Expanding three-piece decorating demand

Five-colour FastreadyPro side profile CSi “Compact Servo Infeed” footprint, complete with Servo Sidelay registration system

David Hayes speaks to Crabtree Printers’ Alan Rutter on the company’s growing, post- Covid, three-piece can decorator and coating equipment export enquiries 


All images courtesy of Crabtree Printers


Crabtree Printers, British supplier of metal decorating and coating equipment to the can making industry, is reporting a strong increase in enquiries during the past 12 months for new three-piece can printing lines and replacement parts to upgrade existing printers as can manufacturers prepare for post- Covid market developments. 

Three-piece can supply chain difficulties prompted some Crabtree customers to order printing lines for newly planned plants during the pandemic, while other clients chose to overhaul their existing printing equipment to upgrade production performance and reduce operating costs. 

“During the past 12 months we have booked orders for new printers from customers in Europe, the Middle East, Australia and South America,” said Alan Rutter, Crabtree Printers’ senior director of sales and after-sales. 

“We will be shipping new printing machines to Asia and Africa before 2022 Financial Year end; it’s a very even geographical spread. 

“Right now, a lot of business seems to be brewing in South America, including one of our customers who is investing in can making worldwide. Elsewhere, we have quoted for several printer machines in Asia. We are currently shipping a four-colour UV printer to Indonesia with a free-standing coating line.” 

All new printer orders taken during the past year have been from customers expanding their production capacity. In the Middle East, customers are expanding decorative can and coffee can production, Rutter remarked, while in Australia a client is expanding infant formula can production. 

In South America, Crabtree customers are increasing their infant formula can and general can capacity, while in Africa, beverage bottle crown cap production is being expanded. 

A wide range of customers are investing in new printing equipment. “On the whole, ours is a 95 per cent repeat order business as can making is not a cheap enterprise for newcomers. From our perspective it’s mostly food can manufacturers that are expanding capacity,” Rutter commented. 

“It’s about 50:50 multinational versus independent can manufacturers; we also have a lot of clients upgrading their existing printers with retrofits. Some bigger companies are looking for satellite production at new manufacturing sites to spread risk. Also, people are responding to a lot of government incentives in various countries to attract manufacturing investment.” 

Five-colour FastreadyPro – HMI and
1 unit guard install, before commissioning, dismantling
and spraying

Based in Gateshead in northeast England, Crabtree Printers has designed and manufactured metal decorating and coating equipment for more than 50 years, supplying a growing worldwide customer base. 

In addition to assembling printing and coating machinery in its large workshop, Crabtree produces about 90 per cent of its parts and spares requirements on-site. 

“We spent a lot on buying components before Covid and it has put us in good stead for the orders we have taken,” Rutter said. “We have replenished our stocks, but it is taking time to get supplies, especially electrical components. 

“Supply chain issues have forced us to change our technical supply routes. We have become better at purchasing.” 

Crabtree’s most popular metal sheet printer is the FastreadyPro. Designed to handle metal sheets from a wide range of steel mills worldwide, it allows customers to increase the colour printing capability by adding extra modules after their initial machinery purchase. 

“Our FastreadyPro is our top-of-the-range machine which offers anywhere from one- to 12-colour printing. It’s a modular design that can be added to,” Rutter explained. “For customers wanting four- to eight-colour printing, for example, they can install a four-colour printer and run the tinplate sheets through twice: it’s that flexible. 

“In terms of material handling, our clients use all sorts of metal sheets on their machines, so we need to make sure our printers can cope with whatever material is prevalent in that particular market.” 

Crabtree continually fine tunes its printer capability and performance in response to changing market demands. “We have introduced more automation with the likes of auto-inspection systems that communicate back to the machine for adjustments, for quality control, to improve waste reduction and other performance matters,” Rutter said. 

“We also have been working on reducing the number of moving parts and the removal of mechanical assemblies to replace with servo systems. We want a machine that has always

been pretty easy to support – compared to its counterparts – to be even easier to support.” 

Recent rising energy costs are a major concern for the can making industry and an issue that Crabtree has been working on to help its customers. “A lot of our customers want LED systems to replace UV lamps. LED mercury lamps last for about 1,000 hours, although we have one customer who has a 70,000 hour working LED lamp,” Rutter said. 

“In fact, it’s not just the hours but also the power consumption of the different lamps that effects energy costs. Some of our new printers are dual-purpose UV and LED ready. We are waiting for the printing ink suppliers to catch up with this change.” 

Crabtree has made other energy efficiency gains too. “Along with LED initiatives, our servo infeed allows the FastreadyPro to use power intermittently, only when it’s required, as opposed to constant mechanical operation even when sheets aren’t passing, such as during set up or at other times,” Rutter noted. 

Meanwhile, Crabtree has recently completed development of a new entry level version of the Fastready printer following the company’s decision several years ago to discontinue production of its ageing Marquess printer, which the company continues to support and is still a popular second-hand printer in some emerging markets. 

“We are ready now with our entry level model as we want to cover as many customer demographics as possible,” Rutter explained. “We are moving from the Marquess printer as we stopped producing that machine several years ago. Now we have developed a new entry level model – the FastReady Entry Level to which customers can add colour modules and maybe CNC capability at a later stage. 

“We needed to fill the Marquess printer gap, so that as the customer grows the printing machine can grow with them; that’s why it is a modular design, so customers can add on as they grow in future.” 

“Customers also have the option of starting with a manual FastReady, if they wish. Currently we supply mostly highly automated multi-colour printing machines with one- to six-plus colour printer capability. 

“Our FastreadyPro solution is the best machine as it offers a good balance between automation and practicality.” 

Crabtree’s five-colour FastreadyPro WIP

Meanwhile, the impact of the pandemic on global supply chains and changes in packaging laws in South Asia are among several factors recently generating new enquiries about Crabtree printers. 

“There have been a lot of enquiries as of late, many are very speculative, and many seem new to this side of the business,” Rutter commented. “A lot of companies have ideas to get into the can making and filling business, including aerosol cans. 

“This could be a post-Covid development or a global supply chain reaction resulting from Covid supply chain problems, but actual printer orders so far from these enquiries have not shown an increase. 

“The majority of new enquiries are looking to have the whole can making process because of supply chain issues and prices.” 

Although several large filling companies for high volume products such as canned fruit and fish in Asia operate their own can making lines to control can supplies, most filling companies prefer to buy in their can suppliers. 

“We have had enquiries recently from people with no experience in cans regarding aerosol, high end fancy cans and infant formula cans,” Rutter said. “There’s been a lot of enquiries from India and Pakistan, partly due to plastics packaging being outlawed. 

“Filling companies buy billions of cans – it’s a high-volume business but involves a big cost to enter. People may not know printing and the whole can making process, so it’s rare for new people to come into this industry.” 

Five-colour FastreadyPro fully assembled and commissioned before dispatch

Given Crabtree printers’ reputation for reliability and performance, installing a second-hand Crabtree machine can be the preferred solution for companies not wanting to buy new equipment. “Once you buy one of our machines, we are with you for the life of the machine including second-hand machines, so when people look for a new printer, it may include one of our second-hand models,” Rutter said.

“We don’t discriminate, we’ll develop a solution for everyone and every budget, but ultimately over the years when a company makes machines that are bombproof, you get a lot of cheap second-hand lines in the market. We’ll support that; there’s a market for everything.” 

Crabtree offers customised solutions to solve customers’ specific issues. “To be honest, we take all comers – what I mean by that is a client will come to us with a problem, potentially unique to them and their particular set-up, and we’ll look to come up with a solution for them,” Rutter commented. 

“Some solutions are quite bespoke, be it camera systems looking under a sheet, or ejecting sheets or transporting sheets in a specific fashion. Each upgrade is taken on its own merit. At the moment, electrical upgrades are quite prevalent on aged older equipment. 

“Clients also are looking for ‘current,’ off-the-shelf running products, and increased functionality, changes to software and so on.” 

One trend that Crabtree has noticed recently is the growth of short orders that many customers now receive that have replaced the long print runs common in previous years. 

“In three-piece cans, a lot of our customers are getting small batch orders. Before it was, say, 10,000 sheets minimum order; now orders for 5,000 sheet batches are more common,” Rutter said. “Now some of them will take orders of 500 sheets or even down to 150 sheets in some cases. 

“The work is there but their can-filler customers do not want to hold large can stocks. No one has wanted to hold a big stock inventory during the Covid pandemic.” 

Meanwhile, Crabtree will continue to offer its personalised customer service in future to meet the wide range of client requirements the company serves. 

“Over the years, we’ve started to understand that not one hat fits all – that’s just the way it is,” Rutter remarked. “We need to cater for that. It’s not easy and requires a lot of communication with our clients and internally, but I like to think we cover the widest demographic this way. 

“We’re easy going, and incredibly approachable. We’ll look at every opportunity and try and work within everyone’s brief. 

“I, along with my team, believe that what we deliver now, it’s the best we ever have, and the best there is, and we’ll keep working to make it even better.” 

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