Crown Beverage Packaging North America’s new 14,000-sq.-ft. graphics design studio serves the entire U.S. and Canada, offering can design and consulting services and providing rapid proofs made on a digital system to preview art and produce printing plates for all U.S. and Canadian customers.
How fast is rapid? On a recent tour of the new facility, with a FE logo in hand, the staff took my picture, and within an hour or so, there it was: my mug-shot and the FE logo on a sampler can, rendered in perfect color fidelity from the digital can proofer. The same file could then be color separated into six plates, ready for printing large quantities. I don’t think that particular picture will appear on someone’s canning line any time soon, but it was proof of how fast this operation can deliver a proof on an actual aluminum can.
Situated on land once occupied by a chemical plant, the entire property where the studio is located has been named Ambler Yards and is being reworked to provide spaces for offices and light industry—such as the new graphics studio and a microbrewery located next door. The studio is located about six blocks from the Ambler rail station, which is about a half-hour’s train ride to center-city Philadelphia—with a center-city stop at Amtrak (30th Street) plus connections to all the terminals at Philadelphia Airport (PHL) via the airport line. Both the airport and R5 lines run every half-hour throughout the day, making airport connections easy and affordable.
If you’re driving to or from the airport, allow about 40 minutes if it’s not rush hour—otherwise take the train—because the drive could easily turn into one-and-a-half hours if there’s an accident (which happens often) or roadwork. The Crown facility is convenient by car, being about five minutes to the Route 309 expressway running north and south, and easily within 15 minutes to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Fort Washington (east-west), which connects to I-95 (from Maine to Florida) and New Jersey turnpike to New York City. At least five hotels are conveniently located within a 10-15 minute drive, and several restaurants and delis are equally convenient.
Crown Americas does beverage cans and closures…and lots of them. Craft brewers are discovering the advantages of cans over glass, says Paul Fennessy, director, graphics, Crown Beverage Packaging North America. Craft brewers such as Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Company, which was represented at our press briefing and is a customer of Crown, have found cans to be lighter in weight than glass bottles (a few grams compared to a 12-ounce empty bottle weighing in at about seven ounces. In fact, Yards is new to cans, having used them for about one year.
Using cans has some real advantages over glass bottles. For example, more cans on a pallet—more beer in the truck for the same load weight in glass translates to lower shipping and handling costs per unit. In addition, cans typically provide tighter seals than glass, and because they’re opaque, there is no light intrusion to degrade their contents.
Aluminum cans are totally recyclable, and the turnaround rate is reasonably short. Fennessy says Crown’s cycle rate for aluminum cans is 60 days from scrap to new cans. Cans are safer outside and inside the brewery. I remember once purchasing a case of 24 bottles of another brand from a local distributor, only to find three broken bottles, one overtly, and two others crumbled when using a standard bottle opener—with shards of glass falling into the bottle.
“Ripping off the top of the bottle is a glass inclusion risk to the consumer,” says Steve Welsh, plant and production manager for Yards. “From a safety perspective, for our operators, for our customers as well, glass is scary and we have to have things in place to protect [people].”
As the craft beer revolution has grown in the last decade, it has created the opportunity for smaller, higher quality canning machines, says Welsh. “For a brewer of our size, it was never possible ten years ago because the equipment was too big and too fast. Smaller equipment became available and the graphics benefit you get was something that really appealed to us.
“So when we moved into our new location, the number-one thing we wanted to do was to get into cans. We started production there in April of 2018, and we partnered with Crown about eight months to a year before that and started talking about what we needed to know about graphics—because we were used to normal printing, but obviously printing on aluminum was a big challenge.” Yards went through its initial launch in cans about a year ago, and it has proved successful.
How many cans is Yards using? “Last year, we probably did close to about one and a half million,” says Welsh. “This year, if I had to guess, I would say probably double that because we added two brands.” Because Yards is doing six-packs in bottles and 12-packs in cans, the brewer is able to get into more distributorships, and today many sports and concert venues prefer cans over bottles—because of disposal and safety concerns, adds Welsh. Yards now distributes in four states, brewing about 45,000 barrels per year.
Getting started with a project
So you’ve created artwork and collaterals in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. No doubt you’ve produced output for paper, e.g. using SWOP-coated paper definitions for an offset press. If you’re set up for 4-color separations for paper labels, boxes, etc., be aware that “translation” will be required to get your art on a can. And this is where Crown can help you get on cans quickly.
There are a couple of major differences in creating output files to be printed on a can, says Crown’s Fennessy. First, where paper can be white to the tune of 98% reflectance, the base level of aluminum is at least 10% or more “grayer.” This calls for specialized inks, and most presses or “decorators” run at least six inks, often adding, for example, orange and green to the mix. Decorators can run more than six plates to add special custom colors, masking or other effects.
Those familiar with standard offset web or sheet printing know that traps are used to cover areas where, for example, objects of different colors meet, a solid color is printed over a tint or where there may be the possibility of mis-registration. Thus, traps allow inks to merge slightly for better results on the press. Not so on a can. Objects of one color must “stay back” from objects of another color, i.e., they must remain apart optimally by a distance of five one-thousandths of an inch (0.005 inch), allowing the base aluminum to show through.
If you’re used to specifying a Pantone spot color, it probably doesn’t exist in the palette of inks for cans—although Inx (the major ink provider in the U.S.) now provides about 600 colors—many of which have been developed to mimic a Pantone color, but on aluminum, says Fennessy. Thanks to an Inx swatch book of colors on actual aluminum samples, Fennessy’s experts can help canners with choosing the right colors to get the label they want. Once a canner is familiar with the process and knows what to expect in the translation of colors, a special PDF proof may be all that’s necessary for approval of the next project.
And for troublesome color translation issues, an Inx-supplied canning ink specialist is on hand at the studio all week long to mix inks and create special custom colors or to solve other inking problems. He has a miniature press called a “Little Joe” to provide a sample before going out to the pilot press to run a larger number of samples.
Getting a proof while you wait
If you’re going to do cans for the first time, you need to pay the studio a visit. As said before, this operation is fast and efficient, and the staff has expertise for any can printing issues that may come up. The studio features a “Can Academy” that educates customers on the can-making process and where graphic design falls into the production cycle. With a wide array of design samples and applications on site, prospective can makers can get an up-close look at Crown’s innovations and take inspiration for their own packaging.
On your first visit, you’ll learn the ropes of printing on aluminum cans, and once you see all the myriad possibilities, you may even opt for a creation you hadn’t previously entertained or thought possible. Crown also provides templates on line to get you started.
Once your artwork has been converted to print on aluminum, the studio will run a test “print” on actual aluminum material with the digital printer—just as it did with my photo on the can. This step takes a few minutes, and the result is very, very close as what will be produced with the analog, multiple color offset decorator. When you want further “proof,” the studio will run some samples on the small analog pilot printer/decorator, having produced the plates right on premises.
In fact, as we said before, the studio burns plates for all the Crown equipment in the U.S. and Canada, including standard computer-to-plate (CTP) and high-quality printing (HQP)/direct laser engraving (DLE) plates. Standard outputs are at 4,000 dpi with an effective line screen of 85 lines/inch for standard cans with mostly type, and for photo work, 120 lines per inch. Fennessy says the plate department, which runs 24 hours, five days a week, is currently producing about 7500 plates per month.