Monday 24 July 2023

One-off direct-to-can printing is real now

Having previously covered the under-rated importance of can labelling in the history of craft beer, it’s time to bring the topic up to date. Yes, what some back in 2015 saw as the Holy Grail of labelling – the ability to print directly onto a can in full colour – is here. Or at least, the technology is here, even if it’s not yet been miniaturised quite like canning technology itself has been.

It's not exactly 'desktop' yet
The inkjet printing machinery actually comes from a German firm, Hinterkopf, and as well as cans, it is advertised as being able to print on a variety of other packages, including plastic bottles and tubes.

At Brew//LDN earlier this year, not one but two companies were talking up the topic. I already knew about Swiss packaging company Nomoq and was pleased to learn that UK-based Oasthouse also now has a Hinterkopf machine installed. These printers are big and expensive beasts, though, so you are unlikely to see one alongside the canning line in your local microbrewery any time soon.

Dawn of the one-off printed can

Sample cans from Nomoq
So what’s the advantage? According to Nomoq co-founder Patrick Schweizer, a big part is that, unlike other labelling schemes, it can handle any size of production run – even a single can! “The setup cost is €139, a customer can upload their design and get a free sample as a proof [a test print],” he said. “We average 20,000 cans per design but the smallest order so far was just 40 – it becomes worth it for special events.”

An Oasthouse promotional special print  
To compare that with other labelling techniques, a chat with Oasthouse suggested that the minimum practical quantity for sticky-labelled cans is around 350, and for sleeving it’s just over 1000. The minimum run for traditional offset-printed cans is now 75,000, which is down from the 100k I was quoted years ago, but not by a lot!

The inkjet is also flexible, offering unlimited colours, photo-realistic printing, and fast set-up times. The caveat is that this flexibility does bring some uncertainty because of the variables involved. In particular, the cost will depend on ink usage (so, how much of the can you cover and its size), the type of ink, the desired finish and so on.

Both companies say that once that test print is approved, an order can be turned around in three, maybe four weeks, or even quicker if they're not fully busy. “We do have some capacity for some just-in-time quick turnaround work,” adds Oasthouse, “but this will be limited.”

Eco aspects of can labelling

And then there is sustainability. “Burning off labels generates more CO₂ and heat,” Nomoq’s Schweizer explained, “so for example the [brewery] sustainability department wants to get away from labels as they have to compensate for the CO₂ emissions otherwise.”

(The CO₂ isn't the end of it, incidentally. Some years back I met a man who used to manage a can recycling plant, he said labels and wraps were no problem logistically as they burnt off. However, their residue contributes to the muck that floats to the top of the 'melt' and must be scraped off as slag, leaving the bottom as pure aluminium. So more label material is likely to mean a bit more metal lost as slag.) 

The inkjet system has cost and speed caveats too, said Schweitzer. “We are competitive with labels and sleeves at around 20-30 cents per can, but we can’t compete with offset printing on cost,” he said. “Plus, unlike offset we can do 90 cans per minute, not 2000!”

He added that the Hinterkopf machines need cans that are specially made with a surface that will take and hold the ink. “We can’t use any old blanks – I think that has held back some large customers,” he said. “The key is the adhesion of the ink, even during 80°C pasteurisation. [Can manufacturer] Ardagh has to make these cans specially, and it’s still a small part of the overall business for them.”

Impressive results with more to come

The results are impressive, both from Oasthouse and Nomoq. They are also clearly different from the existing ways of labelling a can – no seams, photo-like textures, full 360° coverage and so on. 

Of course, those other ways of labelling have also advanced massively and are not going to be eliminated overnight – I just have to think of some of the gorgeous sticky labels I've seen recently, and while it will surely improve, the inkjet can't yet match offset printing for fine detail (see left). 

Still, I reckon there are big changes coming once Hinterkopf and others shrink the technology to something more manageable and affordable. After all, it took years but it worked for laser printers, canning machines, mobile phones and all the rest. 

Tuesday 4 July 2023

How can labelling enabled the craft beer revolution

The next time you pick up a beer can, take a closer look. How is it labelled – is it smoothly printed or slightly rough? Does it have a sticky-backed label, or is it shrink-wrapped with printed plastic? Is the label embossed or smooth? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I picked up two cans that very much looked printed, and it’s only because I know where to look and what to look for that I could tell they were actually shrink-wrapped. 

It feels printed, but can you spot the shrink-wrap now?
Now think back 10 years, if you can! Apart from on draught, obviously, how did you buy your craft or specialist beer then – was it canned or in bottles? 

If you think it was in cans, either you lived somewhere a bit unusual back then or your memory is playing you tricks. The micro-canning revolution didn’t really kick off until around 2014 or 2015 – which was, incidentally, when I wrote one of the very first articles on the topic. It was published not in a beer magazine but an engineering magazine, for reasons which I hope will soon become clearer.

Yes, it was really only big-brand beers – and very often, cheap brands at that – that were sold in cans back in 2013, and the biggest reason was labelling

Sure, the fact that an automatic canning line cost serious six-figure sums – millions, even – was an issue. But you didn’t have to own your own line, because anyone who wanted to can a drink could get it done by a contract canning facility.

Minimum order quantities

In reality though, small producers almost never did it – because you had to get the cans labelled. That meant getting them printed, and the minimum order quantity for printed cans from the manufacturers was in six figures, half a million if you wanted the best price. Wastage in the canning process could be 10% or more, so even for a ‘short’ run of 100,000 330ml cans you might need to supply 40,000 litres. For a small brewer with a 10 hl brewkit, that’s 40 brews of the same beer! 

By the time I published that article in 2015, things were changing. You had multiple suppliers offering much smaller canning machines, both manual and semi-automatic, which is where the engineering interest came in. You could even get hand-operated can seamers to seal a lid on – these were picked up by some brew clubs and self-brew shops, and are the ancestors of the crowler machines you see in some bars today. 

Sticky labels: flexible and easy to recognise
But the problem was still labelling. Sticky labels were an obvious option, but they needed a dry surface. Applying the label before filling was awkward because empty cans crush very easily, and applying it afterwards meant you needed to dry the can, adding time and effort to the process.  

As time went by, potential solutions appeared. Cans could be dried more easily, sticky labels were more tolerant, labelling machinery got better, so even quite short runs could be canned and labelled. Label quality advanced hugely too, so you could have embossed or textured labels, or labels with cut-outs. 

Cut-outs make each can unique
This has allowed some designers to get really creative, for example at Brew//LDN this year I met Green Duck, whose cans have a dual-layer label. The first layer has complex patterned artwork specific to that beer while the second has a cut-out, duck-shaped of course. The neat trick is they don’t line up, so every can is unique, with the cut-out revealing a different part of the underlying pattern. 

The label's downsides

Labels or wraps still have to be ordered in quantity though, and when the cans go for recycling they have to be removed. The most likely way to do that is burning them off, which of course generates more CO2 and associated pollutants than ink does, as well as producing extra slag in the can smelter which must be disposed of. All of which is increasingly unpopular. 

The thing I wrote about eight years ago as the Holy Grail of can labelling has remained elusive, though, and that’s the ability to print cans in much smaller quantities, ideally on-demand. It’s like being able to simply print a single copy of a document on the office colour printer, instead of having to go to a commercial printshop for a minimum run of 500 copies, all of which will eventually go into the paper bin. 

But now that hurdle too has fallen. At Brew//LDN this year I met not one, but two companies with access to the latest Hinterkopf inkjet printers, capable of printing full-colour, full-wrap designs onto a can, waterproof and heat-resistant, and with a minimum order quantity of one. And that’s what I am going to write about next