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    Digital print
    O-I and Dekron turn glass into a canvas
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    O-I and Dekron turn glass into a canvas

      Reinventing a traditional packaging material again and again: O-I performs this feat with impressive regularity. The latest creation of the world's biggest manufacturer of glass containers: the product line O-I : Expressions. “Our customers are launching new products and packaging variants at progressively shorter intervals,” explains Melianthe Leeman, Global Innovation Platform Leader at O-I. “The campaigns are getting shorter and shorter – and so is the life-cycle of our products. Then there’s the trend towards individualisation, which is perceptibly growing, and to which we have to respond appropriately.” 

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      When the innovation team at O-I had looked around for new decoration technologies, digital direct printing soon emerged as a promising candidate for meeting and mastering these challenges. Not least because it enables the bottles’ decoration to be changed at the touch of a button, so that even tiny batches can be cost-efficiently produced. “We looked at several alternatives, and then came to the conclusion that Till’s technology was the most promising option for printing on glass,” says Melianthe Leeman. That the company was quite soon afterwards incorporated into the Krones Group as a wholly owned subsidiary under the name of Dekron was confirmation enough for O-I that they had backed the right horse. “For us, that was ultimately the guarantee that the project will have a long-term future. Because instead of a start-up we now had a large corporation on our side,” explains Melianthe Leeman. “What’s more, of course, we had long since been familiar with Krones AG, and knew about its good reputation on the market.”

      Rigorously tested

      As the first step, O-I had a laboratory machine installed at Chazelles sur Lyon in France, where the company operates one of its three European decoration facilities. The spectrum of performative capabilities there ranges from developing the designs all the way through to actually producing them. For the latter, the facility already possessed screen-printing and sleeving systems. In order to find out whether direct printing could compete with these established processes and usefully complement them, the technology was first of all subjected to intensive testing. “Here it emerged that everything we’d been promised about this technology was actually true,” relates an enthusiastic Melianthe Leeman. “From the broad spectrum of colours and the wide choice of design options to the precisely defined quantity of ink applied to the bottle – everything was confirmed by practical testing.”

      It emerged that everything we’d been promised about this technology was actually true.

      Melianthe Leeman

      So the decision to take the next step was a concomitantly easy one. In order to transfer the findings from the laboratory tests to the production environment, O-I ordered a direct-printing machine from Dekron that covers a greater performative spectrum and has been designed to handle industrial-scale series production: the DecoType Compact. It was installed early in 2019 at Chazelles sur Lyon, while in parallel Dekron prepared a second machine of the same type for another O-I facility in California. In the French plant, the new machine started production straight away. “We had full confidence in the technology’s market potential,” says Melianthe Leeman. “Which is why instead of starting a development project we immediately began to work on projects for the market.” This was also because during the laboratory tests O-I had made an exciting discovery that even at an early stage elicited enormous interest from the customers.

      Designs to be felt

      One of the best-known advantages of digital decoration technology, for instance, is that it also enables the bottle’s raised structures to be selectively printed on. But the decoration experts at O-I went one step further: they wanted to not only use colour to accentuate bottle structures, but to actually create them from ink. By applying several layers of ink, they caused finely detailed reliefs to take shape on the smooth surface of the glass, which could be felt by running your fingers over them. Executed transparently, this technique even enables structures to be created that look deceptively similar to embossings – with the only difference being that they consist of ink rather than glass.

      Even the machinery development people at Krones and Dekron were astonished by the creative design options thus opened up. A story that impressively proves: sometimes you need the combined know-how of inventors and users so that a new technology can deploy its talents to the full. “We complemented each other to absolute perfection in this project – not only substantively, but also in terms of our approach and motivation,” reports Melianthe Leeman. “In an innovation project, it’s enormously important to ensure that everyone involved cultivates an optimistic and receptive mindset. Even if there were lots of questions to be answered and obstacles to overcome – we were always confident that we were going to get there and that our joint efforts would be crowned with success.”

      Personalisation for the smaller clients

      Bottles that look as if they were wearing colourful bracelets or were wrapped in filigree lace – what’s stacked on the pallets in O-I’s production hall resembles artworks made of glass rather than beverage packages. “That’s precisely what we tell our customers as well,” says Melianthe Leeman. “They can regard their bottles as blank canvases – and join with us in creating something entirely new from them.”

      Prominent among the first customers to take advantage of this option were producers of rosé wines. “Quite generally, we’ve noticed that our rosé-wine customers are very receptive to innovations when it comes to packaging. Which is why here, too, they ranked among the early adopters,” to quote Melianthe Leeman. “Meanwhile, however, the new decoration technology is also spreading to other segments, like the spirits and craft beer markets.” The incentives to adopt the new technology can be highly disparate. “Customers who produce relatively small batches and accordingly use stock items can now at last have their logo or other brand elements displayed on the glass,” explains Melianthe Leeman. “With the larger customers, by contrast, we work on time-limited marketing campaigns and initiatives with which they can launch a broader bandwidth and different functionalities on the market than they had previously been doing. In brief: on packages that catch the eye from the shelves and elicit an enthusiastic consumer response.”


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