As the demand for beer grows, the industry has experienced phenomenal growth. According to the Brewers Association (, there were a total of 4,144 breweries of all types and sizes in 2015 an increase over 3,464 in 2014 and surpassing the historic high of 4,131 in 1873. The association also found that craft brewing added $55.7 billion to the US economy in 2014 including 424,000 jobs. (This accounting includes the impact of craft beer from brewery to wholesaler to retailer plus the totals from food and merchandise sold at brew pub restaurants.)

Aviator Brewing Company’s standard and seasonal craft beers have soared along with this increasing popularity of beer. When the company was founded in Fuquay Varina, NC in 2008, it brewed 600 gallons of beer in two dairy tanks in an airplane hangar. Since then the company has expanded its facilities, implemented state-of-the-art technology, and developed a broad product offering. During six years of operation, Aviator has produced 1.2 million cans (1,125,000 gallons) of beer.

Watch this short video of Axon’s EZ-100 shrink sleeve applicator in action at Aviator Brewing.

Today the company operates a 22,000-square-foot brewery, the Aviator SmokeHouse BBQ Restaurant and the Aviator Tap House, all located in Fuquay Varina. The company produces core brands, spring, summer, fall and winter seasonal beers, as well as 10 flavors of its Hangar Series that are brewed occasionally.

Making the move to cans

The number of craft breweries packaging beer in cans instead of bottles has more than doubled since 2012, reports the Beer Institute ( While the shelf life of bottled beer is two months because exposure to light compromises product quality, cans offer four to six months of shelf life because no light or air enters a sealed can. Additionally, glass bottles are heavier than cans and more costly to ship. Aluminum cans are almost universally recycled in the US, making them an environmentally friendly packaging option.

“Before we moved to cans our business was about 70 percent on-premise consumption in tap rooms and restaurants,” Aviator Brewing’s CFO Buddy Everhart reports. “As part of our business growth strategy we are targeting off-premise consumption so our products are available in grocery and convenience stores.”

Aviator Brewing’s core brand products are packaged in printed cans because the products are produced in volume. Since seasonal beers and limited runs are small quantities, printed cans are not an economical option for two reasons. First, manufacturers require a large minimum orders and second because the brewery does not have the space to store unused cans.

Increasing production flexibility

To accommodate the need for production flexibility for its seasonal and limited run craft beers, Aviator Brewing bought a used Axon (, powered by Pro Mach, EZ-100 Shrink Sleeve Applicator. The applicator enables the company to buy 12-ounce blank cans and apply shrink sleeve labels to the desired quantities of each type of beer.

“Last year we ran 60,000 labels for 18 SKUs,” Everhart explains. “This year we expect to run about 180,000 labels for our seasonal Pumpkinbeast beer alone. Since our other seasonal beers, including Saison De Aviator, Double Ugly Rye Pale Ale, Oktoberbeast and Frostnipper are also gaining in popularity, we anticipate a significant increase in the total number of labels.”

The company uses PVC shrink sleeve labels because they provide a vibrant look to the labels’ unique, bold 360-degree graphics. Unlike adhesive labels, the moisture-rich brewery environment does not adversely affect them so they retain their vivid colors.

The EZ-100 Shrink Sleeve Applicator’s electro-pneumatic film control system enables quick and easy changeover to different container sizes without expensive or time consuming tooling changes. Although Aviator usually uses 12-ounce cans, when a customer wanted a short run of 16-ounce cans, line personnel were able to make adjustments to the machine in about 30 minutes.

A look at the canning lines

A feeding mechanism supplies the cans to a conveyor that delivers them to the Axon EZ-100 Shrink Sleeve Label Applicator. There the labels are applied at a rate of between 40 to 45 cans per minute. With its stepper drive film feed system and guillotine knife system, the Axon machine provides precise and repeatable film cut lengths, ensuring that the label shrinks within the specifications. Aviator Brewing worked with Image Press, who supplied the high quality labels that met its stringent specifications.

After the labels have been applied, the cans travel through an electric heat tunnel where the PVC labels shrink to the outside dimensions of the can. At the end of the tunnel they arrive at an off-feed table where operators stack and layer cans. Once five rows are filled, the cans are moved to a Cask Brewing Systems ( automated canning line. The first stop at the Cask line is the automatic depalletizer. The depalletizer feeds the cans through a twist rinse operation to ensure the cans are clean. They then go into the purge station where carbon dioxide is injected to remove air. Next the cans move to the automated filler. A lid is then dropped on the cans and they go to a seaming table where they are automatically seamed and sealed. Once sealed, the cans are conveyed to a six-pack applicator. The six-packs come off the line and are placed in a cardboard tray in case quantities of 24 six-packs.

“Axon’s EZ-100 gives us the flexibility we need to label our seasonal and limited run craft beers economically. It has given us a cost effective way to produce smaller quantities of our products until market demand reaches a volume where it becomes feasible to use printed cans. And, the incredible, vibrant graphics of these labels makes our products stand out. It is a great solution for a craft beer organization looking to expand,” says Everhart.

To see a video of this technology in action, go to