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The Ingenious Design of the Aluminum Beverage Can

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
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.

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100 thoughts on “The Ingenious Design of the Aluminum Beverage Can

  1. let's be honest humans are amazing, they can invent ingenious things like this yet they can't spell aluminium or even pronounce it correctly.

  2. No one caught the little bit about the interior epoxy coating protecting the aluminum from the acidic properties in the beverage? I would hate to think what these drinks do to my insides 🙁

  3. Seriously accurate video cans and the ends are really well designed and this describes can making really well. There are a lot more details when you get in depth with the process. If it's not what you do for a living that's probably TMI. This is fairly concise, interesting and informative. Really good job.

  4. they also had push button openings in the 70's. Small button for vent, bigger one for drinking. Problem was you cut your fingers pushing the button in and/or adjusting it after opening. These didn't last long.

  5. Pretty convenient that the bottom dome reduces the amount of product in the full can, while reducing the amount of metal in the can.

  6. Just yesterday, something happened that made me try to recall what a square cylinder was called…I was quiet certain it was a rectangular prism. Less than 24hrs later a video pops up in my feed and tells me "cuboid". Life is kinda weird sometimes.

  7. Why has this video been reccomended to me several times? Youtube reccomendations has a love for this guy or somethin

  8. I don't spend a lot of time watching Engineering videos, at least not as much as I did growing up, the interest is there but the ones I come across tend to either over explain common sense or similar but not directly connected concepts about individual pieces which tend to distract from the point of the video and would generally be more appreciated in a 'how-to video' where missing why something works the way it does may directly result in figuring out how to solve the problem. These videos also are so tangential that I am often left with a question in my head that isn't answered and only sends me on further goose chases.

    In contrast this video was very straightforward striking necessary points in a sort of missing the word here but chronological, or order of processes perhaps? Introduction, Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 (sidepoint segway) Step 4, it was very fluid juxtaposed with engineerguy's pacing, enthusiasm, and as someone who occasionally strives to find the words to best describe any said subject engineerguy's eloquence made the video captivating, it was a pacing and style of speech I wish more teachers held.

  9. Oh wow, a cylinder is stronger than a cube but more practical than a sphere? Genius!
    What’s that? A raised bottom keeps it more stable? Revolutionary!
    How did anyone ever engineer such a marvel?

  10. Well all cups I’ve ever seen are cylindrical… it would be foolish to do it another way unless there was a reqson

  11. One thing that would have been worth mentioning is that this modern can design, using less material than the older-style can, which was a cylinder like an ordinary food can, was inspired by the Atlas missile's design.

  12. Ah yes, genuis and a unique design, a cylindrical container that holds liquid, we have never seen anything like it, truly the epitome of engineering.

  13. Fantastic.. we do stand on the shoulders of giants <3 what a great an insightful explanation of a ubiquitous product.

  14. The current design of the aluminum can, optimized for any grain developed during all those drawings, is the work of a lawyer, not an engineer, Eisuke Kanno, who was at the time secretary to the Chairman of the Board of the Japanese aluminum company. I've forgotten what the end-up optimizing step was, but it was one of those "Why don't they…?" moments by Kanno which saved something like half a percent of the raw material… which adds up over a few trillion cans.

  15. Hi Bill,
    This is a very educational video. I was wondering why the need to draw and re-draw the starting disc 3 times? Can we not arrive at the right diameter and length of the can by just one step? Thank you.

  16. YouTube, I've watched this video three times already. I even gave it a like, and added it to my favorites. Why do you keep putting it back in my recommendations?! ono

  17. Nice vid! I'm curious though. Why flatten the can into this shape instead of simply molding it to that shape directly? Cost? Safety? Practicality?

  18. Kinda disappointed that we didn't see a can being made in real time so we can see how fast it is. Otherwise than that its lovely.

  19. Amazing, and there's probably not a lotta widgets of any kind that can go a hundred million cycles between servicing.. great vid, thx!

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