Kathryn Fox, Global Marketing Manager at Videojet Technologies, looks at the continued rise in the use of metal packaging and the coding and marking challenges it presents

Recycling, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and sustainability are all high priority areas in the beverage industry. In light of recent media attention with regard to certain packaging substrates and consumer demand for more responsible packaging solutions, there has been an increased focus on the use of materials that contribute in a positive way. Materials that are a part of the circular economy – the ability to be recycled infinitely without any loss of properties – are of increasing importance. Metal packaging has seen a steady rise in the beverage industry in recent years due to its many positive attributes, one of which being functionality and the other being sustainability. It is lightweight, easy to shape and size, offers a 360-degree billboard for advertising (in can format), and is integrated into the circular economy.

Globally, the market for metal cans is expected to reach a value of USD 56.38 billion by 2023 – growing at a CAGR of 3.2% from 2018  - and there are a number of factors that are contributing to this rise in popularity. Metal cans are perfect for the on-the-go lifestyle of many consumers today and their convenience is beyond doubt. As an example, festivals, beaches, and outdoor and sporting events largely allow the use of metal beverage packaging, whereas glass is often restricted due to its breakability.

The greatest quality of metal cans is its ability to be infinitely recycled without loss of product purity and quality. In contrast, a plastic product can only be recycled two or three times before its quality level decreases to a point that it can no longer be used for its original purpose. The global recycling infrastructure is highly advanced to receive and process empty cans. A beverage can recycled today could effectively be back on a retail shelf in the same form within 60 days. The recycling rate for aluminium is above 70% in many countries, while in the US – according to the Aluminum Association – the country processes enough ferrous scrap to build 25 Empire State buildings every day. Conversely, according to a recent article by Forbes , some one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute globally, of which only 9% are recycled .


Another valuable property of metal is the barrier to light and oxygen it creates which can negatively impact a product’s quality levels in terms of degradation. Metal is also strong in transit and throughout the supply chain and can be manipulated into a vast array of shapes and sizes. In addition, metal cans provide a 360-degree platform for branding and messaging with many decorative options available – from thermochromic technology that changes color with the temperature of the liquid within, to matte, gloss and even fluorescent finishes.

Metal gathers momentum in a number of beverage segments

While glass and plastic packaging has seen widespread usage for many years, metal is now becoming more commonplace in areas that are outside of its traditional market. Craft beers are a prime example here as many brewers are now informed that metal cans do not taint the flavor of the beer within. Rather, metal cans protect beer from the very elements that contribute to its losing quality – namely light and oxygen – and ensure that these carefully crafted brews reach the consumer in the condition the brewer intended. 

Many can manufacturers are finding ways to accommodate the smaller production runs required for these craft brews, which has opened the door to some striking designs and some equally innovative packaging features. Can manufacturer Crown, for example, offers the option of a 360-degree end, which effectively turns the can into a conventional drinking vessel by completely removing one end of the can. This helps enhance the flavor of the beer as more aroma is released as the beer is consumed.

Sparkling waters are gathering momentum in metal cans, in addition to still water – which is far more familiar to consumers packaged in a plastic bottle. While some canned waters are still aimed at the premium end of the market, one US based charity – CannedWater4Kids - is using aluminum cans to bring safe drinking water to those that lack access. By tapping into the global can industry, canned clean water is becoming the symbol and billboard for spreading the word, while developing strong grassroots awareness and participation. The aluminum can was selected because it is safe, readily available, sustainable (recyclable), and economical.

Finally, more and more alcoholic beverages – such as wine, Ready-To-Drink (RTD) spirits and mixers – are being packaged in cans. As mentioned above, cans provide the convenience necessary to be able to enjoy a beverage in places such as the beach, parks, at a sporting event, or even when taking a flight. It is not surprising that metal packaging is gaining market share. 

The coding and marking challenges

In terms of coding and marking, metal packaging presents a number of challenges that must be considered by manufacturers, including metal finishes and curved surfaces. Printing a legible code onto a metal surface is not the same as printing onto a plastic bottle. Therefore, extensive testing must be carried out ahead of installation to ensure the correct solution for the packaging has been selected. Beverage canning lines run at incredibly high speeds – sometimes as fast as 2,000 cans per minute – and initial evaluations will ensure codes can be printed to the standard required, at the desired throughput levels, and in the correct orientation. 

In general, continuous inkjet (CIJ) and laser marking are the two technologies that dominate coding and marking in the metal packaging sector. Both technologies meet the needs of high speed can applications, including coding on the concave bottom of aluminum cans. For continuous inkjet, advanced printheads require less frequent cleaning, allowing for longer run times, while smart cartridges feature an embedded microchip, allowing the printer to identify whether the correct fluid has been installed. This prevents errors in ink type or swapping makeup and ink fluids. For laser marking, fiber lasers are often recommended for metal packaging, as throughput in these applications is often higher. Laser coders have the advantage of not requiring consumables such as ink, and can therefore run for extended periods of time without the need for stoppage.

Regardless of your operational requirements, it is critical to engage with a specialist coding and marking supplier when looking to code onto metal. A detailed evaluation can be carried out to ensure maximum efficiencies are achieved and a system can be recommended and installed that will guarantee the very highest quality codes are applied to products that comply with the complex regulatory landscape of the food and beverage industry.