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    The magic of direct printing

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    AB InBev is working on innovative packaging designs in its Tattoo Alpha Plant – with DecoType direct printing technology from Dekron.
    • Site manager Jonas Vandecruys firmly believes in the future of digital printing.

    So far, we have not addressed the subject of aesthetics very often in the Krones magazine. Why should we? Our world revolves around technology, efficiency, and performance. Well, at least that’s what we thought – until we visited Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Tattoo Alpha Plant in Belgium where a DecoType Performance machine went into operation quite recently, tasked with digital bottle decoration. And when site manager Jonas Vandecruys speaks about the options it offers, words like “beautiful” and “magical” roll off his tongue quite naturally.

    While wide circles of the industry still regard digital direct printing as a futuristic vision, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) has already erected a complete production plant for it. The Tattoo Alpha Plant is the group’s first factory worldwide where bottles are digitally decorated on an industrial scale. But let’s go back seven years, to when it all started – back to a time when digital direct printing was still in its infancy.

    The group’s technology scouts were looking for packaging innovations, and their attention was drawn to a German start-up where “a handful of people were fiddling with two prototypes in a garage-type set-up”, says Jonas Vandecruys, laughing. The start-up he is referring to was the company then known as Till GmbH and now a fully owned Krones subsidiary called Dekron. The two prototypes were the first predecessors of the current DecoType series. It’s true, the garage tinkerers could not point to high-profile references and large orders, but they boasted a huge fund of ideas and a promising new technology.

    Image 28163
    Exclusive decoration for an exquisite product

    Mission driven by questions 

    It did not take AB InBev’s scouts long to realise that it was definitely worth their while to keep an eye on their progress. Since AB InBev’s team wanted to explore the technology involved in more detail and above all see what options it offered for their purposes, they launched a search for reinforcements and finally found what they were looking for in Jonas Vandecruys. “The job description said ‘well versed in the fields of chemistry, electronics and material science’. That matched my personal profile to perfection,” he says, looking back.

    For Vandecruys and his team, the direct printing mission started off with a lot of open questions: What are the processes and parameters behind this technology? How can it be transferred to an industrial environment? And most importantly: Is it at all suitable for rendering AB InBev fit for future packaging trends? You see, the world’s largest brewing conglomerate was looking for an innovation that would enable it to achieve three things: create personalised packaging and produce small batches while also minimising environmental impact.

    Most advanced technology

    To find out whether the process Till had developed could to live up to these requirements, AB InBev put it under the microscope and also compared it with other alternatives available on the market. “Aspects of crucial interest included process stability, the hardware involved, and obviously the anticipated costs. In the final analysis, Till’s technology emerged as the one farthest along in the technology landscape – also and especially because it was based on a modular concept that allowed it to scale up to infinite speed without scaling up to infinite footprint,” says Vandecruys. “Moreover, we liked the team behind it. The guys there obviously knew how to build machines, and delivered very promising results in the first bottle tests.”

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    An eye-catcher in itself: the DecoType Performance in its customised AB-InBev brand design

    In 2019, the new technology finally found a home in the Tattoo Alpha Plant, which had been specifically set up for the direct-printing project in the Belgian village of Haasrode. Till had meanwhile been taken over by Krones and renamed Dekron. But the team backing the technology had remained the same – fuelled by an enthusiasm to create something big here together with AB InBev. “At a personal level, cooperation was simply great. We solved problems together and lived through all the highs and lows inevitably entailed by a project of that size as a close-knit team,” says Vandecruys. Without a doubt, the lows included the Covid-19 pandemic, which threw a couple of hurdles in the team’s way on the home straight. “Organising all of it grew more and more elaborate, thanks to measures like travel restrictions, hygiene rules and testing routines,” says Vandecruys. “But after a short period of adjustment, it just became our new reality and our new way of working. All in all, though, we managed even that.”

    At a personal level, cooperation was simply great. We solved problems together and lived through all the highs and lows inevitably entailed by a project of that size as a close-knit team. Erwin HächlJonas VandecruysSite Manager

    “A lot of beautiful things”

    The DecoType started operation in late 2021. It is fitted with nine printing units and decorates up to 8,000 containers per hour. The plan is to upsize it eventually. When asked what, specifically, AB InBev uses the machine for, Jonas Vandecruys replies with a mischievous smile: “We do a lot of beautiful things with the DecoType.” He won’t let us in on any details because research and tests are still ongoing to find out how to reap the full benefits of digital direct printing. “Sure, we could simply use the DecoType to print existing designs,” he says. “But that would mean restricting our options.” The challenge the team faces now, he continues, is to shed familiar habits and think beyond the limits of a traditional label. “Change your designs – much more vivid for digital printing – and you’ll end up with a much more beautiful bottle!” 

    Change your designs – much more vivid for digital printing. Erwin HächlJonas VandecruysSite Manager

    When asked to compare screen printing and direct printing, Jonas Vandecruys comes up with quite a differentiated verdict. Both processes have their definite strengths, he says, but these lie in very disparate fields. Screen printing is like travelling by train, and digital printing like going by car: “When you choose the train, your route is predefined. Once on the train, you know exactly what you’ll see along the way and where you’re going to end up,” he explains. “When you go by car, on the other hand, you are flexible: If you want to take a break, you simply stop and have one. If you’ve changed your mind half way through and would now like to go in another direction, that’s no problem either!”

    Image 28175
    Robots for loading and unloading the pallets were also part of the package.

    Sustainability: underestimated potential

    Thanks to this high degree of flexibility, digital direct printing is a particularly rewarding option when producing individualised or seasonal products. It can also be used to implement generously dimensioned artwork and ingenious surface details like grooved and relief structures. So it is the obvious choice for products that are meant to stand out on store shelves or radiate an air of exclusivity.

    Image 28176
    The elaborate artwork on the containers is a real attention-getter.

    Above and beyond that, the technology offers yet another advantage, to which far too little attention is paid in Jonas Vandecruys’ view: its ecological potential. “Compared to conventional labels, digital direct printing requires significantly less elaborate upstream production and logistics processes. All you need is ink, that is to say a liquid, which can be transported much more efficiently than paper, for example, and then you apply that ink to the bottle,” he explains. “We’re moving towards a world in which ‘waste by design’ is no longer acceptable. If this trend continues, then digital direct printing is the answer people have been waiting for. Simply use ink, bottle, magic – and you’ve got a beautiful product.”

    We’re moving towards a world in which ‘waste by design’ is no longer acceptable. If this trend continues, then digital direct printing is the answer people have been waiting for. Erwin HächlJonas VandecruysSite Manager

    Digital container printing – Here’s how it works:

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