Printing Color Labels Directly on Bottles at Process Speed

Industrial printing is always a side story at specialized trade shows like the beverage industry’s ‘drinktech’. Home to vendors of filling systems and other automation equipment for brewers and makers of soft drinks and other products, the 2013 version will take place September 16 to 20 in Munich. And though most of the printing will be coding and labeling related, there will be at least one full color printer, the KHS Innoprint. Already the subject of advance publicity, Innoprint prints on PET bottles directly in CMYK colors, using UV inkjet. The Innoprint is not the first system to do such printing—Tonejet and INX have offered direct color printing of metal cans since 2009—but if Innoprint performs as claimed, it will be the fastest direct digital color printer of beverage containers, and the first to come from a major maker of industrial automation systems for the drinks industry. The speed of Innoprint is important because it means that digital printing of labels as an integrated part of a production-speed bottling system will become possible.

Only the most basic specifications for KHS Innoprint are available now. Besides its UV inks, the KHS Innoprint prints with an optical resolution of 1080 x 1080 dpi and at speeds sufficient to print 36,000 PET bottles per hour. Various PET bottle types can be printed, ranging in size from 0.33 to 1.5 liters, and in diameter from 40 to 120 mm.

KHS is a German company, a global supplier of manufacturing equipment for beverage and food manufacturers, as well as some non-food companies. At drinktec 2013, it will have a 4,200 square meter booth, mostly full of blow molding, filling, and labeling equipment, but for observers of color digital label and packaging applications, the KHS Innoprint will be the highlight.

The direct full color printing of beverage containers and other cylindrical packaging such as plastic tubes for cosmetics, has been possible for a few years but has not entered the mainstream. Tonejet has the best known implementation at a major can manufacturer called Ball Packaging in Germany. Ball Packaging uses their Tonejet print engine as an adjunct to its conventional can printing line. There are also a small number of units for printing cylindrical containers from INX Digital, a division of ink giant Sakata INX. This print system is the INX CP100UV, a Xaar-based which prints metal cans with UV inks but at very low speeds, up to 5 cans per minute. There are also a few boutique-type suppliers of direct printing systems for cans or bottles.

All these systems print non-porous, cylindrical primary packaging with full color digital images at high resolutions (the INX CP100 prints at 1440 x 1440 dpi). This is an attractive concept for brand owners wanting prototypes or short customized print runs for events or other promotional opportunities.

The KHS Innoprint will take beverage container printing to a new level. Its 36,000 bottle per hour equates to 600 bottles per minute (BPM), more than 4 times the 120 can per minute rate of the Tonejet engine. At 600 BPM the KHS Innoprint is a production capable system that can keep up with some automatic filling machines which typically range in speed from 500 to 1200 BPM.

Speed is a key barrier for full color inkjet in the drinks industry, just as it is in other industrial uses that involve metal, plastic, or other non-porous media. UV curing, the main approach used in the label industry, is now the choice of KHS for use in PET bottle manufacturing, as it has been for INX with its own printer (Tonejet technology is not UV curing; it uses electrostatic ink). UV curing inks make sense in terms of adhesion and drying time, but are often a concern for food brands in terms of possible contamination. InfoTrends believes that KHS and INX Digital have addressed this issue through the use of low migration UV inks, which minimize post-curing unreacted monomers.

Direct, full color printing of cans and bottles is at this point a “virtuoso” industrial use of color digital printing. With achievements by Tonejet and INX evident already, now KHS, a top maker of automation for the drinks industry, has joined them with a production speed integrated solution. We believe that the direct imaging use of color digital printing will move from its infancy stage into production environments with the help of systems such as the KHS Innoprint. These systems will drive growth this application, first at can and bottle manufacturers as well as drinks producers facilities as near-line or in-line systems.