ackaging suppliers appear to have long-since decided that, as the importance of plastics has increased in the beverage sector, to offer just one pack type and material is far too great a risk. Most of the major can makers are now grouped together with plastics-based alternatives, thus spreading risk but also ensuring that their portfolio reflects the mixed inventories of their customers.  

But this is not to say that can technologists are simply throwing up their hands in the face of the perceived benefits of plastics, and particularly PET. While the emphasis over recent years has fallen on cost reduction, and the competitive rather than the innovative features of metal, there is now a widespread realisation that cost alone will never be the can's salvation. Shaping and embossing, new print techniques, innovation around the can end and even reclosable options are all being discussed and - in many cases - launched on to the market.

Red Bull, on top of its huge sales impact, also represents a great success from the can maker's point of view. "Today, the 25cl market across Europe exceeds three billion cans, generating growth for can makers, and providing real profit opportunities to drinks manufacturers," says European marketing manager at Continental Can Rob Miles.

But as Miles admits, this is largely a self-generated success, fuelled by consumer identification with the product and by sharp advertising. When it comes to can innovation which itself grabs the consumer's attention, he points to the Discover promotion, which Coca-Cola has used for the last two years in the US, but also in parts of Europe.

This promotional tool involves creating a dummy can end which conceals a token or prize. The decoy end is indistinguishable from the real thing and, once removed, still allows the beverage to be drunk.

One of the most exciting areas of can innovation is embossing and shaping - different degrees of the same basic process. As Miles explains, in the beer sector embossing has helped Interbrew UK to support the perception of Stella Artois as a premium brand, and full-blown shaping has helped Heineken to penetrate the US export market with substantial increases in sales since 1998.

But the fact that the higher cost of the shaped Heineken can is offset by the 40% premium in retail price demonstrates the problems facing the soft drinks sector. Jim Fisher, marketing director at the US Ball Corporation, takes up the story: "These technologies are not really going to be important for the soft drinks sector - they're just too expensive. Beer has a bit more of a margin for these things." The shaping processes are still very slow, says Fisher, even though Crown, Cork & Seal has a higher speed version that is being used on Heineken cans.

Many of the options in innovation depend upon the specifics of consumer habits and even waste legislation in particular markets. Japanese packaging company Daiwa Can introduced its aluminium Bottle Can a year and a half ago. Designed to take on PET and other materials in both beer and soft drinks, the award-winning pack is, essentially, a bottle with a screw-top lid. It is used in sizes between 350ml and 500ml and, according to Fisher, has been a roaring success in its home market. But, he cautions, this comes down to the greater Japanese tendency to make drinking a group occasion, with glasses being filled from the same container. Furthermore, Japanese environmental legislation favours aluminium over PET, which is burdened with a higher recycling levy.

Of course, innovation need not necessarily come in the form of an entirely new can shape. A detail as small as a coloured pull-tab, like the Discover vehicle, can provide the basis for an eye-catching promotion. Consumers can either be asked to collect the tabs towards prizes or, using laser etching, numbers or other identifiers can be transferred to the tab for more complex competitions or promotions.

 In body decoration, too, advances in print technology are allowing brands to feature photographic-quality graphics on their cans, taking the on-shelf "billboard effect" even further. Ink options range from fluorescent and phosphorescent to thermochromic and photochromic, with their abilities to change according to temperature and light. But as Fisher knows only too well, these relatively new technologies are still beset by problems and limitations - and all are clearly more costly than standard printing. "A lot of the companies out there get turned off by the cost of implementing these ideas," he says.

The industry can produce plenty of figures to show that demand for the can is still growing. According to Göte Nylin, marketing director at Rexam Beverage Can, the global market is around 220 billion cans, with half of these consumed in North America. Europe accounts for just under 20% of the total, but demand in areas such as Eastern Europe is expanding fast. In the UK, Europe's largest single market for cans, growth for soft drinks packed in metal stood at 4% last year, the same as beer. Cans account for a half of all carbonates sold.

Does that mean that the cost and convenience of the standard can will be enough to keep it in contention? Maybe, but the threat from plastics in particular cannot be over-estimated, and long-term it will have to do better.

Unfortunately for the can makers, the process of taking innovation beyond the drawing board is a slow one in the cost-conscious soft drinks sector. As Ball's Fisher puts it: "You have to change mentality, and get beyond the purchasing department to marketing. We don't have the money to keep throwing stuff against the wall and asking, 'Do you like that?', 'Do you like that?'"

In Fisher's view, the answer is to field joint projects, mutually supported from the start by both the brand and the canmaker. But when it comes to the low-margin carbonated soft drink, brands may still opt for caution, and decide to watch what happens in other higher-margin sectors first.