Engineers designing plastic parts enjoy plenty of alternatives when it comes to choosing colors and finishes for their products, but a new trade group believes there’s still a lot to be learned about one option: in-mold decorating.
The In-Mold Decorating Association (IMDA), started in 2006 and based in Scottsdale, AZ, intends to target designers with white papers, seminars and other information, says Executive Ronald Schultz, a long-time consultant to the flexible packaging industry. By considering in-mold decorating choices early in the design cycle, notes Schultz, engineers can save costs while enhancing the visual appeal of their products.
In a recent interview with Design News, Schultz answered questions about the goals of the new association and how it differs from similar groups, such as the Decorating & Assembly Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE).
Design News: Why the need for a new association to focus on in-mold decorating?
Schultz: I started the annual International In-Mold Labeling Conference back in 1992, and over the years I kept hearing attendees say that there was no trade group that was focusing on in-mold labeling and in-mold decorating on behalf of end users and manufacturers. This really came to a head in 2004, when we began to look around for a trade association that might be able to represent our interests. But the problem was that the existing groups tended to focus on narrow aspects of our technology, such as the Label Printing Industries of America, or the Society of Plastics Engineers. The solution was to do it the hard way and to start an association from scratch. And it fell to me to take the lead, based on my years of experience with the In-Mold Labeling (IML) Conference and with seminars conducted by my company, RBS Technologies, on such topics as the ABCs of IML.
Design News: So your association seeks to represent a wide audience?
Schultz: Yes. The value chain represented by this technology includes material suppliers, molders, printers, and manufacturers of a variety of machines, such as robots, injection-molding machines, die-cutting equipment and much more. Then, of course, there are the end users, such as the OEMs that make durable goods and the Procter and Gambles that manufacture packaged goods. All of these sectors have to work together very closely to have a successful in-mold decorating project. Otherwise, you risk a lot of finger pointing and failures.
What processes fall under in-mold labeling (IML)?
Schultz: In the in-mold labeling process, a label or appliqué is placed in the open mold and held in the desired position by vacuum ports, electrostatic attraction or other appropriate means. The mold closes and molten plastic resin is extruded or injected into the mold where it conforms to the shape of the object. The hot plastic envelopes the label, making it an integral part of the molded object. The difference between glue applied labels and in-mold labels is that a glue applied label is stuck "on" the surface of the plastic object The in-mold label is imbedded "in" the wall of the object, so it is much durable than pressure-sensitive or heat transfer labels. You also eliminate all the costs of post-mold equipment and labeling operations because the in-mold labeled product is ejected from the mold fully labeled.
Design News: And how about in-mold decorating?
Schultz: IML usually refers to blow-molded, injection-molded or thermoformed packaging. In contrast, the term IMD (in-molding decorating) usually refers to decoration of higher value on durable plastic products, such as children’s toys, sporting goods, automobile dash board bezels, and cell phone face plates. The list is almost endless. In-mold decorated durable goods can be injection molded, blow molded, or rotationally molded.
Design News: Can you give an example of an IMD process?
Schultz: One popular technique is foil in-mold decorating, a process by which a transfer or decal is imprinted onto a release line or carrier on a web. The web in turn passes through the mold and is indexed into the mold. The mold closes, and the plastic is injected into the mold and the image is picked off the carrier and transferred to the product. This option is not a good one for deep-drawn products or products that require complex steps. Another popular option, often used in the injection-molding of cell phone face plates, features a decorative mold insert. For example, this insert might consist of a second surface printed onto a Lexan film 10 to 20 millimeters thick. The insert is preformed and placed into the mold and married to the rest of the product.
Design News: What are some of the prime challenges facing your association?
Schultz: Manufacturers of plastic products that are long accustomed to pressure sensitive or other forms of post-mold decoration are either unaware of the benefits of IML/IMD or consider these processes to be too complicated and/or too expensive. One of the primary goals of IMDA is to help OEMs and marketers understand that in-mold decoration can produce a better product at lower costs.
Design News: What groups are you targeting for your educational message?
Schultz:We are working very hard to understand the application needs of end users. If you look at our website (www.imdassociation.com), you will see that we are trying to find ways to support for all the major players in the value chain. We have such aids as a “Getting Started Guide” and “Trouble Shooting Guide,” and we are hard at work on case studies. So we want to get into the nitty-gritty of the technology for engineers and suppliers.
Design News: Is there an education gap with design engineers when it comes to understanding in-mold decorating and labeling?
Schultz: Yes. There are simply so many choices out there when the engineer comes to the point of deciding how to decorate a product in such a way that it will enhance its value, while still keeping costs in line. If you choose the wrong decorating method, it can lead to early product failures in the field. As with all aspects of design, engineers need to think about the decorating options as early as possible in the design process. And one of our missions, through courses and seminars, will be to educate engineers on how to choose the right option for a given application.