by Melissa Donovan
Big Frig is a cooler and drinkware brand out of North Sioux City, SD. In business since February 2016, the company began in a strip mall and moved to its current space in 2018. Working out of a facility of over 30,000 square feet—this includes a 12,000 square foot warehouse expansion that was undertaken at the beginning of 2023—it caters to the central and southeastern U.S., but serves customers in all 50 states as well as Australia, Canada, some of Europe, and Mexico. 20 full-time employees and several part time and seasonal workers are part of the business.
As a cooler and drinkware brand, Big Frig saw potential in personalization and customization early on. At the beginning of its journey, any decoration done on its products was strictly laser marking on drink tumblers and vinyl decals for beverage coolers.
Flexible and Durable
In 2017, it began looking for ways to offer color decoration on its tumblers and coolers—it turned to digital printing. “We wanted something durable with minimal changeover cost. We had very little space and only a couple of full-time employees, so whatever print process we went with had to be compact and easy to startup and shutdown,” explains Dakota Hoard, director of operations, Big Frig.
Another important piece of the puzzle, the printer needed to offer flexibility. In addition to printing to its own products, Big Frig also takes in contract work. “We pride ourselves on our nimbleness and flexibility, so many of our customers who started out buying our core products now come to us with a variety of other projects—canvas prints and laser marking leather gloves, for example—and we are happy to assist them with those as well. We make it a point to say ‘no’ only when we absolutely have to,” attests Hoard.
The founding members of the company embrace special requests, Hoard admits that saying “no” to customers is very difficult, but that they also enjoy trying out ideas on the fly. “For example, we have always made most of our own jigs and tooling—initially out of wood using rudimentary carpentry skills—now with three-dimensional printing and laser cut parts in addition to more traditional fabrication techniques. We aren’t very good at being patient when we are excited about a project,” adds Hoard.
An Inkcups Helix was initially brought in because cylindrical printing made sense for decorating tumblers. A dedicated rotary machine, the speed and print quality were just want Big Frig was looking for.
To print to the coolers, it went with the X5-T flatbed UV digital printer, also from Inkcups. It is ideal for the work Big Frig produces because of the 20-inch clearance. “Originally we had digital flatbed printers, which required that we remove the lid of each cooler from the body before printing. That was a huge expense in terms of time and effort. One X5-T station with a single operator has about twice the throughput of two of our older printers with two workers,” says Hoard.
Big Frig still conducts laser marking on its tumblers using gantry style CO2 lasers from Epilog Laser. According to Hoard, the Epilog devices are “work horses” that hardly ever give them trouble. They were easy to set up and maintenance is also simple.
It also uses a galvo-based laser from Radian Laser Systems, which was a bit more challenging to learn how to use, but the speed and quality are top notch. For example, a run of 128 oz. growlers with a large marking area once took nearly ten minutes per piece. With the Radian laser device, the decoration is complete in 28 seconds without loss of quality.
Printing direct to any object presents its challenges. Ink adherence is an issue, especially on low energy surfaces. Furthermore, when printing to premanufactured items like drinkware, these pieces are subjected to higher wear and tear during general handling or cleaning and disinfecting after use.
Big Frig has experienced its own share of frustration with adhesion. Hoard says a few years ago acceptable adhesion of the ink on its tumblers became a struggle. “It was a real mystery as we could pull retains from previous runs, print the same art on the back with the same process, and the new print would delaminate while the old print adhered perfectly. We were down for weeks with orders piling up, but we couldn’t figure it out.”
An industry peer suggested Marabu North America and Big Frig reached out. Hoard says that despite Big Frig being a small company, Marabu representatives “dropped everything” to work through the problem and get production up and running.
A switch was made to Marabu inks, specifically Marabu UltraJet DLE-A inks on the drinkware and coolers. They are found to be more resilient with vibrant pigmentation, helping expand the attainable color gamut. Marabu primers—Primer P2 on drinkware and Primer P4 for coolers—are now used for most of the common surfaces Big Frig encounters—stainless steel, powder coat, and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)—because of their one-step, flash-off application with low odor.
“Ultimately the greatest benefit is the relationship we developed with Marabu. We are usually the ones going above and beyond for our customers, so it’s refreshing to work with another business who will do the same for us,” comments Hoard.
Big Frig works with a number of customers, one of which is the Midway USA Foundation—a 501(c)(3) public charity working to sustain and grow youth shooting sports by providing long-term funding to youth shooting teams through annual cash grants. The organization wanted two different designs printed on cooler lids.
The coolers are made of LLDPE, with a low surface energy of less than 20 dynes/cm2. “That’s great for keeping your cooler clean, but it can make getting good print adhesion a challenge,” explains Hoard.
Prior to printing, coolers are cleaned off to remove any residue from the molding process. Then they are flame treated to raise the surface energy, usually to at least 40 dynes to ensure good wetting. The Marabu primer is applied and then the coolers are blown off with compressed air to rid them of any dust.
The printing itself is straightforward. The entire cooler is placed on the bed, the z-axis height is set, and then it’s printed. Switching between art files is a matter of a few mouse clicks. Printing the Midway USA Foundation designs took about four minutes per cooler. The operator prepped each cooler while another printed, so the whole job of more than 100 coolers was completed by one person in about nine hours.
Shrinking Economies of Scale
Big Frig is an excellent example of how to bring digital printing in house and grow. Not only does it customize its own products, customers can come to them for their promotional printed pieces as well. The flexibility offered by the Inkcups printers paired with Marabu ink and primer make it incredibly easy to offer on demand runs a little as one.
“Digital decoration is at the core of a paradigm shift in the industry. Customization used to be limited to the traditional techniques, which are subject to the tyranny of economies of scale. Ultimately this skewed customization to primarily large customers ordering from large printers and personalization could only be gotten with great expense,” shares Hoard.
It is now possible for a small company like Big Frig to offer customization as an add-on service inline in house. “Economies of scale are getting smaller and smaller, and the printing technology itself is getting more user friendly. I think we’ll continue to see a broadening of what can be customized and who is doing it,” concludes Hoard.
Apr2023, Industrial Print Magazine