East Coast Canning is investing in ‘Australia-first’ direct-to-can digital printing capabilities following a major grant.
It was announced last week that East Coast was one of a number of brewing industry recipients of a Manufacturing Modernisation Fund grant, that will see the government offer the company $1 million funding towards the $5.8 million project.
The funding will allow East Coast to invest in ‘direct-to-shape’ digital printing equipment allowing the company to print directly onto aluminium cans, with ancillary printing management, customer ordering and ecommerce platforms to support it.
“There’s been digital print tech around for some time for beverage cans in various forms and vendors,” explained East Coast founder and general manager Chris Kelly.
“We’ve watched it for years and know it’s the future and the direction we wanted to take, so that’s what we’re doing, offering an alternative to labels or shrink sleeves as a way to decorate cans.”
As part of the project, East Coast will be procuring digital printing machinery.
“It will allow us to print direct to the can with a water-based ink and apply standard can over varnish. It is a true direct-to-the-can digital print so no plates, no rubbish or setup and not a drop of ink and zero cans are wasted, and it enhances the recyclability of the can too,” explained Kelly.
While the ongoing debate over cans versus bottles has leant solidly in the direction of cans in recent years, even within that category there are differences in sustainability and recyclability which East Coast Canning hopes to address.
“Labels are recyclable to a point in that they are incinerated at point of recycling, but this can cause significant issues in recyclability of cans and labels. PET labels can also cause fires and some plants overseas are beginning to divert them away to landfill,” explained Kelly.
The relative merits of shrink sleeve labels have been a point of discussion in the plastics industry for years, but globally there have been moves away from the use of plastic labelling, according to Kelly.
“So it’s that energy and resource in creating that raw plastic [that we will avoid]. We’ve always talked about how we want to be good for drinks and now we want to be good for the planet too, that’s been a drive from us.
“This project will allow us to remove 20 tonnes of plastic from our own usage per annum and we hope to prevent hundreds of tonnes of plastic from being incinerated.
“It’s a bit of a hope and a goal and purpose for us.”
East Coast is pinning down a vendor for its new gear in the coming weeks. It is looking at manufacturers in the US and Germany with the hopes of having the equipment installed and operational by the first quarter of 2022.
“We’re looking at two primary vendors, but the machinery is still a little bit ‘remains to be seen’.
“But the beauty of this gear is that there’s no chemical washing, no waste stream, it’s a nice sustainable can prep process. Cans go through hyper-accurate system and servomotors which are highly indexed and in tune with one another to spin the can around and print onto and then over varnish is applied, with either heat or UV light.
“That’s where vendors start to separate in that technical detail, but that’s the nuts and bolts of how it works.”
The technology will allow to print cans to the neck of the seam, and also provide a flat cost structure, suggested Kelly.
“It will be the same for one can or 100, so a much cheaper alternative to labels and shrink sleeves in just about any quantity.
“And it will mean we’ll have some extra capabilities and outputs – we’ll be able to put out 5,000 to 6,000 cans an hour pretty comfortably.”
Part of the project is the online ordering system, but Kelly explained that brewers will still have control over their designs.
“We still want everyone to retain their own sense of identity, we thought about having designer in house or team outsourced a lot, even with current process, but we feel the spread of aesthetic you get is as a result of spread of designers working on the product.
“What we will do is have someone in-house, that knows about digital printing and has a good handle on how to get the most out of your cans, there will be a level of advice, but we want to retain that individuality.”
Nuts and bolts
While many breweries of all sizes brought East Coast in last year during COVID which saw a boom in demand for packaged beer and therefore canning, this year has returned to more ‘normal’ levels of demand, according to Kelly.
“In terms of long term ongoing demand, there are more pack lines being bought recently for sure, with some grant money being spent on pack lines in WA and everything.
“But the mobile canning business model still makes sense. To anyone with a brewpub model for example, mobile canning model is key. That brewery model is not going away and demand will remain and grow.
“The industry can support this investment – two years ago that wasn’t the case, and it wasn’t as obvious that this machinery was going to be a winner.”
Part of the project was gaining the MMF grant funding, without which the project would not have been able to go ahead, but this meant that East Coast had to have solid market research and use case for the grant.
“The risk was too big without it, the money wasn’t there without the grant. This isn’t just lip service, you have to really demonstrate evidence that this project wouldn’t go ahead without the grant.”
East Coast brought in a qualified grants writer to help with the process, a move which Kelly said was a lifesaver.
“I did some shopping around when I knew this grant was coming up as we’ve been working towards it for two years basically and there are lots of different ways to approach it.
“It’s challenging, so I don’t know what I’d do without this guy!”
As a result of the grant, up to seven jobs will be created, and there will be more in the coming years to help with logistics and expanding filling capabilities.
“We’re excited – we’re in a small regional town so we’re glad it stacks up from a logistics perspective and we can create jobs in our community. So that’s something we’re pretty pumped about, and the way we are run, we have multiple communities all over the place, with teams in Sydney and Melbourne and the potential to create more jobs there as well.”
Kelly suggested that following the investment, East Coast will be a huge player in the canning and can-decorating market.
“I’d hazard a guess we’d be the biggest third-party decorator in Australia, and outside the two big can makers we will decorate and sell the most cans.
“We’re trying to create a bit more of a one stop shop and be more competitive in mobile canning and we see a future in that.”
Find out more about East Coast Canning on the Beer is a Conversation podcast.