Canadian Plastics

In-mold labeling poised to rede corate North American market

Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," famed football coach Knute Rockne once said. To modify Rockne for the decorating industry, looks may not be everything but it's probably the most import...

February 1, 2007   By Mark Stephen, associate editor



Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” famed football coach Knute Rockne once said. To modify Rockne for the decorating industry, looks may not be everything but it’s probably the most important thing.

For this reason, in-mold labeling (IML) is poised to be one of the fastest growing decorating trends in the plastics packaging market. IML can create graphic qualities that are virtually unattainable with most traditional post-decorating methods. “IML is a strong value-added proposition, and has tremendous advantages over the traditional approach,” Jordan Robertson, general sales manager for StackTeck, a Brampton, Ont.-based moldmaker and turnkey IML system supplier, said.

PROS AND CONS

There are both aesthetic and production advantages to the IML process. Visually, IML can produce glossier, more diverse graphics than printing because photographs, illustrations, three-dimensional images, and in a new development, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, can be molded directly into the package.

On the production side, IML has several inherent benefits. One is that molding around a label encapsulates it, providing a smooth, seamless surface. And IML labels use a heat-activated adhesive that bonds more permanently, eliminating the peeling, curling and blistering that results when paper labels on shampoo bottles and other personal-care products are subject to heat and moisture exposure.

The IML process also enhances the barrier properties of containers, and easily accommodates five-sided shapes.

As an additional advantage, IML can reduce product weight by up to 15 per cent.

IML technology has been well established in Europe for over 20 years, and is currently used in an estimated 85 per cent of the continent’s food-packaging applications. Historically, however, IML has not been a popular choice for North American packaging decoration, in large part because of the unreliability of the process. “In the past, North American molders had multiple failures trying to implement IML technology due to poor label quality and limitations of the automation systems,” Joe Hirtzer, president of Palatine, Ill.-based consulting firm Global Packaging International, said.

Another drawback related to production volume, based on the lack of multi-cavitational technology necessary to make IML profitable in North America. “Entry into the European market may require 30 million units, while in North America it may take 90 million or more,” StackTeck’s Robertson said. “There was an enormous gap between the cavitation a molder could do with IML and without IML.”

Expense was a third issue, as IML systems typically cost up to 15 per cent more than conventional labeling systems, Robertson continued.

ATTRACTIVE DEVELOPMENTS

Recent developments in tooling and automation design, however, have resulted in growing acceptance of IML in North America, and the technology seems poised to finally make inroads into the thin-wall packaging and decorating markets.

The first development comes from the European and North American injection molding machine manufacturers, which are beginning to introduce new generation machines for the North American market with IML capabilities.

The second, and related, advance comes from the North American automation companies, which are gaining expertise in IML technology by partnering with established European IML automation suppliers. StackTeck, for example, recently joined forces with automation supplier Machines Pages, of Foncine Le Haut, France, in order to develop IML equipment for the domestic market. And auxiliary equipment supplier Wittmann Inc., based in North America in Torrington, Conn., recently expanded their IML business by acquiring Regad, a Saint-Claude, France-based toolmaker of thin-wall parts.

The result is a new generation of IML automation equipment designed to boost production levels and increase decorating options by offering multi-cavity and stack mold applications for thin-wall parts.

StackTeck, for example, offers two, three and four-level stack molds suitable for high production volumes of shallow parts, which can double, triple or quadruple the output previously offered by single face molds.

Equally important, the new robots that are being designed for multi-cavity IML applications are fast enough and efficient enough to match these output levels. For example, Wittman Inc. is offering a complete IML system for the production of four-cavity cups and lids. For manufacturing cups, the system uses a W727H horizontal side entry robot to achieve a total cycle time of less than five seconds.

And Beck Automation LLC, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., is manufacturing its own line of IML robots for use in injection molding machines that can accommodate lids (one to four cavities), cups (one to six cavities) and buckets (one to two cavities).

DELIVERING RESULTS

With the proper marriage of molding machine to multi-cavity and stack mold technology and automation, IML offers real cycle time benefits. For example, at the National Plastics Exhibition (NPE) held in Chicago, Ill., in June 2006, Bolton, Ont.-based Husky Injection Molding Systems ran its Hylectric 120 injection molding machine with an IML robot and two-cavity mold manufactured by French supplier SysTec Engineering, to produce a 125g container with five-sided labeling at less than 2.5 seconds. “This very fast cycle time could not be achieved without a highly integrated system of machine, mold and automation,” Bruce Catoen, Husky’s vice president of packaging, said.

And Wittmann Inc. has incorporated its IML system for the production of four-cavity lids with an overall cycle time of three seconds and a total parts removal and insertion time of 0.6 seconds. The application, which ran on an Arburg Inc. Allrounder 520A 1600-800 injection molding machine during a demonstration in August 2006, included a horizontally operating W627H side-entry robot. The finish parts were handed over to a modified series W721 robot that stacked the parts on an integrated conveyor belt.

THE ROAD AHEAD

As fast as the new generation of IML automation can be, manufacturers agree that the equipment must become even more so before the North American packagers and decorators will embrace IML. “IML automation systems for North America are going to have to get faster, and cavitation has to keep getting higher,” StackTeck’s Robertson said. “We still have to prove that the technology is reliable.”

Price remains an issue, as well, as IML generally is still more expensive than conventional label decorating systems. “Using IML today is not necessarily a cost saving; it’s at best an equivalent cost to a part that you mold and then print downstream,” Robertson continued.

In the end, the bad news is that penetration of IML into the North American injection molded labeling industry is currently only an estimated five per cent. This may also be the good news, however, since there remains that much more of the decorating market available if IML automation continues improving.


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