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Santa Rosa firm adds robotic wine bottle screenprinter

As skies over the North Coast took on a Martian hue with smoke from wildfires believed enhanced by climate change, Robert Howerth is convinced his Santa Rosa-based business made the right choice in going with a more Earth-friendly bottle screenprinting process.

Bottleprint recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new automated system that boosts production by several times with a fraction of the carbon footprint of similar systems.

While Bottleprint has always focused on the wine industry, it also prints for the olive oil, gourmet food and cosmetics Industries. The distinctive look of potentially 360-degree designs and tactile feel of raised images on glass can make screenprinting — also known as silkscreening and applied color labeling — what many producers opt for to stand out on the store shelf, despite the higher cost than paper, clear or shrinkwrap labels.

The new equipment is part of a multi-year plan to significantly increase the scale of the jobs Bottleprint can take on and print cost-effectively with more types of containers such as aluminum cans and plastic containers, all while utilizing the same size crew as their current much slower system, according to Howerth. He’s projecting it will propel sales from the machines from about $1.5 million a year to past $20 million by year five and will pay for itself in 18 months.

The company’s previous screenprinter, still in operation, uses resin-based ink that’s hardened in a chamber at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Not automated, the throughput ranges from 10–25 bottles a minute, or an average of 28,000 per 40-hour workweek.

The new fully enclosed system uses photo-initiated inks that harden under high-intensity ultraviolet light in less than 1 second, as robotics position and print bottles at 60–80 a minute. Color-registration accuracy is said to be one-tenth of a millimeter. The computer numeric control, or CNC, robotics facilitates setup between jobs for the various shapes of bottles or containers used. Output is rated at about 165,000 units a week.

While the existing printer could handle aluminum cans that are becoming more popular among North Coast winemakers and craft brewers, the throughput wasn’t high enough to get print jobs to be cost effective with other direct-printing methods, Howerth said. As the new printer hits the output targets, it will be a contender for aluminum can jobs, not to mention plastic bottles that weren’t possible with a heat-cure system.

Regional cosmetics and other consumer products companies had expressed interest in screenprinted labels, but handling small containers manually proved challenging with the existing printer.

The company’s resin-based ink screen printer provided energy-use and space-needs savings over a common bottle screenprinting technology that uses ceramic-based ink and Lehr furnaces fired to over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to fix designs to the glass. And the firm’s new German KBA Kammann K15 UV printing system is set up to have less than 10% the carbon footprint of printers that call for a Lehr furnace, Howerth said.

“We invested in automation and a much more efficient curing system,” Howerth said. “I feel really strongly that we need to be more responsible in offering something much more sustainable.”

But Bottleprint’s investors needed a couple of years of convincing that it would be the better use of capital, given the price tag starting at $500,000 and running up to $2 million with other capabilities added. A key proof of concept involved Bottleprint’s screenprinting beer bottles with UV-cured ink with rented equipment, then the bottles were run through a 400-bottle-a-minute line at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado.

With the investors satisfied that the UV-cured printed surface would survive impacts on a winery line that typically runs at 120–200 bottles a minute, Bottleprint ordered the printer. It arrived shortly after the company relocated to its new 23,000-square-foot home at 256 Sutton Place, Suite 104, in June.

The new building is over five times bigger than the previous location nearly a mile away, and the facility has room for the previous screenprinter plus the K15 and three similar systems. Though founded in the early 1990s, the company remained small until it took its first big step six years ago in securing 4,300 square feet at 2985 Dutton Ave.

As business picks up from the wine industry and other industries that have secured orders, the plan is to order a second, more advanced, six- to eight-color UV printer within two years. Their original printer will also be retrofitted for UV ink curing, Howerth said.

In the May 1 lease deal for 256 Sutton at Industry West Commerce Center, Gil Saydah of Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc./Oncor International represented Bottleprint.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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