When will the canmaking industry be able to embrace digital printing that matches current speeds in lithography? John Nutting talks to the general manager for printhead business at Xaar, a leading producer of inkjet print heads

Digital printing is increasingly being used for decorating metal packaging for special applications such as short-run promotional products, and for creating special three- dimensional effects.

The process offers mass customisation, with cost-effective production from a single item upwards, enabling brands to conduct new product trials cost- effectively. Production is easily tailored to meet consumer demand for more choice on retail shelves.

But while digital print has become firmly established in the paper and film packaging industries, canmakers are mostly still at the stage where they are exploring the potential of the technology.

While two-piece beverage cans are printed using conventional lithography at more than 2,000 per minute, the emerging providers of digital imaging are currently limited to about 250 per minute. Likewise in metal sheet lithography, 8,000 sheets per hour are the norm, whereas digital offers around 200.

The technology is rapidly advancing however, and at a pace that cannot be ignored by mainstream canmakers.