Can x Lab sleeving equipment
Evert van de Weg speaks to Willem Mus Junior, managing director of Mus Verpakkingen and co-founder of mobile beer canning company Can x Lab, tracking the discoveries that led to the foundation of the two entities, and the ideas driving them today
All images in this feature courtesy of Can x Lab
In the 1980s, I was working in the marketing department of the dominant Dutch can maker Thomassen & Drijver – Verblifa in Deventer, where my job involved promoting the sales of two-piece DWI beverage cans. As the beer market at the time was dominated by returnable bottles, large beer companies such as Heineken, Grolsch and Stella Artois, were not initially keen on using cans, but family-owned brewer Bavaria took a risk, and then the canned beer market started to develop gradually.
From a distance, I witnessed an unusual development in our sales department for general line cans. A colleague of mine, Willem Mus, had the opportunity, with the full support of Thomassen & Drijver – Verblifa, to set up a separate service centre for the supply of smaller quantities of special cans for the paint and mineral oil industry, often in combination with matching numbers of special plastic closures for these cans. The special service centre soon turned out to be a success and, in 1986, became the independent company Mus Verpakkingen.
The range of cans the company offered expanded over the years and sometimes this also included cans from competitors of Thomassen & Drijver – Verblifa, but this was all in good harmony. The company also started to supply food and aerosol cans to the cosmetic and food industry, always in the relatively smaller quantities that matched the needs of the customers. If customers needed cans with paper labels, printed with their brand identity, Mus Verpakkingen was able to do that for them.
Now, I am sitting in front of Willem Mus Junior, the son of my former colleague and now owner and managing director of the company. He says, “Our company has grown over the years into a modern and international company with a wide range of products and a growing number of regular customers, from Europe and beyond. Our formula, of being able to supply small order quantities of cans packed in the way the customer prefers, just simply works. The fact that we have expertise in the area of cans, can offer adequate storage and have short delivery times, makes us successful to this very day.”
The craft beer market is expanding rapidly
North America accounts for a significant share of the craft beer industry. There were close to 9,000 craft breweries there in 2020. Social media, local events and promotion are the key drivers of the craft beer market. Over the past five years, Europe has also shown rapid growth in craft breweries. Premium beers were already a big trend in Europe, and this has strongly supported the growth of the craft beer market.
Sleeved cans and the foundation of Can x Lab
In 2018, Willem Mus, together with his partner Arjen van Zurk, started laying the foundations for the company Can x Lab. “During a business trip in the USA in 2011, I saw how quickly the craft beer market was developing there. Born from fanatic beer lovers that wanted to add an authentic taste to their beers, this market quickly became a professional one, but the supply of cans to that market did not match the often quite limited needs of the craft brewers. I saw how certain parts of the production then were contracted out to companies like American Canning,” says Mus.
In the last 10 years or so, the craft beer market has also developed rapidly in Europe. In the Benelux countries, with its longstanding beer tradition, there was a similar development. Mus comments, “We saw this movement in the market happening and we got in contact with the management of the Ardagh plant in the Dutch city of Oss, which produces two-piece DWI on a large scale, to a significant extent for the Benelux beer market. We already had a good relationship with them. After open discussions, we decided to set up a project together with the goal of being able to offer a total can supply package that would match their specific needs, among those of other craft breweries.
“Key ingredients for such a tailor-made package could be lower pallets, one-way pallets, and a good return system, but in particular, the possibility to supply the cans with printed labels or even printed sleeves. As mentioned earlier, we already had wide experience in labelling cans for our customers. From our side, we offered to build up a line on which we would be able to apply sleeves for customers that required them, and Ardagh was happy to co-operate in that project. I dare say we picked up that challenge from the beginning, with the wish to do it on a high-quality level.”
To segment the new activities from the regular Mus Verpakkingen business, Willem Mus and Arjen van Zurk founded the new company Can x Lab, which officially became its own separate entity in March 2021. The search to develop an effective sleeving line was intense, as Can x Lab wanted to offer customers cans that were already sleeved before filling, which had rarely been found in the market previously.
Mus says, “We talked to many companies in Europe, producers of sleeving machines and suppliers of sleeves, did a lot of trials. With the support of Ardagh, we constructed a sleeving line that produces pre-sleeved cans featuring high-quality images and effects. We found that customers prefer sleeves instead of paper labels, as sleeves present a higher quality of image and are also quite flexible, for instance when special codes are required. We are now able to supply pre-sleeved cans in a new design, starting from a quantity of 2,500 cans. Moreover, we can supply, if required, a mobile canning service to fast-growing breweries looking for a way to package their beer without the capital expense of purchasing their own packaging line. We now have the equipment and expertise to do that professionally.”
Supplying digitally printed cans
Willem Mus and his colleagues followed the technological developments in the international can markets closely. They saw how digital printing had made powerful steps forward and decided that their company should be able to offer digital printing as a valuable alternative for labelling and sleeving.
“From the middle of next year we will have a printing centre here in our Deventer premises, in which one digital printing line will be running initially Our plan is to put more digital printing lines there as we believe firmly in this technology, particularly for beverage cans. Apart from the superior print quality, digital printing offers maximum flexibility when it comes to design changes and so on,” Mus elaborates.
The Can x Lab crew undertook significant development work to obtain a high printing quality for the cans. Mus concludes, “It took several trials to get a good printing quality in the neck area of the cans. The right positioning of the printing heads towards the rotating cans is vital and sometimes some residual lubricant particles on the cans can cause headaches. However, in close cooperation with Ardagh and the supplier of our digital printing machine – the German company Hinterkopf – we were able to overcome these problems. This project is important for Ardagh, and we have their full support. We expect that this venture not only has huge potential for Ardagh, but of course for ourselves as well. It is almost funny to see how our basic thinking, that we should be able to supply cans in smaller quantities to match the needs of fillers, is now being applied with the use of such technical tours de force! The circle is round…”
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