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Consumers are Thirsty for More: Trends in Plastic Drinkware Decorating

by John Hilgendorf, contributing writer

Plastics Decorating

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Photo courtesy of Churchill Container

A 2017 report from Future Market Insights places global sales of plastic disposable cups at more than 280 billion units by the end of 2026, and a 2015 study from The Freedonia Group anticipated an increase of 5.2 percent per year in global demand for disposable cups and lids to $30.2 billion in 2019. Demand is driven, in part, by quick service restaurants that are placing greater emphasis on premium coffee and smoothies and a growing market in the Asia Pacific region, but niche markets abound. These increased volumes offer an opportunity for plastics decorators, and equipment suppliers are bringing new offerings to the industry to help decorating companies meet consumer needs.

Drinkware popularity on the rise

Plastic cups offer advantages over glass: They are shatterproof – which is a big safety benefit – lightweight and recyclable. Many plastic materials are used in drinkware: HDPE, PP, PS, PET, PC and Acrylic. Adhesives for the inks vary just as much, numbering up to 30 different kinds. Stadium cups, sports cups, kitchen tumblers and restaurant cups account for the most used types of plastic cups, and stadium cups account for a huge uptick after major sporting events. The Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory in 2016 kept digital heat transfer label provider CDigital extremely busy.

The Yeti cup – and knock-off variations – is a vacuum-insulated, aluminum tumbler that has become very popular. It can keep drinks cold for a day. The demand for the Yeti-style cup has been awesome, and some retailers can’t keep them on the shelves, even though they can sell for as much as $40 each. The popularity of the Yeti cups has significantly contributed to the increased demand in the plastics decorating industry, as promotional cups are experiencing a resurgence as a customer giveaway.

According to a blog post from Erin Nadel of JNI, a promotional industry agency, “The fitness shaker bottle is a popular form of drinkware right now, and not just for fitness gurus. Men and women are using shaker bottles for their protein shakes both at the gym and in the office. However, don’t limit the bottle to just protein shakes. Any kind of drink can be mixed in them for on-the-go activities.”

“Branded plastic drinkware is experiencing amazing growth. Some of the most successful companies in the world have embraced premium plastic products to raise the level of their brands, and it’s rapidly becoming the new normal,” explained Erik Johnson, director of design and product development for Churchill Container, a Shawnee, Kansas, designer and producer of branded plastic container packaging.

Equipment changing to keep up with demand

Equipment for the decoration of drinkware varies depending on the type of decorating. Screen printing, heat transfer and digital inkjet printing are the most used technologies. Reduced set-up time, printing on all shapes, multicolor images and faster throughput are most in demand. Many shapes can be decorated: oval, square, round, conical and tapered, although hourglass shapes cannot be achieved. Machines have rotating index tables and as many as 24 stations. Programs are easily input and saved for later use. Indexing robots are employed to transfer the article during the decorating process. Cameras also can be installed to monitor the exact placement of the decoration on each cup.

The digital inkjet printer has grown into a popular choice among manufacturers. According to Paul Bolduc, president of KBA-Kammann USA, located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, “It is easy to use and offers higher resolution, faster changeover times and faster throughputs. Up to 6,000 pieces per hour are achievable (12,000 per hour for 2-up mode), although CMYK has some color limitations.” UV LED-curable inks for inkjet offer additional benefits, including scratch resistance and dishwasher-safe surfaces.

Kammann has introduced several machines recently, including the K20, which was developed for faster changeover times and is ideal for low-volume runs. The machine is offered with either one indexing robot or two.

Screen printing, an older technology, is now often employed in a high-tech, automated way. “It still holds advantages in making most colors available and can provide a thick ink for an enhanced Braille-like embossment, also called haptics” said Bolduc. Flame treating and applying an anti-static to the surface of the plastic cup are necessary steps for bonding the ink, since some plastics – like polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (HDPE) – have hydrolytic (waxy) surfaces that are difficult to bond to without prepping the surface.

A hybrid screen printing and digital inkjet machine now is offered by Kammann. “Most colors are possible, and square, oval and round shapes can be achieved,” explained Bolduc. The K1 Hybrid Digital Printing Machine can be used as a digital inkjet printer, a screen printer or a combination of both. “It is excellent for creating customer samples, too.”

OMSO Corporation also provides a hybrid process machine. The Servocup is a unique screen and flexo printing press that can print in up to seven colors, allowing sophisticated color separation. Touted as a revolution, OMSO engineers have overcome obstacles of print/dry and delivered a CMYK cup printing press that obtains photograph-like printing on thermoformed or injection molded plastic cups. OMSO targets the high-quality, photo-like cup decoration market segment.

Digital heat transfer is another decorating technology that offers multiple colors, with the added advantage of its high resolution. According to Eric Steinwachs, director of sales and marketing for CDigital in Baltimore, Maryland, “Digital heat transfer offers 1,200 dpi and a 266-line screen.” As a comparison, high-definition television has a resolution of 1,080 dpi and ultra-high resolution has 4,000 dpi.

CDigital provides the preprinted images used in digital heat transfer. The images are supplied in roll form, with multiple images per roll. A CMYK + W printed image is applied onto the carrier. An ink image is applied onto the roll carrier, and the image (toner) is later transferred onto the part, while the carrier is discarded as waste. Steinwachs said demand is strong: “We can receive up to 40 different artworks per order from our larger customers per day.”

Looking into the future

“Customers are demanding faster turnaround times. Some want same-day delivery, while manufacturers like BEL USA can promise two days,” according to Raj Singh, operations manager for the Medley, Florida, promotional products firm. Color complexity is high on consumer wish lists, and “rarely is there a circumstance that limits us,” said Singh.

Research and development investment for the drinkware industry also has been on the rise, accounting for improvements in both color technology and equipment. set-up and changeover time, throughput and automation are advancing at a fast pace.

With demand at an all-time high and the future demand projected at $30.2 billion, decorators of plastic drinkware will be kept on their toes.