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. 

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