Hamilton, Ohio — After four years of secrecy, Procter & Gamble Co. is pulling back the veil on its Imflux process — an injection molding technology that uses low, constant pressure to fill the mold, controlled by software and pressure sensors in the mold and the nozzle.
"It's a low, no-hesitating, constant pressure," said Gene Altonen, chief technology officer of Imflux.
Altonen, a 27-year veteran of P&G and an injection molding expert, said: "Imflux is making real-time adjustments for viscosity shifts, whether it's the material, the temperature or something in the mold. It is going to make these changes in real time, which gives you a more stable process."
Imflux stands standard injection molding on its head — with its tradition of high-speed, high-pressure injection and the crossover point to pack-and-hold.
"We do these phases of the process simultaneously. We're filling and we're packing and we're cooling all simultaneously. And because we're doing that, when we finish filling the mold, it's basically a done part," Altonen said. A thicker part may need some additional cooling, but that is dramatically reduced, he said.
"You're not putting the shear and the heat in," Altonen said. Compared to traditional injection molding, he said, Imflux cuts mold costs, reduces cycle time and allows molds to run on smaller machines, cutting capital investment costs because the molder needs fewer presses.
P&G officials have been tight-lipped since forming Imflux Inc. in 2013.
Imflux CEO Nathan Estruth said a big part of the reason for all the secrecy is that P&G wanted to secure patent protection for the injection molding process. Now Imflux has more than 25 U.S. and 35 international patents, Altonen said. For patent applications, the number grows to about 70 in the United States and 100 internationally.
Altonen said Imflux will file 10 or more patents this year. He said the company also has a lot of trade secret technology, which is not patented.
Another reason for the hush-hush: The company wanted first to spread the technology within P&G's internal injection molding operations and to outside molders that are considered strategic partners, Estruth said. That term describes outside molders that have the most volume of P&G work or who handle complete platforms.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble is a $65 billion consumer-products dynamo, a new-product machine. P&G has churned out brands and products like Gillette, Head & Shoulders, Crest, Mr. Clean, Tide, Dawn and Swiffer. Nearly all of them have some injection molded plastic content — mostly caps and closures, but also Gillette razors and blades and Braun shavers, which use engineering resins.
P&G does some molding in-house at its own plants and also uses outside molders. Company officials have declined to give a breakout, but Estruth said the first priority was transferring the technology inside P&G's plastics universe.
"We wanted to make sure that we started to adopt it and embed it in P&G, which takes some time. It's a long-term journey. It's a big company, right?" he said. "But we wanted to make sure that we had first-mover status there and really were protecting the technology, and basically ensuring that we had sustainable competitive advantage vs. P&G's competition in the marketplace as we did it."
Imflux has moved to license the technology outside of P&G and its own packaging supply base — custom molders who supply a broad range of markets like automotive, medical, telecommunications and noncompetitive consumer products and packaging. "Anywhere that we think that there's a throughput benefit or a material savings benefit, we're willing to tackle," said Jared Kline, vice president of customer operations.
Kline said so far, the licensing to non-P&G, custom molders has largely come from word-of-mouth and connections in the plastics industry. And Imflux's connection to P&G means clout.
"While we're a startup that's trying to scale a disruptive technology, at the end of the day, P&G is an advantage to us because just about everyone in the industry will want to return our calls," Estruth said. "So I don't have to have a booth at NPE."
But that is changing. Although Imflux still does not plan to exhibit at NPE next year, the company is opening up. In June, Imflux process engineer Ethan Stiefel spoke at Penn State Erie's Innovation and Emerging Technologies Conference. Altonen, the top technical person at Imflux, made a presentation Oct. 5 at KraussMaffei Corp.'s open house in Florence, Ky.
KraussMaffei listed Imflux along with other suppliers as "participating partners" in the open house.
That signals another strategy by Imflux: to share its software and sensor technology with machinery makers, who play a key role in transferring new technologies to the broad injection molding market. Kline said Imflux is working with a number of other machinery companies, including Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., Wittmann Battenfeld Inc. and Milacron Holdings Corp., with more to come. "We actually partner with them to make an integrated software solution," he said.
Imflux leaders drew back the curtain for a visit by Plastics News on Sept. 21 at its 200,000-square-foot headquarters in Hamilton, a northern suburb of Cincinnati. There, about 150 employees toil away designing and making molds for Imflux, working with customers and further refining the molding technology.
Many are experienced P&G plastics processing and tooling experts, like Altonen, a graduate of Michigan State University's School of Packaging and a holder of more than 50 granted patents, and Ralph Neufarth, an authority in mold designing and building who has been at P&G for 20 years.
Imflux has collected a diverse group of processing and toolmaking talent from leading plastics college programs at Penn State Erie, Ferris State University, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Shawnee State University and Pittsburg State University. The business also has recruited plastics veterans, like John Rousseau, who brings 35 years of experience in engineering, quality and tooling to his post as vice president of manufacturing at Imflux.
Rousseau, who joined Imflux in June, is in charge of the toolmaking operation. He said the company is always looking for good talent.
"If we find somebody that I don't even have a spot for that is going to be an exceptional addition to the team, we'll figure out how to make that happen," he said.
Injection molding innovations from Imflux could save P&G several hundred millions of dollars a year in material costs and capital costs, since officials say they reduce mold costs and allows molds to be run in smaller-tonnage machines. One report said the savings could be up to $1 billion.
Estruth, the CEO, said Imflux has not come up in quarterly conference calls with financial analysts, but that executives have given out some cost-savings numbers to analyst meetings.
"It's important for P&G from a core standpoint because we're delivering savings," he said.
The company does not publicly disclose details about the savings. The topic is sensitive, in part because P&G faced a proxy fight this year from billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, who runs Trian Fund Management LP. Peltz has been critical of P&G leadership and wants a seat on the board.
Even though P&G announced that Peltz lost his fight for a seat, he has refused to concede.
The Wall Street Journal called it the "biggest and most expensive proxy fight in history." The boardroom battle transfixed Cincinnati, where P&G was founded in 1837. The company headquarters occupies a prominent place in the city's skyline.
Beyond the internal cost-reduction savings for P&G-related injection molding, the broader licensing could reap bigger rewards.
Imflux officials are keeping mum about the technology-transfer numbers. They refused to identify both outside licensees and internal P&G molders — or even give out the number of companies using Imflux.
The firm's website does say that Kline, an 18-year P&G veteran, has led "hundreds of installs across three continents." (Each machine equipped with Imflux technology is considered an "install," he said, adding that a license is on a per-machine basis.)
Kline also declined to say how much a license costs. An industry source said the amount is $50,000 for a license and an annual maintenance fee. Kline would not comment.
"It depends on the customer," he said.