O-I today unveils a technological leap forward that (almost literally) breaks the mould for container glass. Ahead of the launch, Tim Sykes met Vitaliano Torno (president) and Arnaud Aujouannet (chief sales and marketing officer) to put the innovation in context.

The word ‘innovation’ sometimes has a paradoxical ring when applied to glass, the most ancient of packaging materials still widely used in modern times. However, the ‘O-I : EXPRESSIONS’ service launched by Owens-Illinois teleports the world of container glass to the cutting edge of technology, addressing the most pressing demands of the marketplace.

For an industry that has spent decades investing in industrial processes to deliver efficiencies of scale, the recent shift in demand away from large volumes in favour of shorter runs, proliferation of SKUs, speed to market and agility represents a quite a challenge. O-I : EXPRESSIONS, the result of four years of in-house R&D, is a radical response.

In essence, the technology introduces photo-realistic and three-dimensional digital print to the container glass industry. Printed with organic UV inks and using a Drop-on-Demand process, it enables fast and reliable curing, with CMYK offering the full spectrum of Pantone hues. The even more exciting news for brands is the capacity for tactile, three-dimensional effects: embossing, and even coloured embossing, offered by the premium version of the package, named O-I : EXPRESSIONS RELIEF.


This has transformative implications. Until now a custom bottle has required costly and time-consuming investment in designing and producing a bespoke mould, making it unviable for most short runs and small brands. We rarely see a craft brewed beer or a seasonal promotion vodka in a custom designed bottle. This looks set to change. With 3D printing, brands can apply late-stage differentiation that make stock bottles a canvas for the marketeer’s creativity. The economic proposition and shorter design/approval cycle bring glass into the conversation as a viable medium for the mass-customisation, personalisation, premiumisation, nimble marketing and occasional packaging that are driving much of the growth in our industry.

In addition to the market possibilities, O-I are keen to portray this as a sustainability gain. The organic inks do not impact on recyclability. Moreover, it is foreseen that flexibility will lend new efficiencies along the supply chain, with increased use of stock bottles, reduced inventories and (eventually) more localised customisation. In addition, it raises the possibility of marketing premium products in lightweight bottles.


Paradigm shift

If this is a revolutionary advance in technological terms, it springs from a fundamental strategic change. “O-I has prospered for over a century thanks to its culture as an innovative company,” observed Vitaliano Torno, president of O-I Europe. “For many years the driving focus of our R&D was on the engineering side: bringing incremental improvements to our machines and furnaces. However, we realised that many of the old paradigms and models were changing. O-I therefore set a transformation agenda which shifted our focus much more to addressing consumer market trends and customer needs, and being less self-contained in our innovation.”

O-I : EXPRESSIONS, which Vitaliano Torno regards as one of the most significant developments he has seen in 30 years in the glass industry, is the first major manifestation in this new approach to growth and innovation.


“This development is an outcome of O-I’s strategic agenda and reflects our vision to emphasise high value segments by leveraging new technology and product innovation along with new attractive customised and flexible service offerings,” commented Arnaud Aujouannet, chief sales and marketing officer. “Alongside the demand for differentiation and personalisation, the other value we identify as driving glass is sustainability and health. Of course, we are proud of the generic advantages of glass – recyclable, sustainable, inert. However, this is also an area of major ongoing R&D.”

This is another area informed by O-I’s changed vision. “Pushing the boundaries on scale isn’t enough in today’s marketplace,” said Mr Torno. “We have to be humble, to rethink how to make glass that is light, unbreakable and has a low carbon footprint. The sustainability task requires thinking outside the box.”

The tantalising suggestion is that here, too, innovation is in the pipeline…


When is EXPRESSIONS available?

The new service will be launched first in Europe, which accounts for 24 per cent of the global personalised packaging market. O-I is making an initial investment in two direct2glass industrial digital printers, which will make O-I : EXPRESSIONS commercially available on industrial scale by mid-2019. The North American launch will follow soon after Europe. Thereafter, expansion of production facilities is expected to shadow the regions (such as Scotland and the west coast USA) where key markets (like Scotch whisky and Californian wine) are located.

In the meantime, small-scale collaborations are likely to see light. We wait in anticipation for the for the first promotions on the European market of digitally decorated and embossed glass.