Today, those working in the beverage market might be asking; why is the demand for direct printing to cans so high? They also might ask, why is it so high right now?

The following are key drivers of this packaging trend:

  • 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
  • Desire to avoid the high cost and recycling issues associated with shrink sleeves
  • Growth in use of fully recyclable metal packaging generally, at the expense of plastic

Beverage can decoration is beginning the familiar journey that many other print applications have taken. The market demands larger and larger numbers of short print runs that traditional flexo and offset printing cannot fulfill at a reasonable cost, making a digital solution an enticing option. Three variables are concurrently impacting this market: the increasing popularity of recyclable metal over non-recyclable plastic primary and secondary packaging; the craft beverage explosion; and the general trend for mass-customization of packaging in traditional beverage markets.

Currently, a brewer wanting cans decorated using traditional analog processes will be looking at a minimum order of 100,000 units before the cost of printing plates and job setup is justified. A brewer wanting a 10,000 can run could use pre-printed shrink sleeves, which have to be assembled to the can by a specialist packaging converter. The same batch printed digitally direct-to-can using Tonejet technology will save the brewer 2,000 British pounds and will avoid the recycling headache created for the consumer by plastic shrink sleeve labels.

The short-run craft beer market is exploding. In 1980, there were fewer than 50 brewing companies in the United States, and little product differentiation. By 2017, following a five-year surge in growth, there were 6,300 craft breweries in the United States representing 23.4 percent of beer sales, providing consumers with a diverse range of beer and hard cider styles, based on data from the Brewers Association (BA), Boulder, Colo. The craft beer industry grew at 8 percent in 2017, while traditional beer sales were stagnant, according to the BA. This story is being replicated globally. More than 19,000 independently owned brewing companies are in operation worldwide, most of whom have started business within the past five years, and there are no signs of this slowing down.

Craft brewers are producing relatively small batches of beer with frequent special runs and seasonal variants a key part of their offering. They package their product in cans because they offer superior protection against UV light and oxygen, the two biggest threats to freshness. Beverage cans are lighter than bottles, thereby cheaper to transport and 100 percent recyclable. Because their entire surface can be decorated, they offer marketers much greater retail shelf-presence to attract consumers.

Large multi-national beverage companies need to cost-effectively produce lower volumes of beverage packaging for a variety of reasons including test marketing, music festivals, sporting events, regional promotions, competitions and export opportunities.

Although the recent focus and demand has been beer related, there are a growing number of other products that are packaged in cans. Besides carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks, water now is often sold in cans as the move away from plastic packaging gains momentum, and we are seeing wine and pre-mixed cocktails in cans growing in popularity.


Bespoke or turnkey?

Given the popularity of aluminium cans, addressing printing solutions also is of concern for beverage manufacturers. Tonejet’s Cyclone can printing system is self-contained and designed for use by label printers or packaging converters that might previously not have dealt with this market, as well as by experienced can handling facilities.

Cans are shipped from manufacturing facilities on pallets containing about 7,000 cans, which need to be unloaded ahead of printing, and re-loaded onto pallets after printing. Customers from a printing or converting background typically will need a depalletizer, an oven for curing the over-varnish that is applied, and a repalletizer.

Customers in the can manufacturing or filling business might only require the core Cyclone printing system.


Process advancements

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, in which the can is formed under pressure to create the curved neck before the lid is attached. Tonejet’s process results in an image layer that is less than a micron thick (compared with about 20 microns for UV inkjet), allowing Tonejet-printed cans to run through the necking process with the decoration untouched.

Craft beer and small- to medium-sized filling lines on the other hand, will buy undecorated blank cans, which are pre-necked. These cans are immediately printed before filling and present different challenges, as the external surface will be contaminated with necking oil and PTFE anti-slip materials used to prevent damage in transit. Tonejet has developed a can preparation process that removes the contaminants and leaves the surface of the can in perfect condition for printing, immediately before the image is laid down.


The right fit

Several different industries are showing a great deal of interest in the Cyclone digital printer. Traditional pressure-sensitive and shrink-sleeve label printers are keen to understand the new technology and how it fits into their business, as it typically reduces cost for each 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.

Larger beverage brands also are discussing digital technology like what Tonejet offers due to its ability to directly print onto cans in lower volumes as a way to communicate with consumers. For example, Tonejet printed cans in very low quantities for the Tomorrowland music festival sponsored by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Ten thousand cans were printed using 15 different designs featuring national flags in runs between 15 and 1,400. The ability to digitally print directly on the cans made the project possible. Traditional printing would have been prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.

Digital printing also is in strong demand from entrepreneurs and start-ups, offering mobile filling and packing to the craft sector, or creating new beverage can converting service businesses. BI