ORLANDO, FLA. — KHS GmbH has been pouring a lot of time into solving issues related to direct printing on PET bottles, and after eight years of work, everyone involved in the effort soon could be toasting to their success.
The German company with roots going back 145 years to filtration devices for bottled beer has a business unit called NMP Systems GmbH that has been working on go-to-market strategies for direct-print labels as well as a new adhesive system to bond multi-packs of containers.
Major strides have been made in both areas, Phil Johnson, managing director of NMP Systems, said at NPE 2015.
Most recently, an industrial prototype to replace roll-fed film and paper labeling machines with digital inkjet technology was installed at an unnamed facility a few weeks ago.
“We do have a first market application coming. It's PET, its beverage and it's in western Europe,” Johnson said. “We'll be talking more about it in a few months.”
Looking back, he said a couple big hurdles were cleared to get to this point. Not only did KHS develop a machine for direct printing on bottles, the company had to come up with a low-migration ink for food safety. In addition, the ink couldn't bleed or discolor the PET during the recycling process, which would diminish its value.
“The challenge is that PET is porous and you have to be sure the ink will not migrate through the PET into the bottle,” Johnson said. “That's a major part of the ink development.”
How did KHS solve that?
“With a good partner,” Johnson said. “Inside of these inks you have monomers that are photo activated in the curing process and our ink partner has specifically designed the monomers to polymerize. Polymerization is what keeps the monomer from coming through the PET bottle. Our polymerization is about 99 percent compared to only 70 percent for the usual digital ink.”
The partner's ink innovation also has met the certification requirement for bottle-to-bottle recycling in Europe because the hardened inks can be removed from PET flake.
“That's the other critical element,” Johnson said. “The ink has been designed so it doesn't impede the recycling process.”
The period of research and development was lengthy by some standards.
“We've been working on it for eight years to make sure it fits our market and our customers' desires,” Johnson said.
But later this year, he expects the process of decorating bottles to take a big leap forward in terms of reduced time, design flexibility, color brilliance, individualizing small-batch runs, and marketing.
With offset printing on paper or film, label rolls are shipped to the bottler and stuck onto containers by a roller or glued with nozzles. KHS says a minimum purchase of 100,000 labels is typically required to make it economical and the time to market is 12-14 weeks.
However, with its inkjet process, KHS says images are transferred directly from a computer to a control unit that uses print heads to apply the label onto the bottle. Small runs won't be cost prohibitive and in extreme cases the time to market can be cut back to a few hours.
That means shortly after the clock buzzes to signal the end of a basketball game, PET bottles with a photo of the winning team and the score could be on their way to store shelves. A sponsor could congratulate a team through a bottle label. Charity campaigns could be promoted. Or, a company could personalize bottles with employee names for a corporate event.
“The magic of digital printing is being able to change decorations very, very quickly and having a wide variety of decorations,” Johnson said. “Today, if you look at people in the packaging business, generally they are preparing the Easter promotion at Christmas time. With digital, the Sweet 16 basketball bracket could close on a Sunday and within a short period of time, bottles could be printed, filled and into the market with the final teams within days. That's the digital agility and that's the leverage people are looking for – customer engagement.”
A growing part of the consumer market, particularly millenials and the young consumers behind them who still need a label — Generation Z, Gen Net and Digital Natives are in the running — seems to care more about how a product engages them than they do brand loyalty.
“They are looking for experience,” Johnson said.
The sustainability of less packaging also is important to them, businesses and environmentalists. Direct printing will replace untold millions of shrink sleeves and label materials considering KHS's machine developed for the process — called Innoprint — has an output of 36,000 PET bottles per hour.