Whether funny or sexy, bottled beer advertising is all about persuading consumers to pick one company's beer over the hundreds of others, and re-launching the beer in a new bottle is often part of the strategy.
"Branding is very, very important in the market," says Susan Ladrak-Keppels, planning manager for Grolsch's brewery in The Netherlands. Grolsch wanted to launch a newly designed bottle there, but wanted to be clear about the subsequent costs which would be involved from having to sort the bottle out from the Netherlands' standard bottles during the recycling process. Dutch consumers return empty bottles to their shops which in turn pass them back to the breweries for re-use.
Perhaps we could have done it without EUREKA but much more slowly and a slow development could have put us in a difficult competitive situation.
Prof. Dr.-Ing. K. Spiegelmacher, Syscona, Germany
Grolsch performed studies on consumer behaviour with respect to returning crates filled with bottles to shops. They learned that in most cases consumers return Grolsch bottles in the correct crate, with few "foreign" bottles (from other brands) returned in the Grolsch crates. Based on that study and on the assumption that the percentage of Grolsch bottles in the crates on the top layer of the pallet represent the percentage of Grolsch bottles in the entire pallet, Grolsch chose a small German company called Syscona to develop a technical solution that could measure the number of Grolsch bottles (per pallet) in order to keep the sorting costs as low as possible. Calculations indicated that only pallets containing more than X "foreign" bottles needed to be sorted; other pallets could be sent to the filling lines directly from the empty goods warehouse.
Determined to search for a breakthrough invention which could be used throughout the industry, the pair turned to EUREKA and the funding programme Pro Inno II of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology for help with funding.
Syscona and Grolsch quickly completed the first stage of the project, concluding from a study that the Dutch generally didn't mix up their different brands of empty bottles, meaning building a new sorting line at Grolsch would be a waste of up to 8 million euros. The pair worked out that pallets which had a limited number of rogue bottles could be sent on to the brewery's normal production line which wouldn't fill them up with Grolsch beer. "After a certain level of non-Grolsch bottles, too much disruption to the line would be caused and that would be inefficient," Ladrak-Keppels says.
So Syscona began developing a machine which could identify bottles in crates on the top layer of a pallet- even without being able to see more than the top of 240 bottles and the pallets sides. If Grolsch's new bottles could be identified, as well as its other Grolsch bottles and unwanted bottles from other brands, the machine could be programmed to send pallets with none/few rogue bottles straight onto the production line and to send those which needed sorting to another area where workers could manually remove the unwanted bottles.
The challenge was significant. "We had to develop a complete new generation of inspection systems," says Kurt Spiegelmacher, technical manager at Syscona. Previous industry methods for identifying bottles have been indirect, with factories "spotting" foreign bottles by a process of elimination, comparing their colour and shape to the "correct" bottles. Syscona set out to improve on that, combining identification methods.
"We used the latest state of art camera systems to offer us new possibilities and new illumination technology which adapts to the light around the pallet," says Spiegelmacher. As well as fitting the machine with high-resolution cameras, the team hit on the idea of putting codes on the new bottles which would withstand damage and would show up under an ultra violet light. The researchers also worked out a mathematical formula to predict the content of a pallet based on the composition of the top layer.
Developing and testing all these components was a painstaking process. "Identifying products on a pallet is difficult because it's not a stiff system - it keeps shaking around," explains Spiegelmacher. Movement can distort camera shots. Methods to identify bottles through height, shape and colour can also be subject to mistakes if an identification system does not take into account the possibility that consumers sometimes get dirt or other products on the bottles or that a bottle top could increase a bottle's height on a pallet.
While Grolsch was able to give Syscona insight into consumer behaviour, Syscona was able to thrash out technical solutions to potential problems. "We had a goal together, we focused on quality and learnt from each other," says Ladrak-Keppels. "They were technically really smart and they fully trusted us on our knowledge of the market."
In July 2007, the machine was completed and successfully tested. A week later, a four-month pilot was started at Grolsch where the machine identified bottles with a 99 percent reliability rate.
The financial support we got was really helpful. The project was a gamble, but here we were able to focus on the quality of the result, not on the speed.
Susan Ladrak-Keppels, Grolsch,
"We are the first company to be able to detect the content of a whole pallet," says Spiegelmacher. A satisfied Grolsch now has two machines working on its lines and Syscona has sold some of the technology developed in the project to several German brewers which are using them to identify bottles on crates.
Grolsch believes other breweries could follow its path to reduce the size of existing sorting lines or to avoid a new line in the case of a new bottle launch. Syscona is certainly confident its new identification techniques put it in a better place to be more competitive and they are solutions for companies likely to develop ever funkier bottles in the future to make themselves stand out from the crowd.