Introducing Tonejet’s Cyclone at InPrint 2017: A Storm is brewing in digital can printing

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InPrint 2017 will see the formal unveiling of Tonejet's Cyclone system. This digital can printing technology perfectly fulfills the demand for digitally printed drink cans including the craft sector - a market experiencing considerable growth. I talked to Marvin Foreman, Sales Manager at Tonejet about the machine and some of the technological benefits that set it apart from other machines in the market.

So, this is the first production machine since Tonejet's appearance at InPrint in 2015, what are the advantages of the machine over others in the market?

Since we first demonstrated Tonejet’s digital printing onto beverage cans at InPrint 2015 we have been developing the industrial production version called the Cyclone.  We have implemented a number of significant patented innovations that result in a machine which is much smaller and more efficient than that of competing products. One example of this is the passive mandrel technology which results in the complete removal of any electronics or pneumatics directly connected to the moving mandrel shuttles, dramatically reducing the complexity and the cost. In addition to this, we have been working with Rockwell Automation to use their state of the art object transport system the iTRAK.  When combined with the passive mandrel technology we have been able to de-couple every mandrel station from each other, resulting in a machine where different processes can each have their own operation time without impacting overall throughput. The result is the smallest and fastest total processing time.  Another innovation is the ability to load and spin necked cans, which we believe is a real game-changer for the beverage sector as it means the printer can be located downstream from the can fabrication such as custom printing or at the fillers.

What was the problem with a carousel system?

With a carousel machine design, you have to stop and start a very heavy platform in under a second, which makes engineering difficult and this type of design also limits the throughput due to being limited by the slowest process. On the other hand, the iTRAK is very flexible and you are able to move each individual shuttle independently allowing for multiple operations to take place which has different processing times.

Cans are loaded onto independently programmed mandrels which move the cans to the various stages of operation. The cans are first checked for flaws and are given a final surface clean before travelling under our print heads.  Each rotates under the individual process colour print heads and are then moved to a print quality inspection station. The last process is to apply a roller coated clear over varnish and the can is then unloaded onto a vacuum conveyor before traveling through a small oven for final cure.  Each of these operations have different operation times and space requirements, a carousel system is limited by the slowest and largest operation, but this is not the case with the Cyclone system.

What about the print heads?

The Tonejet Print heads are a nozzle-less electrostatic print head, very different to a traditional Piezo print heads. We use an electric field to accelerate the Tonejet liquid pigment ink from the ejector tips to the substrate rather than a mechanical or thermal inkjet process which requires nozzles to form the drop. The Tonejet ink is made of charged pigment particles in a non-conducting carrier fluid so when a pulse voltage is applied the pigment is jetted away from the print head at high speed onto the substrate surface, leaving behind the majority of the carrier fluid.  This pigment concentration effect is unique to Tonejet’s patented electrostatic jetting process and is at the heart of how we are able to produce very thin, low ink consumption, yet high density pigmented imaging.

So with the ink being pigment, what are the advantages?

The advantages of jetting pigment are both economical and functional when compared with other inkjet inks. What makes it compelling is the small amount of ink needed to print onto the can. Because of the unique jetting process, it uses less ink and this makes it up to 20 times lower in price than UV cured inks on a per image basis. Functionally a very thin ink deposit helps with post-printing operations such as shaping and forming.When customers ask how much our printed ink costs they are blown away because it is an order of magnitude less than UV inkjet.

 What other technology is required in order to integrate this effectively into a can printing line?

This very much depends on where the machine is located. Can factories will have much of the pre-print and post-print infrastructure already in place.  Likewise, canning lines will have the majority of the pre-print handling, however, may need to add conveyors and a coating curing oven.  If you are setting up a new custom printing operation you will need de-palletisers, conveyors, can cleaner, then the Tonejet printer, followed by a conveyor oven and a re-palletiser.  We have 3rdparty companies who specialise in such equipment helping us and our customers, and it is our intention to assist our customers by directing them to qualified 3rd party suppliers who are already prepared to supply equipment that interfaces with the Cyclone machine.

Is the system ‘stand-alone' digital or can it be used in conjunction with an analogue line?

Cyclone could work with analogue, however, this is unlikely to be necessary. For instance, you could print a can with traditional dry offset and then add digital content, as future Cyclone machine versions may have the ability to add digital content into a pre-printed“window”. However, we see the Cyclone put to its best use when it is working as a purely digital process and most people realise that the true advantage is to simply print the entire can digitally. Ideally, a Cyclone owner would buy unprinted cans, silver or with a base coat and print however many cans their customers require.  Traditional offset inhibits low volumes and many craft brewers only want 5,000 to 20,000 cans per brew.  We are finding that some of the larger beverage companies are interested in taking this technology in-house as they move more and more to cans and specialised product offerings. It has the possibilities to redefine the supply chain. But in realistic terms, the brewers are not printers. One of the target market is existing suppliers into the industry such as label printers.

Why are cans becoming popular?

Cans have many advantages over bottles. Cans provide a barrier against beers worst enemies, light, and oxygen along with offering a full 360-degree opportunity for marketing. The growth in cans has really been driven by craft brewers from the US and helped by mobile canning companies offering a pay as you go canning service. Until recently all beverage canning was performed on a large scale preventing independent brewers from packaging in cans. Mobile canning is a small-scale machine literally arriving on the back of a lorry – the brewer rents it on a day to day basis. In the US there are now 30-40 of these mobile canners driving around the country servicing different breweries. In the UK, there are now 4 different companies offering this service, 4 years ago there were none.

Many craft brewers are only offering their products in cans which are now seen as trendy and cool.  Long forgotten is the old belief that beer from cans doesn’t taste as good as a bottle.  The cans of today are perceived differently and this alone has changed the landscape completely.

How is the digital process different to the analogue?

The traditional way of printing onto cans is during the manufacturing process and is done before the cans are shaped/necked.  Can manufacturing is done at high speed with production orders in the hundreds of thousands with analogue printing plates and is the reason there are very high minimum order quantities for printed cans - because the downtime to change plates is very costly. This whole process can take many weeks and lacks the quick turnarounds most brewers are looking for.

With the Cyclone, you can print onto blank necked cans.An often-used alternative to analogue printed cans, due to the minimum volume issue, is shrink sleeves or pressure sensitive labels.  Digitally printing direct to the can results in a better looking finished product when compared to these options.  In addition to this the Cyclone opens up the potential for a more distributed model of printing cans at a local level.

So InPrint 2017 marks the start of customers being able to buy and install?

Yes, InPrint will be the grand unveiling of the entire system. One of our aims is to use InPrint as the official launch to make it known that the Cyclone is ready for purchasing. The first machine we showed in Munich 2015 was a slower linear machine to showcase the technology of printing pre-necked cans. Then in Milan, we demonstrated a necked can printing system but again not at production speeds. Now back in Munich this year with the Cyclone machine we are showing the full-scale production machine capable of printing both necked and straight walled cans. The progress has been fast and the interest high.

According to the InPrint Survey 2017 late-stage customisation is a growing concern for brands and producers – do you see this?

Yes, the speed and flexibility Cyclone provides suits smaller producers who want to be able to adapt their design and bring new products to market more frequently than the larger producers who mass produce and want to protect their main products. They are more risk averse, and technically it is more difficult to do.

For example, if you wanted to print 50,000 cans, you could approach a traditional can manufacturer, however, you would go through the process of design and you then get squeezed into the schedule, this could take 6-12 weeks. A contract can printer with a Cyclone could offer a quicker turnaround of under a week, with a much more bespoke approach to mass production, that’s where the true value lies. 

Tonejet will be exhibiting at InPrint 2017 in Hall A6, Stand 536

Further info contact Sales Manager, Marvin Foreman:

Take a speed tour of Cyclone in advance by checking out this video below: