AB InBev: direct‑to‑container revolution

AB InBev has demonstrated fully commercial direct-to-container printing of beer bottles in a pilot operation located at the company’s Tattoo Alpha plant in Haasrode, in Leuven, Belgium

AB InBev is the world’s largest brewer, with global brands including Becks and hundreds of other beers.

The direct-to-container project has been running since 2014, and while the company has tested small batches to mark specific occasions, it has now rolled out a 200,000 Becks bottled beer project – the first time the technology has been used in the broader mass market.

“Direct-to-object printing means designs for small batches are now possible with just four weeks from design approval to retail shelves,” said Simon Gerdesmann, manager of the Tattoo Alpha Print site. “Fully variable, personalized designs are now possible and individual codes can be incorporated into the design for limited editions. In the case of the Beck’s project, together with our design agency we elevated the designs to match the unique direct-to-container capabilities.”

Gregory Bentley has been overseeing the Tattoo digital print platform since joining AB InBev in early 2018. “Our team have been developing this technology along with the Dekron team, as well as looking to the future capabilities and technologies to further improve and expand opportunity spaces,” said Bentley.

In operation, empty bottles are automatically de-palletized and conveyed through an oven to burn off any existing coatings and dirt. A primer is then applied to prepare the print surface.

The circular Krones Dekron decorating machine uses Xaar UV inkjet heads with UV LED pinning and a final mercury lamp cure. Individual bottles enter the carousel and are rotated and moved up to the print stations, allowing multiple print passes to be achieved. After final UV cure the bottles are moved out of the machine to the automated palletization area.

Line speeds are currently up to 2,500 bottles/hour, but the technology team believes speeds up to 15,000 should be possible. Bottles are decorated before the filling and sealing process, as the UV used to cure the ink would affect the beer pasteurization process.

New opportunities
The line is capable of printing in full color, CMYK+White and varnish. The ability to varnish in multiple passes opens up new opportunities to simulate glass embossing. The tactile varnish can be fully variable, making possible wholly new design combinations with variable full color print. This would usually require digitally printed labels in combination with screen print.

“We are working to educate agencies in how to design for the system, and we are learning with them. We are one above alpha, so this is production version one,” said Simon Gerdesmann. “The best thing is, we don’t have to wait for three weeks after we have passed the proof to see the labels. We just load the file straight into the system. We are able to print at photographic quality, including convincing flesh tones.”

There are some limitations. Firstly, there is no currently available camera technology able to inspect 360 degrees of variable print at the higher line speeds the unit is aiming for. Secondly, metallics are not currently available.

“We also need to work on logistics,” said Gerdesmann. “How to get bottles into particular stores; how to make sure the bottles don’t get “lost” in the brewery and so on, because the kind of applications we are talking about could include printing the results of sports matches, for example.”

In terms of sustainability, not only does the line eliminate plastic labels, but AB InBev’s tests show that the directly printed UV ink does not affect glass recyclability – the ink simply burns off.

Gerdesmann concluded, “Direct-to-object printing will never replace labels – for the time being this is a complementary technology for special projects. But direct object printing on glass is a revolution in print and AB InBev is pioneering this technology. Digital embossing is one of the most unusual capabilities of this technology. We can mimic traditional glass embossing, bringing a new dimension to bottle decoration – consumers will feel and experience a bottle in a completely different way.”

How does “direct to” compare to the nearest label alternative – shrink sleeve digital decoration with combination silkscreen print? “The economics will depend upon the quantity, as well as other issues,” said Gerdesmann. “But of course we do save the cost of label materials and the result feels premium in a way that shrink often does not.”

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