Chicago — Look closely and you can find Niagara-brand bottled water on certain store shelves.
But Niagara Bottling LLC, a family-owned company that dates back more than half a century, has really made a name for itself, well, under other companies' names.
The Ontario, Calif.-based company has been experiencing tremendous growth in recent years, taking advantage of the explosion in popularity of bottled water.
While Niagara makes other drinks, and bottles water in other sizes, the company's wheelhouse is the single-serve, half-liter bottle.
That's a market the company entered in the early 1990s and has grown to include more than 500 private-label customers selling Niagara-bottled water under their own names.
With a litany of national and regional retailers, Niagara-made bottles are easy to find if you pay attention.
Jay Hanan is director of research and development at Niagara, and he spoke at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2018 conference in Chicago about the company's rapid growth in recent years.
Niagara has the fastest bottling lines in the world, with speeds up to 2,400 bottles per minute, or 40 bottles per second, he said.
Wait a second. That's 40 more bottles.
And another. That's 40 more.
And 40 more.
And that's only from one bottling line.
Niagara has been opening plants in different parts of the country in recent years and now operates 28 sites in the United States. There are two more in the United Kingdom, another two in Mexico and two in Australia.
An average of 24 percent annual growth over the past five years is helping push the company to new heights.
But that growth, Hanan said, requires not only efficiency but also diversity.
"If we think about different people, different ideas, different perspectives, as those increase, it's not surprising that innovation also increases," he said.
"But there's a corollary to that which is when you have a lot of diversity, efficiency tends to come down. The speed in which you can get something done has a whole lot to do with everybody marching in the same direction," he said.
"And thinking differently makes that a little bit harder," he told the crowd at the conference organized by Plastics News.
The key, he said, is maintaining innovation while also paying attention to efficiencies.
"This is that tendency to see more innovation will be increased by diversity, but slow execution with increased diversity. You have to find that right center place to be successful faster in business but also innovative," he said.
Niagara builds its efficiencies, and its innovation, by being a fully integrated bottler. The company makes its own preforms, blows its own bottles and makes its own caps. The company has its own neck finish — the threads that keep caps on bottles.
And while Niagara has expanded over the years, the company also has worked to increase its sustainability efforts.
Lightweighting of bottles is nothing new to the business, and Niagara certainly has done its share to decrease the amount of PET the company uses per bottle.
The company has decreased its half-liter bottle weight by 55 percent in eight years, Hanan said.
The weight drop increases to 69 percent compared with the company's first half-liter bottles produced back in the day.
Hanan has a doctorate in materials science is a former professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University. He's been leading research and development at Niagara for more than 10 years, so when it comes to talk about PET molecule structure and flow behavior, for example, he's right at home.
It's this kind of technical expertise at Niagara, and not just with Hanan, that has helped the company to become experts in plastics manufacturing.
And innovation is a key.
"We need innovative ideas. We need innovative vendors. We need multiple people to come together to help us achieve this kind of speed for 2,400 bottles per minute on a manufacturing line," he said.