By Melinda Tetreault
Direct printing to aluminum cans is a growing trend. Many verticals, like beverages, benefit from digital printing. Small runs, variable printing, and cost savings are some of the advantages. “There is a growing demand for greater flexibility for shorter run and multi-version beverage packaging. Digital printing allows for different images to be printed one after the other without the need to create and change printing plates or ink,” says Sarah Jacks, project specialist, INX International Ink Co.
Through the continued use of this technology, brand owners leverage quality, flexibility, and efficiency in a way that allows products to appear in stores faster than ever before. The use of digital printing allows companies extra time to properly finalize mockups and revise designs without disrupting the process and expanding timelines. Further, companies have a competitive edge by getting their products to market sooner than their non-direct printing competitors.
Above: Aluminum cans directly printed using Tonejet’s Cyclone printer.
While the technological capabilities to print directly on aluminum cans was available for years, it spiked only recently. According to Alexander Hinterkopf, managing director, Hinterkopf GmbH, digital decoration of metal and plastic packaging had its breakthrough point at the turn of calendar years 2016 to 2017.
This is attributed to multiple reasons, such as growth in short product runs driven by the craft beverage industry, growth in mass packaging customization of mainstream products—special pack variants for specific events or retail outlets, the desire to avoid the high cost and recycling issues associated with shrink sleeves, and the growth in use of fully recyclable metal packaging—generally, at the expense of plastic, cites Rob Day, CEO, Tonejet Limited, a TTP Group plc company.
“Printing on cans was always of interest, but with the volumes that are produced there were limits on what technology could be used. Today, with the increased emphasis on personalization and customization, the value of digital printing is more recognized. Brand owners want to connect with customers. Creating a one-to-one connection with something more meaningful or personal in the packaging is a great way to strengthen the bond,” admits Karl Dueland, VP/GM, new markets development, Xerox Corporation.
Another major contribution to growth relates to the design phase. With use of digital printing technologies, product designers and companies have a better idea of what the final product will look like, whereas previous mockups were not as reliable. “Printing a design or concept directly on a can better represents the final production appearance. An option that allows for direct printing on cans prior to piloting or production helps streamline the process. Using other methods such as shrink sleeve mock ups may prove to be less representative of what a can will look like once it reaches production level,” shares Jacks.
For example, INX’s CP800 UV Digital Cylindrical Printer features a relatively small footprint with an all-in-one feel, offering design and decoration for two-piece metal products in one device. A premium, eye-catching design influences a brand’s overall sales from shelf decisions, so achievable color expectations must be possible as well as accurate and consistent, says Jacks. Using the INX Color Perfection program assists all involved in the design, proofing, and production phases to select, communicate, and approve color efficiently, reducing lead times and getting labels to market faster. The INX Color Perfection program allows customers to ensure their design is exactly what the mockup intends for the final product.
Today’s technology is also advanced enough for manufacturers to place a certain level of dependence on it. As Hinterkopf emphasizes, “reliability of a machine is of paramount importance. Full utilization of any production system requires the absence of any dysfunctional time that negatively impacts productivity and profitability.”
Hinterkopf’s D240 digital printing machine passed the real life test at Germany-based packaging manufacturing company Ritter. The first D240 was implemented in 2015 for around-the-clock production. When a large quantity order is complete, production of small orders continues without any interruption—there is no change over time. Today, Ritter operates three D240 digital printing systems and is planning for a complete departure from screen printing.
Many industries are a fit for direct printing on aluminum cans. The level of creativity is unlimited thanks to digital technology. Some examples include craft brewers, metal packagers, sparkling water products, and spiked seltzer manufacturers as specific vendors benefiting.
“There is great opportunity in various markets, such as craft brewers, for those that produce less than 5,000 pieces a day. Lower volume runs allow the manufacturer to take advantage of greater customization. Think personalized cans for special events such as weddings or promotions,” suggests Stephen Chrisos, marketing manager, Inkcups.
According to Day, several industries show interest in digital printing. “Traditional pressure-sensitive and shrink sleeve label printers are keen to understand the new technology and how it fits into their business, as it can typically reduce cost per label by a half to two thirds. They see the growth in craft beer as a way to fund the acquisition of a new technology platform that will enable entirely new applications and markets as their customers start to understand the potential it offers throughout the beverage industry,” he continues.
“We could look at any industry that has packaging containers with labels. Direct printing eliminates the inventory and management of labels with the flexibility to print what you want on the object, right when you need it. There is no waiting for labels to be printed and loaded into the system for a production run,” agrees Dueland.
Tonejet made inroads with larger beverage brands looking to print directly onto cans in lower volumes as a unique way to communicate with consumers. For example, the company recently printed cans in very low quantities for the Tomorrowland music festival sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. 10,000 cans were printed using 15 different designs featuring national flags in runs between 15 and 1,400. “The ability to digitally print directly to the cans made the project possible. With traditional printing these would have been prohibitively time consuming and expensive,” explains Day.
“We also see strong demand from entrepreneurs and startups offering mobile filling and packing to the craft sector, or creating new beverage can converting service businesses,” he adds.
There is real interest from companies of all sizes. “Seasonal products and special editions are virtually the same cost as large quantities. In theory, consumers could order a single individualized piece, without affecting production cost,” explains Hinterkopf. This allows small businesses to utilize the technology in such a way that design and quality are not given up in favor of lower production costs.
Medium-sized manufacturers traditionally purchase undecorated blank cans that are pre-necked—cans that have yet to go through the curved neck process—when the can is formed under pressure to create the curved neck before the lid is attached. While these cans can be printed immediately before filling, challenges such as contamination from necking oil and PTFE anti-slip materials can occur, according to Day.
“At Tonejet, we developed a can preparation process that removes the containments and leaves the surface of the can in perfect condition for printing, immediately before the image is laid down. This technology allows companies to be at ease when designing their products with the full knowledge that quality will not be sacrificed in regards to direct printing,” he says.
Larger manufacturers working with pre-necked cans are candidates as well. “Larger can manufacturers need to print onto un-necked cans, and require a robust but flexible print result, which will survive the subsequent can necking process,” explains Day. Tonejet offers a unique process that addresses this issue. The result is an image layer that is less than a micron thick, which allows the printed cans to run through the necking process with the decoration untouched.
Direct printing to aluminum cans is a growing trend. Demand is a result of efficiency, quality images, and the growing ability to fine tune color selections in the design process. With this multitude of reasons to choose direct printing over other methods of branding to aluminum cans, manufacturers of all different sizes from a number of industries should consider the process.
Sep2018, Industrial Print Magazine