Tinmasters, one of the UK’s leading metal decorating companies, is working with Fujifilm to implement a means of printing on metal using UV inkjet technology.
The Acuity B1 press used for this remains in the R&D lab where it is running samples for Tinmasters and its customers ahead of installation at the Swansea company in September. The target is short run work, up to 500 sheets, says Tinmasters’ CEO Richard O’Neill.
“We recently invested in a Koenig & Bauer litho press which is as good as it can get in terms of the litho world in terms of coping with short run lengths. We see short runs as below 500 sheets and we get requests that need 100 sheets, for prototypes, for sampling or for promotional products which become disproportionately expensive on a litho press.
“We have looked at a couple of other digital options, but the quality has not been good enough to be acceptable to the metal packaging customer. We have done a few trials with a few customers on this and the have received positive feedback.”
UV inkjet printing holds great promise in terms of delivering colour consistency with registration accuracy and the potential for value added tactile and varnish effects that are not possible on a litho press. However it is entirely new to metal decorating which has long been a litho printing process. Thus, Tinmasters needs to learn about inkjet and Fujifilm needs to learn about metal decorating.
It has been one of the areas that has so far not transitioned to digital printing. A few technologies and machines exist to decorate tins, but none for tinplate sheets. As in other sectors, runs are dropping sharply and there is a need for faster turnaround than is practical on the litho press with platemaking, machine set up and so on, to contend with.
“The trend is accelerating and digital was going to have to start to play a significant role in our response to that at some point,” says O’Neill. “This is a first step into digital and it will help us to understand the technology.”
In the longer term the B1 sheet maximum is likely to prove a limitation – the litho press has a maximum 1,000x1,200mm format which customers have become used to. There will be cooperation too on handling the sometimes awkward and heavy material. Currently, the Acuity is printing from its conventional non stop feeder to a stack of print.
The Acuity has eight print channels, two each of CMYK, with piezo head able to deliver different droplet sizes. This produces a larger gamut than four colour process litho inks. However, metal decorating uses a vast array of PMS inks, up to 13 or even 18 colours, says O’Neill. It will not be a problem scaling up production from short runs printed inkjet to longer runs printed on the litho press. Replicating work that was first printed digital on the inkjet machine is more complex.
The Acuity will print on sheets that have been pretreated with a white lacquer or with a clear base coating for a more metallic impact. The print will be coated after print for protection and to include raised and different effects from UV varnish.
O’Neill continues: “In the longer term though, as we work with Fujifilm to increase the speed and improve the handling for metal, I think we could see digital used to take on work in the 500 to 5,000 sheet range. So this, for us, really is a long term commitment, it’s not about the next year, or even the next few years, we’re thinking about the next decade and beyond. We think inkjet is going to be a big part of the future of metal dec, and by getting in early we want to help to shape what that future looks like, and become a real technology leader in the industry.
Over the next 5-10 years there will be a bigger transition to digital printing. There is much more to digital printing than just the ability to print short runs.” He names lever lids, whisky packaging ends as initial products that could switch to digital print.
“The speed, low cost and simplicity for short runs will outweigh some of the disadvantages in terms of the colour range.”
Metal packaging, which has recycling rates of 80% across Europe, has a strong environmental story and has attracted a range of new products, including coffee, water and wine. It remains early days for the new approach, but the possibility is there, which has attracted Fujifilm’s involvement.
Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems business manager – industrial, Kevin Jenner says: ”There is, in the industry, we believe, a tremendous latent demand for the short run work, creativity and customisation that inkjet allows, but in many cases neither the canmakers nor designers know that those possibilities exist – so they’re not asking for them. When they do start asking – and they will – we’ll be ready, and together we look forward to shaping a future of possibilities even we haven’t dreamt of yet.”