    Reply
  • artsolar

    Whoever designed the aluminum can was a genius. If anyone does not like this video, they should be jettisoned into space.

    Reply
  • Juan Kalustian

    what an interesting video. you just earned yourself a new subscriber an fan. really awesome delivery too

    Reply
  • Todd Miller

    Well done. My father worked for Stolle Machinery in the 70s and one of the programs he was involved with was developing high speed two-piece can stamping operations for Anheuser Busch.

    Reply
  • WoodChipsCC

    100 billion cans per year – 100,000,000,000 – *** 5 stars for a fantastic video.

    Reply
  • O P

    Who did it say the Production Assistant was at the very end ?

    Reply
  • Umbral Chroma

    This kind of video is what keeps me up at night.

    Reply
  • thewaitingape

    He missed a step  in the evolution of the can. In the late 70's between the pull tab and what is used now. Beverage companies used a two hole press down method to open cans. A small button to release pressure then you would press on the second opening to access the drink. Very hard to do as a young boy in the 70's. It didn't last long.

    Reply
  • Charles Brown

    Sponsored by Fanta®

    Reply
  • John Smith

    Now you guys know why engineers and senior mgnt makes gigantic salaries amd bonuses compared to the factory line worker? Wake up, America.

    Most of you simply see a stupid simple round metal can. You have np odea what went behind its design amd improvememts over time.

    Reply
  • Steve Chaszar

    Thanks for creating this interesting content. Awesome.

    Reply
  • Thomas Larsen

    I love this guys can-do attitude!

    Reply
  • Obie Of L.A.

    I appreciate this mans candor

    Reply
  • Douglas Montgomery

    How do they "curl" the edge and what is the sealing compound made of and applied? How do they print the lable? How do the dies stay sharp for billions of impressions?

    Reply
  • Conor O'Brien

    Now I want a can of juice , fuck you advertising I just brushed my damn teeth

    Reply
  • Aeroxima

    I had to just pause for a bit and say out loud, "OOOHHHHHHHHHH" as I realized what those tools we've always had around were. I don't remember ever seeing a can like that, and yet we have multiple openers for them.

    Reply
  • Brad Z

    Very interesting title

    Reply
  • Saint Ralph

    Engineering 101 when u meet a real engineer who is also a Professor

    Reply
  • Rob Villetto

    This is why I LOVE YouTube.

    Reply
  • Özgür Sarıer

    That doesn't mean it has good healthy content.
    Sorry junk food inc's…

    Reply
  • tr1pman

    I'm no engineer so someone please enlighten me Re: transition from 2nd to 1st class lever @ 9:19 :
    I would've thought that if the position & direction of Effort is consistent, yet the Fulcrum and Load switch positions, then the direction of the Load should flip..?

    Reply
  • Pestiferous

    It's a friday night and I am 17 and I am here. Oh my god what went wrong

    Reply
  • darksideofthemoon

    Idiotic design… ya lets store a drink or food in a metal thats also a neuro toxin. Sure micro shavings of the toxic metal gets into the drink or food when you open the can but it will just give you very minor brain damage but you wont even feel or notice the brain damage so its ok for some idiotic reason. Yeah brilliant design.

    Reply
  • Evan S. Tallas

    This is great. I have a friend whose father worked for Pepsi about 30 years ago, on their cans. He would come home and rave about how thin they were engineering cans like it was magic. It's great to finally site back and understand what he was so excited about.

    Reply
  • Betula Obscura

    Brilliant!

    Reply
  • Steven Poulton

    Loved it

    Reply
  • HatedButRated

    I never even thought about the subject, and now 10 minutes later I feel like an expert. Thanks 🙂

    Reply
  • motorhead55 maxhead

    You, Sir, are a perfect interesting speaker

    Reply
  • Moses Alazzawi

    This guy is better than the real engineering YouTube channel.

    Reply
  • Daniel

    This guy's presentation is brilliant

    Reply
  • khangastain

    He sounds like Jimmys brother from Better Call Saul

    Reply
  • DuckiestBoat959

    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can
    I want the circular can

    Reply
  • Jombo

    Interesting video but I want to know where in the world did you get a circle and box shaped can?

    Reply
  • 1digitalwatcher

    CAN IT.

    Reply
  • Per Karlsson

    I now wonder what is the reason behind the recent design change making the cans taller and slimmer?

    Reply
  • John Zyp

    Lots ov prosseesseezz

    Reply
  • Kerry Gray

    Rexam? Damned near killed em.

    Reply
  • Eric Larue

    The purpose of the dome is to get the can to stand up. Because attempting to make the bottom flat would be impossible, it would allways bulge under pressure and vary. The dome allows the bottom to be flat under any pressure

    Reply
  • Justin Harris

    My god I had no idea that anyone could make the engineering behind aluminum cans so enjoyable and informative. Subbed 4 life!

    Reply
  • Cliff Hanley

    Imagine if the brains involved in this were devoted to projects along the lines of those undertaken by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation…

    Reply
  • Joseph Calandria

    Only thing not mentioned is the plastic inner coating that keeps the liquid from tasting like metal.

    Reply
  • Rauf YOYOO

    Me : Time to sleep now…
    Also Me : Imagine round and cuboid Can exist
    Me : ……

    Reply
  • slimwillo

    I can’t turn it off

    Reply
  • charlie aitken

    So this is where Charlie has been

    Reply
  • Corey Audet

    Do you really read every comment? Oh, wait, you didn't say you reply to every comment ! lol

    Reply
  • O P

    CAN SOMEONE EXPLAIN 11 : 35 ?
    is he chewing alluminium ?

    Reply
  • serif the god of insanity

    I would totally buy a sphere can, I'd actually pay extra for that the sphere is cool af

    Reply
  • Master Laifu

    The can just copied the design of the cup.

    Reply
  • dolofonos

    I wonder how long it shall be before California bans the tab.

    Reply
  • TheEgg92

    Very well made video. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    Reply
  • cody minecrack

    Love the earthship can wall houses too!

    Reply
  • Pajotero

    This really was quite fascinating. Good job.

    Reply
  • Cecilio Ravioli

    WOOOOOOOOOOW.. Mind blown. Subscribed and liked 😀

    Reply
  • theHentySkeptic

    still not even nearly as amszing as Ray Comfort's Banana!

    Reply
  • Stephen Fennell

    Fantastic! I loved that.

    Reply
  • Direct Solutions

    Do you want to know how the iconic Corian Designer Award trophies are made? Watch our video to see behind the scenes footage of how they are created at Materialise Creative Design…🏆 #DesignerKBAwards https://youtu.be/EzKAduBev8s

    Reply
  • Frey Petermeier

    Why the heck would you downvote this video? Jesh !

    Reply
  • N Jones

    why do i feel the need to drink something fizzy and orange now?

    Reply
  • Benjamín Rámila

    If the Aluminum Beverage Can, you can.

    Reply
  • Christopher Lawrence

    one of the best videos I have ever seen … such clarity and erudition …. no flannel !

    Reply
  • Joe Craven

    It's not just the subject matter. It's the clear and concise way he describes things. Very educational.

    Reply
  • Charles Wagner

    I found this so compelling. Thank You, Engineer Guy.

    Reply
  • zzZzz zzZzz

    Cuboid is now my favorite word.

    Reply
  • Sudhanshu Vuppuluri

    Nice way to explain engineering topics!

    Reply
  • growlingbehemoth

    The cuboid would be fine to drink from if you just place the opening at a corner. It is common in Japan to get sake served in a cuboid container. Then you just drink from the corner and its perfectly pleasing.

    Reply
  • Michael A. Rodriguez

    Awesome

    Reply
  • LeadBlastin22

    Best product placement on YouTube.. BRB, need to run to the vending machine to grab a Fanta Orange. PS, as a fellow engineer I appreciate your attention to detail, you speak my language.

    Reply
  • Terry Biker

    Hi, i retired from canmaking in March, 30 yrs making these. I arrived here via flat earth? You forgot to mention cold drawn,no heat. i was a lacquer rat and Belvac tech. Great video, almost miss it. Miss the money but not the job. Perhaps another vid on the problems that occur? I can help you there.

    Reply
  • Joshua Rasiel

    Fantastic. It’s like “How It’s Made” but way better!

    Reply
  • john steves

    Well done!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *