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Picture This, July 2012 — Ink spot

 Ink spot

What’s used to decorate almost every drink can made in the U.S. comes from this Charlotte plant.

Once a day every day, what INX International Ink Co. makes in its Charlotte plant reaches everyone in the U.S. At least it works out that way on paper. Domestic consumers go through more than 100 billion aluminum cans a year — nearly one a day per person. Their colors come from this factory, the world’s largest producer of ink to decorate two-piece metal cans. Virtually all of it that is used in this country is made there.

But that doesn’t make its managers complacent. “We’re constantly looking at our processes and how to improve them,” says Al Baird, the plant’s general manager. “Even though we dominate the marketplace, there are no barriers to entry to making ink, so we could have competitors tomorrow.” Catching up would be a tall order: The plant ships about 50,000 pounds of ink a day.

It’s one of 30 plants INX International, the third-largest producer of all kinds of printing ink in North America, has in the U.S. and Canada and is part of Sakata INX Corp., whose annual sales exceed $1 billion. The Charlotte operation opened in 1976 as Acme Printing Ink Co., which the Osaka, Japan-based conglomerate bought in 1988. The plant, built in 2004, covers more than an acre. About 70 work there, with a similar number stationed at factories of customers, which include Bloomfield, Colo.-based Ball Corp., London-based Rexam PLC, St. Louis-based Metal Container Corp. and Henderson, Colo.-based Crown Container Inc. — intermediaries that make and print cans for a variety of beverages, from Minute Maid juices to scores of beer brands. “Our customers do the designs,” Baird says, “but our technical people help them make the ink work on their cans.”

Baird declines to discuss the plant’s sales figures or price of a pound of ink. Much of its process is proprietary, but the technology is basic. INX mixes color pigments, then does the blending that grade-school kids learn: yellow mixed with blue makes green, for example. Getting it right, though, is more complex. The makeup of Coca-Cola red, for instance, is nearly as guarded as the soft drink’s formula. The company also has a small-batch department that creates ink for independent bottlers, brewers and others that need only 200 to 1,000 pounds of ink at a time. Larger orders typically start at about 25,000 pounds.

The plant’s colors are in the eye of the beholder, Baird says, with a quality-control lab staffed by “guys with really good color eyes,” who match samples with customer specifications. Their judgment is backstopped by chromatic computers that compare test strips with orders, which aren’t always as elementary as Coors’ blue or Hawaiian Punch’s pineapple yellow. “We can do fluorescent inks, inks that make a can look wet or give it a textured surface.” It also makes temperature-sensitive inks that change color a degree at a time, signaling that the beverage inside is cold.

Despite its market share, Baird says his business has challenges. “We’re constantly looking at making ink better and more consistent and finding ways to control costs. We can’t just pass along price increases, so we’re constantly looking at our processes and how to improve them.” Because the last color INX wants to produce, at least on the books, is red.

— Edward Martin