About a hundred label converters, equipment manufacturers, and injection and blow molders met in October in Scottsdale, AZ, for the 12th annual IMLCON, the In-Mold Label Conference sponsored by RBS Technologies and AWA Alexander Watson Associates. At this year’s event, a significant portion of the three-day program was devoted to education about the injection molding process, which is popular in Europe but just beginning to grow in North America, where blow molding is dominant.
According to Ron Schultz, president of RBS Technologies, the in-mold label business in North America reached $135 million in sales in 2003. In Europe, where 95 percent of the market is injection molded, sales were $115 million last year.
An overview of the in-mold label (IML) process and its place in the marketplace was presented by Paul Gelardi of E-Media at the start of the conference. IML, he said, utilizes multiple print technologies, is suitable both for high volume and short-run production, and typically allows for a larger graphic area than direct printing or heat transfer. The process further allows for 3D graphics, metallic finishes, non-traditional forms, and (for injection molded products) five-sided coverage of the molded containers.
IML, said Gelardi, was pioneered in Europe in the 1970s, after which it was adopted in the US with the blow molding process. One of the barriers to adoption of injection molding in North America, he added, has been that the market “is more concentrated, competitive and demanding; and there was a historic lack of fast and reliable IML automation for high cavitation applications.” Cavitation refers to the number of molding cavities employed during production of a labeled container.
The current growth of IML, he said, is due to “recent availability of fast and reliable IML automation for high cavitation applications, and international customers requiring IML products in all of their major markets.”
The in-mold label process differs from the pressure sensitive labeling process in several ways. First, the labels are unsupported by release liners. After printing they are diecut using one of several methods and stacked into magazines, from which they are plucked one by one and placed in position inside the mold. When the mold is closed, plastic is either blown or injected to form the container, of which the label is now a permanent part.
The process, therefore, requires a printer, a molder, and a molding equipment manufacturer to complete the container manufacturing process. Printers of in-mold labels work closely with the molders — who most often are the companies that make the sale to the product marketer — and the equipment companies involved.
Technology, processing & materials
The first day’s session also featured a presentation on injection molding techniques for IML by Michael Sansoucy of Netstal Machinery, and a talk on robotics solutions for multi-cavity injection IML by John Westbeld, of SAS Automation.
Scott Shelton, of Simco Industrial Static Control, presented a talk on controlling and using static electricity in IML. High cavitation IML systems for high volume applications was discussed by Jordan Robertson of StackTeck Systems. Norton Kaplan, of Automated Assemblies, spoke on robotics in the in-mold decorating work cell.
IML materials and developments were addressed by several speakers, including William Llewellyn of AWA Alexander Watson Associates. He explained developments in RFID technologies, a subject attracting significant attention in other labeling areas, but pointed out that IML has some issues to overcome with the process. Of particular note are the difficulty of making tag placement covert, constraints caused by container and tag geometry, container wall thickness, placement accuracy, and heat issues. Moreover, because static electricity is utilized in the injection molding process, metals cannot be used, and RFID transponders feature either metal antennae or conductive inks.
Speakers also addressed IML substrates (Paul Mitcham of Yupo and Jon Knight of Treophan).
The second day of the conference focused on printing and converting, and featured such topics as diecutting (Harry Cowie of Renaissance Mark), print method economics (Andy Walker of NorthStar Print Group), and new press technology (Kilian Renschler of Heidelberg). Prepress was another topic, explored by Greg Burns of Schawk. Ott Jensen, of JW Fergusson & Sons presented a talk on print methods and quality issues.
In a presentation about the North American IML market, Joe Hirtzer of Global Packaging International said that the progress of IML in North America has been slower than anticipated for many reasons, among them failures of companies, lack of leadership, and perception of a weak supply chain. In addition, many large IML projects are confidential, which curtails the exchange of information. Still, he predicts growth in the next five years as the economy improves and brand owners utilize the technology to increase market share.
IMLCON also featured a variety of workshops that kept attendees involved in open discussions. The topics included label quality, substrates, printing and converting, injection IML, end user needs, pressure sensitive vs. IML, blow molding, and understanding IML.
The conference drew 94 industry professionals to the Marriott Camelback resort, most from North America but several from other countries, including