Vendor Collaboration Provides IML Solution for Commercial Plastics

by Nancy Cates, contributing writer, Plastics Decorating
A roll-fed system eliminates the stack of labels ready to be molded into a container.

When Commercial Plastics needed a better solution for a troublesome in-mold labeling system, it turned to vendors for help.

The project at Commercial involved in-mold labeling for a line of medical waste containers produced at the Kenosha, Wisconsin, plant. OSHA and FDA standards for such containers require a warning label that  “…must be either an integral part of the container… or affixed… to prevent its loss or unintentional removal.” In addition, the warning labels are barcoded for traceability from production and distribution through disposal of the container.

Commercial, which bought the Kenosha plant about two years ago, was launched in 1950. It is based in Mundelein, Illinois, where it produces lighting, aerospace, recreational and outdoor products.

Bill O’Connor, Commercial Plastics’ owner, said the primary goal was a better product with enhanced quality control needed to meet the OSHA and FDA regulatory requirements.

“The main goal for us was to use this hybrid IML technology with precut or perforated roll-fed labels to eliminate the potential for any barcode to be out of sequence,” O’Connor said. “The previous method was cut and stack. It’s used widely today, but if the labels are sequenced and you mispick, then there’s potential to mispick the next few labels.”

The original process involved extracting a label from a stack before molding it into the container. Sometimes static electricity would cause more than one label to cling when being picked up or would skew the stack, inaccurately placing the next label. A scanning system would check label sequences for errors, but the system would set off an alarm and stop production while corrections were made.

“Any time you place a large label on a four-sided container there are lots of things that can happen: Labels can shift in the label stack, double pick or place crooked,” said Bob Travis, president of InkWorks Printing LLC, the Plymouth, Wisconsin, company that supplies the labels. InkWorks specializes in developing and launching conventional brand and in-mold labels as well as interactive imaging, including the use of QR codes or digital watermarking.

“Commercial Plastics tried interventions,” Travis said, “such as using a smaller label stack, but the workarounds added labor costs because they required more attention. Efficiencies were eroded.”

“In addition, antistatic methods that were used to solve problems in the label stack created static pinning problems in the mold, which can lead to label shifting or blowouts,” he continued. “These problems were compounded by environmental conditions: too dry or too humid. It got to a point where scrap rates were unacceptable.”

When Travis saw CBW Automation’s roll-fed label presentation machine being demonstrated at a tradeshow, he thought it could help solve the efficiency problem at Commercial Plastics. “It seemed appropriate for their application, so I talked to Bill about the CBW solution as a way to overcome their struggles,” he explained. “Commercial also has a good relationship with Robotic Automation Systems. RAS is very skilled at robotic systems and integration, so they seemed to be a natural partner to help pull everything together.”

The idea sparked the collaboration, and everyone went to work.

CBW Automation, founded in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1970, moved in 1989 to Fort Collins, Colorado, where it now employs about 130 in its 42,000-square-foot plant. The collaboration was somewhat unique, according to Robert Harvey, vice president for sales and marketing for CBW. “We typically build IML systems for high-speed applications, but this is the first time the technology has been used outside a CBW Automation cell.

A single label is plucked from the roll just before being placed in the mold.

“Their IML system was underperforming,” Harvey continued. “This solution provides an opportunity to reduce costs with a precut roll-fed label presentation system that leaves the labels in the digitally printed web. The robot pulls the label from the web for the first time just before its placement in the mold, eliminating stacking and banding. The process allows sequencing very easily as the web is unrolled. The labels are checked by a barcode scanner so there is no possibility of the stack getting out of sequence. The system eliminates scrap, which wastes the label, the part and the machine time. This way, we never mold a part with the wrong label, and there is never an interruption to the molding time.”

O’Connor agreed: “If the barcode is bad, misprinted or out of sequence. It automatically sequences instead of alarming out. It completely eliminated that problem.”

“This approach had never been done, to our understanding,” said Craig Tormoen, president of Robotic Automation Systems, Waunakee, Wisconsin. “We have a long-term relationship with the molder, Commercial Plastics, formerly XTen, and have worked with Bob Travis, now with InkWorks, for about 20 years. It was the first collaboration with CBW Automation.” Robotic Automation Systems began using Swiss robots in the plastics industry in 1994 as Geiger Handling USA.

“We design and build full turnkey systems for the injection molding industry,” Tormoen continued.  “Using an end-of-arm tool with integral motion would have been more complex, and we would never have been able to achieve the allotted cycle time. This process leaves labels cut and perfed on the roll. It allows the robot to make perfect label placement every cycle.”

A FANUC 6-axis robot picks labels from the roll for precise placement during container application.

Tormoen said the project went smoothly. “This application was a perfect marriage between a 3-axis top-entry robot working on a 500-ton molding machine with a FANUC 6-axis as an upstream support robot to hand off the labels. This approach opens many more doors to accommodate higher volume and more complicated IML applications while achieving an almost zero percent scrap rate.”

The collaborators agreed that the project went rather smoothly.

“Being a new technology, a lot of development took place but we expected that,” said O’Connor. “It was new to CBW, InkWorks, RAS…and we learned a lot. We’re about to launch a second line. We’ll integrate it much faster since we are already prepped.”

“There was nothing we didn’t expect,” Harvey agreed. “We knew we needed to develop the label and the way it’s held in the web with the appropriate number of tabs in the right location based on the stiffness and thickness of the material. Also, we had to optimize the web unwind and label pick sequence.”

Travis sees more potential applications. “I think it is game-changing in the industry. It brings into a more practical form the advantages press-side cutting has to offer, eliminating the stack. This solution gives the molder the advantage of efficiencies, cost reduction and accuracy. The dispenser is highly flexible, so it can be quickly modified to run a different shape or size. We can use films with unique properties and put them in the mold quite easily.”

The solution also lends itself to more accurate placement of small, oddly shaped, or otherwise tricky labels.

“With the roll-fed technology,” Harvey says, “you never have the stacks, so we can use very small labels. Imagine a label the size of a dime or a strip in a fortune cookie. Imagine trying to cut and stack those in a magazine. Or maybe you have a multilayer label with layers that shrink at different rates, causing curling. If you stack them, you have a stack of potato chips with no flat surface to pick from.”

“If you consider tying digital printing to the roll-fed presentation,” Harvey continued, “it offers so many opportunities for individual identification, traceability or anti-counterfeiting. Medical devices or packaging could add a barcode – or even a hidden feature in the label – that could be scanned all the way from production and handling to distribution and recycling. Short production runs with customized labels are feasible. There are many ways to apply this technology with a financial justification, and not just marketing or functionality benefit.”

O’Connor is pleased with the results. “A secondary goal was cost-driven and improvement in process. In rolls you can go with a thinner label and still pass federal requirements. It lowers the cost of the entire stream, and it’s easier to process thinner labels. Using this automation, I can run other products. When you don’t have to put a lot of money into one product that is customized, it improves return on investment.”

“The collaboration allowed us to bring in the newest technology, using the automation to integrate the best of best. This is not just for 2016… it’s the next five years. As labels continue to improve we’ll be able to use the new technology. This is the future.”