Digital printing on the near horizon

My earliest memories are of Saturday mornings going with my father to his workplace at tin box maker Barringer, Wallis & Manners before it was taken over by Metal Box. Seated in the boardroom, I played with the tin toys stored in a wall cabinet. 

Years later, at my father’s insistence I joined the industry and served seven years as apprentice printer, which frankly I didn’t take to. However, after finishing and leaving for other pastures, I returned after a year, lured by the money.

During this period, the tremendous experience and training prepared me for my next challenges. These covered everything from HR and managing the change from analogue to digital colour pre-press to marketing and sales. I latterly witnessed the change from a traditional one- and two-colour print shop with 12 print lines to a high-speed multi-colour facility, with just two lines. 

My next role was as a print consultant for LTG Mailänder, helping customers around the world get the best from their coating and printing machines. I became project director at the holding company LTG Technologies. It was then that I joined The Canmaker’s editorial board.

After leaving LTG, I set up a consultancy to help canmakers improve and objectively analyse options for change. I subsequently joined the Crabtree sales team, becoming sales director for several years before ill health forced me to leave. Since then, I have worked with my good friend Sandeep Singh at Metaldec, dealing in used machinery.

In the near future we will hear a lot more about digital printing which will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the industry. However, I suspect it will be several years before speeds will be high enough to replace sheet-fed lithographic printing. That said, even today digital imaging has a big impact on the production of small quantities of cans. But it requires a different approach.

Today’s consumers scrutinise packaging very closely, as they look for greater sustainability and safety. Although cans offer distinct advantages, there may have to be a reduction in the number of colours and complexity of mainstream products used. Brand managers seek consistency across all packaging types, so more work needs to be done to ensure that substrate colour, process inks and dot profile are basically the same in all applications.

Print output can be improved by focusing on quality and shortening lead times. And, while moving to multi-colour is an attractive option, it is quite costly. The type of printing machine selected alone will not guarantee success. To get the best out of it, a focus on pre-press, accuracy of coating and the information given to operators is also crucial.

Major advances in metal decorating do not come along often. Take the latest Metalstar 3 machines, for example, which print up to eight colours in one pass. They are expensive and a different mindset is required to get the best from them. 

Nevertheless, nobody can tell what type of machine, old or new, a can has been printed on. Against this, there will be a continued demand for refurbished second-hand ‘traditional’ flat sheet transport machines. 

Coating machines remain much the same as they did in the 1950s. Other than the introduction of Anilox coating system – which arguably is better suited for two-piece cans – developments such as compression roller-scraping systems and vacuum sheet transport can be retrofitted to the oldest machines.

Meanwhile, LED-cured inks that provide all of the benefits of UV are emerging, while being both cleaner and less-expensive to use. 

Thankfully, innovation today is alive and well in our traditional industry.