Metal machine

Back in 2017, Fujifilm showed off a new B1 sheetfed printer, the Acuity B1, which was developed by Inca Digital and is also sold as the Onset M. I’ve written previously about the potential for industrial printing of this press though surprisingly few companies have talked about actually using it. 

Marco Trotto Gatta, director of STA based in Turin, with the Acuity B1

The first company in the world to install one of these machines was Reflex Printed Plastics, based near Tunbridge Wells in the UK, which became the beta site back in 2017. As such, Reflex helped refine the design of the printer, including the installation of a camera system to enhance registration. The company produces a range of products including POS display materials, stickers and window films using wide format, litho and screen printing. Managing director Antony Jones commented: “We’ve been using a Fujifilm Acuity Select HS flatbed for five years and we’re very happy with it, but we wanted another option that could give us the same quality at greater speeds and with a format size that fitted more easily into our existing finishing systems.”

At the end of last year, 11FTC, a retail marketing solutions company based in the Phillipines, became the first Asian company to install an Acuity B1. The company, which is based in Quezon City, mainly produces sign and display products for a variety of clients including major retailers and global FMCG brands. But John Mandarang, CEO at 11FTC, says the company saw an opportunity to add production capacity to its factory and diversify its product offering into quality, short-run packaging. 

However, the Acuity B1’s real potential seems to lie in metal decoration as Jon Harper Smith, head of business strategy at Fujifilm Ink Solutions, suggested to me back in December 2017 when he talked about the potential for a hybrid ink that could produce a very thin ink film. Over the last 18 months we’ve seen a couple of companies take up this challenge. Thus, the Italian printer STA, which specialises in metal decoration printing, installed an Acuity B1 back in January 2019. This company, which is based near Turin in northern Italy, was set up in 1990 by its parent company Emmeti, which needed a lithographic metal decoration specialist to help with its main business manufacturing cap and wire cages for sparkling wine and Champagne bottles.

The Fujifilm Acuity B1, which is also sold as the Inca Digital Onset M.

Director Marco Trotto Gatta says the company had started experimenting with digital technologies ten years ago, adding: “There’s a steady trend in the market for shorter runs and more customisation and personalisation – so we’ve been looking at the best ways to develop as a business in order to meet that demand for a long time. Our first digital press had some clear limitations: it was extremely slow, very dependent on manual processes, and the quality wasn’t quite what we wanted. We were on the lookout for a high-quality digital press with offset-style and in-line architecture to make it easy to use.”

The company was already using Fujifilm’s plates and prepress and heard about the Acuity B1 from the technicians and salespeople visiting them. Gatta continues: “This was not a machine that had been designed specifically to print to metal – but we quickly became convinced that it had that potential. After running some tests and seeing the machine in action at Fujifilm’s facility in Broadstairs in the UK, and after comparing it with all the alternatives we could find, we concluded that it offered the best combination of quality, in-line architecture and automation to take our digital print production up a level.”

He acknowledges that there were teething problems but says the press is now producing between 100 and 120 sheets per hour and that has allowed the company to take on customised, high-value work. He adds: “For some of our smaller customers, who would previously have had to settle for single colour caps, it provides a huge opportunity to order custom designs. And for our bigger customers, where previously we had to charge them for a single, litho-printed sample, we can now cost-effectively produce multiple samples in varying designs and colours so that they can get a full appreciation of the possibilities.”

Just recently, Tinmasters, which specialises in printing to metal packaging, installed an Acuity B1 at its base in Caldicot, South Wales in the UK. Both companies have described this as more of a partnership than a straightforward installation, and the arrangement allows Fujifilm to use the printer for customer demonstrations and ongoing development work.

Richard O’Neill, CEO of Tinmasters, which specialises in printing to metal packaging.

Richard O’Neill, CEO of Tinmasters, explains “Inkjet is completely new to us, and what we’re learning very quickly from Fujifilm is that it has the potential to be much more than simply a cost-effective way to print short runs. It also offers huge advantages in achieving colour consistency across jobs and in experimenting with creative applications and special effects, such as using ink layering to get textured finishes – something only possible with UV inkjet technology. At the same time, Fujifilm is new to metal decoration, so given we’ve been printing on metal since 1909, there’s a lot of expertise we can offer to help them to adapt their inkjet solution to better meet the needs of the industry.”

O’ Neill says that with run lengths coming down it was inevitable that digital printing would have to play a part. He adds: “Already we can see value in the Acuity B1 for very short run work of less than 500 sheets, and for sampling, customisation and special effects. In the longer term though, as we work with Fujifilm to increase the speed and improve the handling for metal, I think we could see digital used to take on work in the 500 to 5,000 sheet range. So this for us really is a long term commitment, it’s not about the next year, or even the next few years, we’re thinking about the next decade and beyond. We think inkjet is going to be a big part of the future of metal dec, and by getting in early we want to help to shape what that future looks like, and become a real technology leader in the industry.”

Earlier this year, Fujifilm UK helped out William Say & Co, which is London’s last remaining independent canmaker, producing tins for food, polish, inks and so on. When one of its customers, Fortnum and Mason, asked it to produce a bespoke but very short run of ultra-high quality printed metal tins for a Christmas promotion of its luxury hot chocolate, the company looked for a digital solution to avoid the high set up costs of offset printing. 

These Fortnum and Mason chocolate tins were printed for William Say & Co on an Acuity B1.

Fortunately, the company, which was founded in 1930, is owned by P Wilkinson Containers Ltd, a family run business that dates back to 1857. While William Say & Co concentrates on metal cans, P Wilkinson mainly produces plastic pots, tubs, paint cans and so on for a range of businesses, including supplying cans and plastics tubs to Fujifilm for its inks for over 40 years. Fujifilm printed the high-quality, short run of metal sheets on the Acuity B1 printer at its Broadstairs demo facility.  

Stuart Wilkinson, marketing and sales director at William Say & Co, commented: “With this project, we’ve combined both heritage and innovation as these large promotional tins, which stand at 50cm tall, are the first in the UK to utilise Fujifilm’s breakthrough digital printing technology. And to be able to create these within such a short timeframe opens up a whole host of new creative possibilities for canmakers.” 

Kevin Jenner, Business Manager, Industrial at Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems, says: “There is in the industry, we believe, a tremendous latent demand for the short run work, creativity and customisation that inkjet allows, but in many cases neither the canmakers nor designers  know that those possibilities exist – so they’re not asking for them. When they do start asking – and they will – we’ll be ready, and together we look forward to shaping a future of possibilities even we haven’t dreamt of yet.” 

At the moment a lot of the focus on digital packaging printing is around printing to corrugated, with several solutions for printing to flexible films just starting to come to market. But very few vendors have considered printing direct to metal packaging though metal is used in quite a lot of packaging and offers very high recyclability. There are plenty of challenges to overcome, not least the need for very high image quality, compliance with food safety standards and a very thin film, but it’s inevitable that more vendors will follow now that Fujifilm has demonstrated there is a market for this type of printer.

You can find more details on the Acuity B1 from Fujifilm and the Onset M version from Inca Digital.

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