Surveys from the In-Mold Decorating Association (IMDA) and Alexander Watson Associates (AWA) both show growth in the use of and market for in-mold labeling (IML) and in-mold decorating (IMD). Anecdotal evidence points to development in both the automotive and appliance sectors, with interest due to demands for lightweighting and lower material costs for plastics over metals. Consumer goods and packaging are attracted to IML because of durability and permanency, but those markets also appreciate the aesthetic appeal from specially developed inks and foils that add shelf appeal. While the global market is not vast – estimates from AWA point to a two percent share of the label market for IML – the possibilities are expanding on a daily basis.
Market opportunities for IMD and IML
Eric Berg, chief engineer for Revere Plastics Systems in Clyde, Ohio, estimates less than five percent of Revere Plastics’ sales for 2015 will come from IML and IMD activities; however, that portion still will account for more than $3.2 million in sales this year. Revere Plastics Systems is a custom injection molder with four locations and more than 750 employees. Both the Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Clyde locations have IML/IMD capabilities, but the company is prepared to expand to its other facilities as necessary if the demand for in-mold processes continues to grow.
“Most of our business is in the appliance industry,” explained Doug Drummond, director of new business development, “but, we also have customers in the outdoor power equipment and automotive industries. Automotive is one of the industries growing for us, and our customers have a real interest in our ability to decorate.”
There’s also opportunity in the outdoor power equipment market, although adhesive labels still are the more popular choice over IML. “It’s something we continue to talk to our power equipment customers about,” said Berg. “We’ve been experimenting with labels to show the customers the advantages.”
Decorative trends for IML and IMD
With the automotive industry taking an interest in the lower costs and lower weights of plastic components over metal, in-mold labeling with a metallic look is taking a step forward with more realistic shine and texture.
Mark Keeton, vice president of marketing for Standard Register, published a post on the Standard Register blog after AWA IMLCON™/IMDCON™ 2015, held in February in Miami, saying, “It is evident that metallic designs are in the greatest demand. Because real metals are so expensive, there is a clear opportunity to dramatically cut cost with alternative decoration technology. Until recently, achieving the look of real metal was challenging. Brush patterns, colors, reflectivity and texture were difficult to combine into a look that actually resembled metal. In the past, even the best attempts resulted in plastic that looked like, well plastic. It looked cheap and fooled no one. The look finally has been perfected. Achieving a convincing metallic look is now possible via IML films.”
Berg agreed, saying, “The biggest thing we’re seeing is brushed stainless and chrome looks in IML. I’m not sure if it’s still competitive with dipped chrome, but these types of looks weren’t available for IML previously. Even the inks in some of the IMLs have a metal look.”
Mark Spaulding, editor of Converting Quarterly magazine, also attended AWA IMLCON/IMDCON 2015 and reported on innovations for the industry. Among those was a metallic-look IML from substrate provider Taghleef Industries. “Its new nGLIMMER™ is the result of a three-year collaboration among material, machinery and converter partners across the globe,” wrote Spaulding. The silver mirror finish substrate is targeted to gourmet food, retail food, nutrtional supplements and paints and coatings, according to the website of NCI Packaging, one of the partners involved in the development.
IML and IMD also can bring elements of texture and touch without requiring post-mold operations. Spaulding explained, “MuCell® injection-mold 3D IML via Trexel, Inc. is said to enhance branding with a soft-touch effect. MuCell foaming technology puts small cells into thin-wall packaging using primarily nitrogen as the foaming agent. Weight reductions of about 11 percent are possible. End results: product differentiation, better shelf presence, boosted sensory effect, improved insulation and the possibility to use Braille on the container exterior.”
“Another big trend is 3D technology for IML,” said Keeton. “When it comes to durable goods, such as car parts, appliances or outdoor equipment, the need to decorate three-dimensional parts is a must. Until recently, options have been very limited for 3D decoration. Most IML labels could be used only on flat-to-slightly curved surfaces. Now, decorative films and parts are available that can achieve full 3D coverage, with sharp corners, depressions and deep wrap-around features.”
Drummond said Revere Plastics is keeping an eye on industry trends because its customers demand it. “We have seven employees dedicated to in-mold decorating and labeling now, but we have the ability to expand if we need to,” he explained. “Decorating is an area where we can add value, whether that’s through the IMD currently performed in our cleanroom or by supporting some of the capacitive touch applications in IML.”
Capitalizing on the opportunities
The Fall 2014 IMDA Short Shot Business Survey assessed answers from molders, brand owners, printers, industry suppliers and equipment manufacturers to provide insight into the growth of IMD and IML. At the time of the survey, 38 percent of respondents said their companies provide IML and IMD services because their customers demand it, an increase of six percent over the 2011 survey results. Packaging and consumer markets were assessed as growth areas, and IML/IMD is a market differentiator for 34 percent of the respondents.
Still, IML is a small portion of the overall labeling market. “In-mold labeling remains a specialized niche field with only a two percent share of the overall 2014 global label market, based on AWA Alexander Watson Associates estimates,” Spaulding said in a list of takeaways from his IMLCON/IMDCON attendance. “This was about 987 million square meters of material produced. Pressure-sensitive and glue-applied labels each accounted for 37 percent shares of the worldwide market last year.”
Spaulding went on to write, “While the total labeling market is up about four percent annually, the number of labels produced per SKU order is declining overall, according to Xeikon (a provider of digital presses). This can be either a risk or opportunity for IMLs that can be solved via digital printing production. Possibilities for converters include trial and mockup of IML-decorated objects; short-run IML jobs; large-size labels; and high-quality decoration that can replace direct-offset printing.”
Revere Plastics is prepared to take advantage of the opportunities. “It’s one of the most interesting things we do at Revere Plastics,” said Drummond, “and our customers are very interested in the IML and IMD sides of the business. We’re starting to get out there more to tell potential customers about our capabilities at automotive and appliance tradeshows, and I expect we will have more of these opportunities to work on in the next six to eight months.”