|It's not exactly 'desktop' yet
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
|An Oasthouse promotional special print
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
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.