A Q&A with Rob Day, CEO Tonejet, exploring the benefits of direct printing to cans and what lies behind the increase in demand. 

Why is the demand for direct printing to cans so high? 

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 fulfil at a reasonable cost, making a digital solution the only option. There are three concurrent market drivers: the increasing popularity of recyclable metal over non-recyclable plastic primary and secondary packaging; the craft beverage explosion; and the general trend for mass-customisation of packaging in traditional beverage markets.

Currently a brewer wanting cans decorated using traditional analogue 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 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 fifty 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 USA representing 23.4% of beer sales, providing consumers with a huge and diverse range of beer and cider styles. The craft beer industry grew at 8% in 2017, whilst traditional beer sales were stagnant (all data US Brewers Association). This story is being replicated globally. There are over 19,000 independently owned brewing companies worldwide, most of who have started business in the last 5 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, so cheaper to transport; they are also 100% recyclable, and since their entire surface can be decorated they offer marketers much greater retail shelf-presence to attract consumers.  

Tonejet technology is not only a short-run solution for craft brewers. Large multi-national beverage companies need to produce lower volumes of beverage packaging cost-effectively for a variety of reasons including test marketing, music festivals, sporting events, regional promotions, competitions and export opportunities.

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

Are bespoke or turnkey systems best for this type of work? Why?


Tonejet’s Cyclone can printing system is self-contained and designed for use by label printers or packaging converters who may previously not have dealt with this market, as well as by experienced can handling facilities. Cans are shipped from manufacturing facilities on pallets containing around 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 will typically need a depalletiser, an oven for curing the over-varnish that is applied, and a repalletiser – all of which can be supplied by Tonejet or its partners. Customers in the can manufacturing or filling business may only require the core Cyclone printing system.  Besides the physical printing, what else is being done to advance this process and why is this necessary? 

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 unique process results in an image layer which is less than a micron thick (compared to around 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 in undecorated blank cans which are pre-necked. These cans are printed immediately 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. At Tonejet we have developed a can preparation process which removes the contaminants and leaves the surface of the can in perfect condition for printing, immediately before the image is laid down.

What industries are a fit for this technology, for example, craft brewers. And why?

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 can typically reduce cost per 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. 

Tonejet is also talking to larger beverage brands who want to print directly onto cans in lower volumes as a unique way to communicate with consumers.  We recently printed cans in very low quantities for the Tomorrowland music festival sponsored by Anheuser-Busch InBev.  10,000 cans were printed using 15 different designs featuring national flags in runs between 15 and 1400. The ability to digitally print directly to the cans made the project possible. Traditional printing would have been prohibitively time consuming and expensive.We also see strong demand from entrepreneurs and startups offering mobile filling and packing to the craft sector, or creating new beverage can converting service businesses