Talk about instant coffee.
North American java lovers are about to discover a new way to get their midday caffeine fix. A development company has teamed with Sonoco Products Co. Ltd. to launch a plastic container that heats automatically upon opening.
The container, in stores this January under the Wolfgang Puck gourmet coffee brand, looks like a standard plastic cup with a metal, button-top cap.
But push down on that button, and the coffee inside the container heats up to 146° F. It stays hot for 30 minutes and keeps warm up to an hour. No need to go to the microwave or the 7-Eleven store to find that hot cup of joe.
The idea has been brewing for a long time. In Europe, some metal containers can self-heat, said Jonathan Weisz, president and chief executive officer of OnTech LLC, the San Diego company that developed the plastic alternative to the hot metal can. Others have tried a mix of materials to create the same result but with limited commercial results.
``Metal has a tendency to collapse or crush during the sterilization process, when the container has to be heated to 250° [F],'' Weisz said in an interview at Pack Expo International 2004, held Nov. 7-11 in Chicago. ``Ours is ready to go throughout the retort process, when the container is sterilized. It's much more durable.''
OnTech's two inventors, Chief Operating Officer James Scudder and Vice President of sales James Berntsen, have worked on the self-heating plastic container for eight years. The men are entrepreneurs and former Navy friends who were looking for a new business to build a market.
The pair took years to find a container structure that could be sterilized and hold its heat in extreme temperatures, Berntsen said at the show. Sonoco, based in Hartsville, S.C., was brought in to apply the manufacturing expertise to help OnTech take the polyolefin-based, six-layer container to fruition.
The natural coffee buzz generated by the container was matched by a few serendipitous events. WP Beverage Partners LLC, the San Diego company behind the Wolfgang Puck beverages, was looking to launch a new specialty gourmet coffee, Weisz said. WP will distribute the coffee product to more than 2,500 Kroger Co. stores, he said.
And Sonoco, a major packaging company that can supply paper, metal and plastic products, was looking to expand its rigid plastics operations. The company is launching new products in both blow molded bottles and thermoformed cups and has launched its first dedicated blow molding plant in Corona, Calif.
The partnership with OnTech is another step in its evolution, said Grey Moore, marketing associate for rigid-plastic consumer products. Sonoco used its resources in both blow and injection molding and its packaging skills to help OnTech develop a marketable product, he said.
``We're using our 30-40 years of material science expertise,'' Moore said. ``We're moving more into rigid plastics, especially barrier structures that are more sophisticated than traditional packages. This is part of the process we're going through.''
Sonoco will make the containers at an existing Wausau, Wis., plant, with production starting in November and ramping to full capacity in the first quarter of 2005, Moore said. The plant had been shut down last year but now is being reopened to make the self-heating containers and other rigid-plastic products, he said.
The plant will perform both extrusion blow molding to make the outer containers and injection molding for the internal heating mechanisms. Sonoco also makes the metal ends that are attached to a container's top and bottom. The package is then shipped to a co-packer to fill and assemble the final product.
The newly opened Sonoco plant gives OnTech the immediate production capacity to make 20 million units of the containers, Weisz said. By June, that capacity will be doubled, he said.
Weisz said OnTech has invested $24 million over eight years to develop the container, part of a total $45 million investment to bring the concept to market.
The company has financial support from several other venture capitalists, including an affiliate of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson of Menlo Park, Calif., and Global Retail Partners of Los Angeles.
The process has led to 102 utility patent claims in the United States alone and patents in 36 other countries, Weisz said. It covers any multichamber plastic product that must be retorted, or sterilized durng a heating process.
The container has three main parts: the six-layer cup, the inner plastic cone and a water-holding ``puck'' that activates the mineral reaction. The key ingredient in the cone is calcium oxide, a mineral also known as quicklime or crushed limestone, Weisz said.
The puck, a round piece containing water, fits inside the cone. When a coffee drinker presses the button to open the bottle, the heating mechanism is activated. The puck spins and the water interacts with the calcium oxide in the cone. The reaction creates a pressure cooker that heats the inner container to 250° F, Berntsen said.
Within eight minutes, the container cools to 146° F. The outer shell stays lukewarm and is not difficult to hold, Weisz said.
The outer container is made from polypropylene, a barrier layer of ethylene vinyl alcohol and both regrind and tie layers of PP, Berntsen said. The product has a shelf life of more than a year and does not need refrigeration, he added.
``It's a product that fits into a person's busy lifestyle,'' Weisz said. ``It's for the soccer mom who wants a cup of coffee while driving her kids in the minivan or for the person who wants a coffee break at a desk during the day. It's an on-the-go product.''
OnTech also has an on-the-go schedule for roll-out of other self-heating products. Next year, the company will sell its self-branded coffee container, under the private-label name Hillside Coffee Co., Berntsen said. Those containers will be distributed to hotels and other institutions.
The company is looking for other food and beverage applications. That universe could include soups, teas, hot chocolate, baby food, cold and flu medicines and even sake, the Japanese alcoholic beverage, Weisz said. Each of the containers will contain the label ``Powered by OnTech,'' to remind consumers of the technology behind the product, he said.
``We want to be like Intel is for computers,'' he said. ``If people didn't see the `Intel Inside' label, they'd never know the company.''
Still, OnTech only consists of about 14 people. Weisz previously owned Pro Performance Sports LLC, a company that makes softball equipment such as hitting tees. He sold that company in December 2002.
Berntsen and Scudder have collaborated since their days in the military, when they formed a pizza and videotape delivery service. The two have since owned restaurants in the San Diego area, and Berntsen developed a product that prints color copies for laser printers. The self-heating container became their goal in the late 1990s.
``We could see a market for such thing as hot cocoa and even hot toddies,'' he said.
Now, the company is working on the next iteration: a self-cooling plastic container. Instead of heating, the container would chill the liquid, such as beer or soft drinks.
``It's portable and can be used, anywhere,'' he said. ``We've got our R&D team working on it.''