In-mold labeling in injection molding applications, particularly packaging, is on a growth trajectory in North America that has some firms investing for the future.
While the process is mature in Europe, North America still is a nascent market. Some big applications include stadium cups, where lenticular labels help win a premium price.
Joe Hirtzer, president of Global Packaging International, a supplier of labels and labeling equipment in Palatine, Ill., said end users - think large consumer product groups like Procter & Gamble Co. - are driving demand.
One molder that Hirtzer declined to name now is looking at using IML on every project, Hirtzer said in a recent telephone interview.
``They're quite good now at IML, so they're promoting the heck out of it,'' he said. ``Years ago, you'd have to drag people to the table to get them to talk about it. The mind-set has changed.''
Hirtzer also knows two smaller, privately held injection molders that invested in the process without having a customer.
``They rolled the dice,'' he said. ``It's entrepreneurial thinking that really got the ball rolling.''
According to the In-Mold Decorating Association in Scottsdale, Ariz., injection in-mold labeling represents about 7 percent of the North American market. In-mold labeling for blow molding represents about 93 percent. In Europe, the ratio is reversed, where injection in-mold labeling makes up 97 percent of the market.
Ron Schultz, IMDA executive director, said injection molders in North America have been slow to adopt the technology because the necessary die-cutting precision is three times more stringent than for blow molding.
North American injection molders, for the most part, import those labels from other areas of the world, mainly Europe.
``U.S. printers don't have an incentive yet to go after injection in-mold labeling,'' he said.
At Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. in Bolton, Ontario, officials estimate more than 50 percent of in-mold labels are supplied from Europe. Jim Overbeeke, Husky's business manager for packaging, said the No. 1 cause for down time among its customers is label handling.
But North American companies are finding reasons to invest in the market.
Nicolas Bouveret, plant manager with North America IML Containers Inc. in St. Placide, Quebec, said quality has improved in North America.
``It seems that all the problems are more behind us. I think this year [they] will be solved 99 percent,'' he said.
Jordan Robertson, general sales manager for StackTeck Systems Inc. in Brampton, Ontario, estimates the growth for North American in-mold label packaging at 30-50 percent annually.
``Many of the systems that we are building today are for stack mold in-mold labeling,'' Robertson said. ``We are expanding our infrastructure. We're preparing to grow with it. We definitely are doing more in plastic part design and prototyping than we've ever done before.''
In-mold labeling in injection molding demands robotics with precision speed and movement. Schultz said part of the problem for adoption of IML in injection in North America is the lack of stack mold technology.
Among robotics firms, IML has been getting attention.
At Wittmann KunststoffgerÃ¤te GmbH in Vienna, Austria, officials have transformed the firm's French site into a technology center for IML. An open house there is set for April 24. Wittmann acquired mold maker Paul Regad SA in Saint-Claude, France, last year. It's now taking that technology and marrying it with Wittmann automation systems to offer the systems across the globe, General Manager Michael Wittmann said.
The company will show a high-speed two-cavity system for making IML containers with an overall cycle time of 2½ seconds at Chinaplas this May in Guangzhou, China.
At Netstal Machinery Inc. in Devon, Mass., President and General Manager Rick Shaffer sees IML in injection molding being pushed along by developments like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s packaging scorecard, where firms are rated in areas like cube utilization, transportation, product-to-package ratio and innovation. In addition, Shaffer sees IML being helped by overall sustainability initiatives, where, for example, a rectangular container allows a processor to maximize cavity count and improve overall cycle time. Also, the process allows for lightweighting of the package.
``For the United States, I would say we're at the onset of implementation of IML,'' Shaffer said. ``[The Wal-Mart scorecard has] reinforced our strategy that IML is the correct way to go.
``If you look at the cube density of a rectangular container as opposed to a round container, the difference is more than substantial,'' he said.
Shaffer points to one other resistance point, however, among end users. For example, the maker of Blue Bunny ice cream packages had to put in new filling lines because the change in the shape of the container pushes a change in the filling lines.
``The initial resistance would be, why should we spend money to change over a filling line?'' Shaffer said. Still, Shaffer said it's a common misconception that IML is too expensive.
``If they do this, of course there's going to be resistance if there's a huge cost premium. But what if there isn't?''
The IML injection process lends itself to new multifunction design, including tamper-evident designs, said Husky's Overbeeke. Those attributes are helping brand owners differentiate, go after certain niche markets and earn better margins.
Overbeeke estimates the North American market will see 25 percent growth, conservatively, in the volume of containers that use IML.
For Bouveret, the anticipated growth means his firm will double production capacity in Quebec in 2008, beginning construction in June on a new building. At its site in Le Mars, Iowa, officials recently added several machines. Growth in 2008 and 2009 is likely to mean a new facility in Iowa.
``We try to follow the demand,'' Bouveret said.
Airlite Plastics Co. in Omaha, Neb., is focused on reducing the cost of entry and lead time to market for its customers.
``We too are seeing a tremendous amount of interest for IML in North America,'' wrote Greg Sosso, Airlite director of product development, in an April 9 e-mail.
``We are responding by growing our capacity in IML injection molding to meet the demand and future growth we see with existing and new customers,'' Sosso said. ``Compared to standard round printed containers and lids, the cost of entry into IML requires a substantial financial commitment for tooling and robotics.''
Sosso said Airlite will expand at its location in Omaha, but he would not provide details. Airlite currently is launching two lines of stock IML containers and lids for food packaging.
Demand for the labels was at least enough to push Donald Caron to open IML Labels Ltd. recently in Saint-Eustache, Quebec.
At his newly built, 18,000-square-foot site, Caron has one offset printing press primed to go.
``Before the end of 2008, I plan to install another offset printing press,'' Caron said. ``Our goal is to do in-mold labels only, and we're very specialized to serve injection molders here in North America.''
Caron's activity is being pushed by at least two large customers that he declined to identify.