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IML gaining ground

By Steve Katz, Editor | July 15, 2013

Nicolas Beck of Beck Automation discusses with L&NW the current and future potential of in-mold labeling.

An IML application for Pepsi cups.
In-mold labeling, or IML, is poised to gain market share around the world. While currently holding just 2% of the label market, the format for decorating plastic containers is getting the attention of brand owners. Three IML technologies are currently employed – injection molding, extrusion blow molding, and thermoforming. According to William Llewellyn, vice president and senior consultant for label market research firm AWA Alexander Watson Associates, globally, the most activity is in injection molding, with the Asia Pacific region growing fastest; and, he says, the market is forecast in the medium term at 2.2%.

Separating IML from competing label formats such as pressure sensitive and glue-applied, is the need for equipment specific to the IML process. As this equipment is often application-specific, IML machinery manufacturers are in a unique position, having their proverbial fingers on the pulse of the IML market.

L&NW recently caught up with Nicolas Beck, head of sales and marketing at Beck Automation, a Switzerland-based IML machinery manufacturer, to discuss trends, growth and success in the IML market. Here's what he had to say:

L&NW: Are you observing any particular growth trends in the IML market?

Beck: The last year showed us that IML is continuing to gain ground. We delivered to some 40 plants, which means we have now provided the market with around 550 IML automation machines, some of which have been in operation for over 15 years. Food continues to dominate with around 66% of all machines made last year. The remaining third were solutions for containers for paint and oils, technical parts and some growth in cosmetics.

L&NW: What factors do you attribute IML growth to?

Beck: Modern packaging has long overcome its role as a simple container and is now a media with significant means of communication itself. Various aspects can play a role here. For example, due to its photorealistic, high quality imaging, IML can really get a product noticed on the shelf. In the food sector, a fresh strawberry finely covered in water droplets implies freshness to the consumer. This can help it outperform rival products on the shelf competing for consumer attention. Another benefit is that IML offers a great deal of flexibility for new, additional or promotional packaging motifs and their variants. In the case of multi-color printing, this is harder to achieve and is not necessarily more cost-effective. These aren’t the only benefits, take paint tins with conventional labels or printing: producers are switching to plastic containers with IML. This is due not only to the benefits I mentioned but also the smaller environmental footprint created by IML packaging – it’s lighter and therefore requires less energy for transportation. A further example is the enhanced premium feel of thermoforming packaging in the food sector. By changing to injection-molded IML packaging, a company can make its products look higher quality.

L&NW: I understand that improvements have been made in materials used for IML converting, foil in particular. Can you confirm this?

Beck: There are indeed new foils. One of our partners, the Verstraete Printing Company in Maldegem, Belgium, is producing an increasing range of metallic-effect IML labels. Gold and silver currently tops the list of favorite colors. These UV-resistant metallic colors achieve the look and feel of rotogravure and flexographic printing. Here, Unilever was the pioneer for margarine tubs with metallic IML. IML has become an important option for packaging design, even in non-food applications like cosmetic packaging where there is a demand for very high quality gold and silver colors.

L&NW: How have the demands of your customers evolved over the years?

Beck: Today’s customers basically demand three things: First, improvements in cycle times with high numbers of cavities. Secondly, high levels of availability, and thirdly, excellent process quality and consistency.

L&NW: How do you meet the challenge of balancing high speed and high quality?

Beck: Our machines often operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – basically around the clock. So you really need a well thought out, proven design to cope with the mechanical demands involved. We use the most up-to-date technology for both the controls and drive units to ensure that all movements are executed quickly, dynamically and to a high degree of accuracy. One main factor is our tests and simulations work. A component for a machine is subjected to a very thorough series of tests before we give it the okay for one of our products. Especially in the case of increased mechanical loads, we make no compromises when it comes to durability. There have also been a number of developments in the area of remote diagnosis, to help our customers quickly and efficiently. Service is today indeed a very relevant factor when it comes to customer perception of our company.

L&NW: What efforts is Beck Automation making in the area of quality control?

Beck: Quality assurance is becoming increasingly important. Camera-based vision systems are becoming the dominant method of monitoring the flow of materials and parts. This trend took off in 2010 in high tech markets driven by short cycle times. Of course we should not forget the relatively high investment required. With very fast IML machines with 6 cavities, we need up to six cameras equipped with flash integrated into the automated production process. That’s a 10-15 % cost increase per machine. However the additional investment pays for itself very quickly if a manufacturer can monitor output this well. Long term, deployment of vision system monitoring is set to grow.

L&NW: How do the various global markets differ in regard to IML growth and development? Where are you seeing the most growth?

Beck: In the packaging industry markets are really very global indeed. However there are differences in terms of quality demands. IML packaging can be found in the premium segment. Alongside established markets such as Europe and the USA, Russia, Arab countries, South Africa, Iran and Brazil are catching up fast. Anywhere multinationals such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble or Nestlé penetrate markets, IML gains more prominence. In addition, markets with clean room and cosmetic applications look set for future growth. From a production perspective, IML opens up a real single-stage process to packaging, and visually, there are numerous options with attractive, metallic-looking foils plus innovative ways of depicting instructions for use, something very relevant in the area of medical applications. What I’m saying here refers to recent projects that we have completed. The latest example is the IML launch into the roll-on deodorant market.

L&NW: Looking ahead, what does the future hold for IML applications?

Beck: Well, I might not have a crystal ball but IML definitely has a bright future. IML excels with key benefits that reinforce the premium quality of a product. At the same time, global players ensure that this application is spreading throughout product categories. Totally new areas of application are also coming into force, such as technical products in the medical field and the cosmetics market.

For more on on-mold labeling technology, click here.