In-Mold Decorating Adds Design Element to Functional EV Vehicle Component

by Dianna Brodine, vice president, editorial, Plastics Decorating

The size of the global Electric Vehicle (EV) Market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 21.7% from 2022 to 2030, said an April 2022 report from Markets and Markets. This projected growth is attributed to increased demand for low-emission commuting and government subsidies for zero-emission vehicles that will help meet emission reduction targets. According to the report, “Increasing investments by governments across the globe to develop EV charging stations and hydrogen fueling stations, along with incentives offered to buyers, will create opportunities for OEMs to expand their revenue stream and geographical presence.”

US automotive manufacturer Ford has a lineup of electric vehicles that offer “energized performance… [with] minimal scheduled maintenance costs, zero vehicle emissions, available tax incentives and plenty of other incentives that make for a seamless switch into electric energy,” according to the company’s website.

When appealing to consumers, however, electric vehicles and their components must do more than promise environmental benefits and low repair bills – they have to look good, too. When designing a charging cable set for Ford’s new lineup of vehicles, automotive technology supplier Aptiv kept consumer appeal at the forefront when it partnered with Serigraph.

Serigraph, located in West Bend, Wisconsin, is a printer of decorated plastic products for industries such as automotive, appliance, consumer, medical and power sports markets. Working with Aptiv, a cover was created that featured a white Ford logo floating in a panel of Ford’s instantly recognizable blue.

“This is a factory charging cord that goes in the trunk for Ford electric vehicles,” explained Nick Velting, senior director of field sales at Serigraph. “Obviously, it’s a utilitarian piece – essentially, an extension cord. Ford and other OEMs are looking for ways to make this utilitarian component more attractive, so they wanted to include decoration. What better way to add design appeal – especially with Ford, which has a signature color – than to put that color on both the handle and the transformer that converts the direct current to recharge batteries?”

When evaluating decorating options, the team at Serigraph selected in-mold decorating (IMD) for its durability in a part that would be in frequent use. “We did consider pad printing, but the combination of the durability requirements and the fact that it would be difficult to get that rich Ford blue with pad printing ink ruled it out,” said Velting. “And, the curved part geometry, specifically on the handle, lent itself to IMD.”

Todd LaMore, director of new business development at Serigraph, added, “The volume was a good fit for IMD as well. With an initial run of approximately 300,000 units per year, IMD was a cost-efficient choice. And, the parts and their decorative elements were required to meet exterior automotive component requirements, such as UV stability and chemical exposure stability – another reason a second-surface printing process like IMD was the best solution.”

The part consisted of two resins – Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA) and polycarbonate – and four subassemblies within the molded product. This complexity did add challenges in the production process. “In the transformer portion of the electricity box, we needed to select resins to mold both the lens and the body to ensure they worked together in a two-shot process and also created the definition and appearance the design community wanted,” said Velting. “Graphic registration always is an issue, too, and in this part, there are a series of lights in the graphic around the lens. That’s something we had to be cognizant of when molding.”

In addition, flatness tolerances were strict, so processing to avoid part warp during molding was a challenge. Aptiv/Ford required that the decorated cord set pass a “drive-over test.” The end product ultimately passes the aforementioned test and speaks to the durability of the cord set and chosen materials of construction.

Serigraph used tool design to create a repeatable applique process for both the handle and the lens cover, as well as a vision system to check placement of the decoration in post-molding to ensure a successful finished product.

“What’s exciting about this project is that it’s bringing a design element to a component that was wholly utilitarian before,” Velting said. “It’s another piece of advertising for the OEM, and it’s another touchpoint for consumers that drives them to connect the part in their hand with the company’s commitment to the environment through EV technology.”

As electric vehicle manufacturers increase production and add to their share of the automotive market, prospects will expand for Serigraph as well. “This is our entry into the EV market,” LaMore explained. “Much of our automotive business revolved around panel dials in automotive applications, but those are going away as screens are added. As the decorative market shifts, we feel there’s an opportunity for us.”

Velting agreed, adding, “We’re seeing an abundance of opportunity created from both EV and automated driving systems (ADS) for exterior vehicle applications that just weren’t there five to 10 years ago. It’s a market segment that’s continually growing.”