Brewing in Belgium: KHS & Martens Brouwerij Ramp Up ‘Direct-to-Shape’ Printing

Bob Leahey
Aug 19, 2015

Color digital printing for packaging got a boost in Europe recently when a brewer long known for innovation, Martens Brouwerij (Belgium) publicized its use of a direct-to-shape print system to print PET bottles in full color, starting in June 2015. Called “Direct Print Powered by KHS™”, the system is engineered and built by KHS (Germany), a global supplier of filling and packaging solutions to the drinks industry, and commercialized by a wholly-owned KHS subsidiary, NMP Systems. The system, based on Xaar 1002 heads, uses low-migration inkjet inks from Agfa (Belgium) to print color images in CMYK +W in high resolution (1080 dpi, optical) at the rate of up to 12,000 bottles per hour. Images up to 70 mm (2.75”) are possible on bottles up to 120mm (4.75”) in diameter.

In effect, the new system offers late stage, full color decoration, at production level speeds, and thus big benefits in terms of timeliness and customization. Martens, which also has a brewery in China and partnerships internationally, has undertaken a project in its home country that embodies the real newness of what’s possible, through an intriguing use of augmented reality. To explain, each Martens beer bottle is printed with the image of one character from a popular Belgian TV show, F.C. Kampioenen. For a consumer with a smart phone, the bottles can connect to digital content, to promote an upcoming film based on the TV show: Scan the picture on a bottle and see the character talk to you on your smart phone; scan two bottles and see the two characters talk to each other; dozens of related video clips are available.


Direct-to-Shape Print Example from Martens

Besides use of direct-to-shape printing and augmented reality, there are other interesting aspects to this story. The ink set that KHS and Afga have created reportedly has cleared some key hurdles, working well in terms of abrasion resistance, light resistance, food safety, and de-inking. Meanwhile, beer in PET bottles, little known in most of the world, is growing in Europe. It is clearly helped there by environmentalism, since PET, which is lighter than glass, transports more easily; also, transport can be one way, since PET recycling is highly developed. Barrier technologies for PET like KHS Plasmax  coating are also key to launching beer in PET containers, and have been in place at Martens Brouwerij for years. Such coating technology helps by reducing the permeability of PET, thus giving beer in PET bottles a longer shelf life, through better retention of carbonation and lower levels of oxidation.

On the inks, NMP Systems, which leases the Direct Print technology  to Martens, notes that printed bottle images not only withstand the rigors of manufacturing but have also tested as enduring 80 weeks of supermarket lighting without degrading. After use, recycling of empty bottles printed by the system is certified by the European PET Bottle Platform (EPBP), the main industry association for Europe’s PET bottle industry, as fit for bottle-to-bottle recycling in markets where it does exceed 2% of the recycling stream.

"Direct Print Powered by KHS" Installation at Martens

Long in Development, More Coming

“Direct Print Powered by KHS” is the upshot of years of development work by KHS and its partners; the machine currently printing at Martens debuted at drinktec in 2013 under an earlier name, KHS Innoprint. NMP Systems notes that the next version of the Direct Print system, with more features and greater image flexibility, is slated to be installed and running at Martens in Q1 of 2016.

KHS and Martens are not alone in using digital printing to create a compelling labelling solution for the beverage industry. Europe, of course, was home to the world’s first really big “Share a Coke” campaign in 2013, using HP Indigo and flexo printing to label a billion bottles of Coke with the first names of millions of consumers. Germany, home of KHS, is also where Ball Packaging installed a CMYK inkjet engine from Tonejet (UK) in 2010 to print metal cans in CMYK. The Martens story, though, is a notable addition, for a few reasons:

  • It puts direct to shape printing into a top brewer’s production facility
  • It’s backed by a jumbo supplier of drinks automation and two key ones in digital print, Agfa and Xaar
  • It pushes bottle printing to truly late stage customization, a strategic goal of many brands.

We believe the Martens story from Q3 2015 is an important one for digital printing in packaging, and that related ones from KHS and others will follow. With that in mind, direct-to-shape print systems are now included as part InfoTrends’ annual forecast report on digital printing of packaging.


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