By Eric Peterson | Feb 14, 2022
Digitally printed aluminim cans
The business plan for CANIMAL (formerly Contour Printworks) has evolved in the five years since Feaver launched the company.
"We started out as a supplier of digitally printed cans," he says. "The idea is we buy truckloads of cans . . . typically 200,000 roughly per truckload. We take those unprinted cans -- they're what you call brite cans -- and we developed a whole process to print digitally on them and then sell them in smaller volumes to companies that didn't have the room or the budget to buy a million cans."
The operation uses commercial printers designed to print on Thermoses or water bottles that the company modifies to print on aluminum cans. "The original plan was we were going to get these printers and we were going to be the first ones to market -- which we actually were -- and market the cans as better than the options that were out there," says Feaver.
"What we found is that any kind of beverage can that you get, whether it's a printed can or not, it has a clear varnish over the top of the ink. That protects the ink and it also has lubricants in it that make it very easy to slide through processing equipment without hanging up. That's great for those purposes, but it's not a good solution for digital printing on, or any kind of printing, because the ink doesn't stick."
The company developed can-processing equipment and a water-based varnish to solve that problem and make food-safe cans. The end result? "We end up with nice-looking cans in smaller quantities."
But the supply chain was hit first by a can shortage fueled by taproom closures during the pandemic, then by Ball Corporation raising their minimum order.
Feaver saw a solution in the estimated 3 billion surplus printed cans in warehouses worldwide that are usually recycled without ever being filled, typically the result of canceled orders, overruns, or flawed printing.
"A couple of years ago, we started playing around with the concept of overcoating an existing beverage can," says Feaver. "If you had a can that was already printed that you couldn't use, could we run it through our digital printers and overcoat them and come up with a new can?"
The company filed for patents before the can shortage hit in 2020 and Ball's policy change stymied its supply of brite cans; the operation now only source cans through distributors.
"We were looking at other alternatives, and we realized we had developed the process and equipment to apply this clear over-varnish to our printed cans," says Feaver. "We realized that was a much faster, much faster process for putting an opaque varnish [that would] cover up the cans instead. So we started working with various varnish suppliers, and we eventually developed a metallic varnish and the whole process that we could use to overcoat these cans and turn them into what we call ZombieCans. We're bringing dead cans back to life and giving them new life as a brite can, basically."
The comany buys unused orphan cans and processes them into blanks. "Right now, we're selling them for the same price you would pay for a brite can," says Feaver. "It's a pretty big deal because the sustainability of it is enormous."
The company continues to offer standard digital printing to customers with no minimum order -- the company has printed one-offs -- and handled one order of 100,000 cans. Customers include small craft brewers as well as regionals like Upslope Brewing Company and Oskar Blues Brewery.
"Our sweet spot is somewhere around 4,000 to 8,000 cans, which is half a pallet to a pallet," says Feaver. "We've worked with a lot of craft brewers and other beverage companies that really like what we're doing and we have lots of repeat orders."
With a capacity to coat about 1 million ZombieCans per month as of February 2022, the company will likely triple its 9,000 square feet in Longmont by the end of the year, and that's just the start of the company's expansion strategy.
"The plan calls for two or three new facilities by the end of next year," says Feaver, citing a goal to print 5 million cans by early 2023 and 100 million cans per month by 2025.
Challenges: Hiring is a big one. "That is a concern," says Feaver. "To get the numbers we're talking about, we're looking at probably doing three shifts initially."
Awareness is another. "Currently, we're working to get the word out and product out in the marketplace," says Feaver. "Ultimately, we think it's going to be a premium can -- and people will pay for it."
Opportunities: Feaver sees a path to exponential growth as the company scales up production with ZombieCans. "Getting the cans is not a problem at all," he says. "We've had people come out of the woodwork that hear that we're buying cans. It's a great option for them because in many places they don't have recycling capabilities. In some cases, they're just hauling them off to the dump."
He adds, "We expect to sign an agreement soon where we'll basically have an agreement to get all the cans we need -- for the next year or two, anyway."
On the demand side, Feaver sees needs from beverage manufacturers of all sizes for shipments that are less than Ball's new minimum of 1 million pre-printed cans. And it's not just breweries: "A big percentage of what we're doing -- probably 50 percent right now -- is other types of beverages, so ready-to-drink cocktails and hard seltzers and energy drinks and CBD products and all kinds of stuff."
Needs: Capital, beyond a $250,000 grant won from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade in 2021. "Getting funding in place to scale up all of the equipment, that's what I've been putting a lot of my time into doing here lately," says Feaver. "We've got about a $500,000 round that's been mostly raised already, and we're looking for just a few more investments to top that off." He hopes to close on a larger round by the middle of 2022.