Edited by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Decorating

Editor’s Note: This article was developed from a panel discussion held at the 2022 SPE Decorating & Coatings Division TopCon & IMDA Symposium in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The 2023 event – the Plastic Product Decorating Summit – will be held September 28-29 in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area.

Consumers are looking for sleek, integrated electronics, whether it’s the cars they are driving or the appliances they are using. Digital screens and interactive electronics panels are the norm. This provides both opportunities and challenges for plastics molders and decorators. From capacitive-touch and hidden-til-lit applications to decorative panels that protect and enhance digital screens, in-mold processes are playing a critical role.

Pat Tully, DuraTech Industries (www.duratech.com); Daniel Ziegler, Nissha Eimo Technologies (www.eimotech.com); and Paul O’Hearn, Profile Plastics (www.profilemn.com), shared thoughts on the growing applications for in-mold decorating and in-mold electronics.

What are the decorative trends in automotive and appliance markets?

Ziegler: We are seeing a lot of higher-end graphics, especially in the appliance sector. Metallized finishes, including chrome-like appearances, are big with our appliance customers right now – partly to replace hexavalent chromium, which can be dangerous and isn’t great for the environment.

O’Hearn: Larger displays, capacitive touch and hidden-til-lit features are definitely where we’re at. In the quoting stages, we are seeing requests for lenses that are pushing our technical capabilities, so there’s some R&D activities that are needed. There is a display out there now that is the entire width of the cockpit, and that trend is something I think is going to continue. Piano black has been around for at least 20 years now, and it’s still very popular because of the high-gloss effect.

Tully: We still are seeing a lot of chrome, including brush patterns and different colors. And we’re seeing requests for carbon black, not necessarily piano black, with appliances and backsplashes.

What advantage do in-mold processes offer in those applications?

Tully: One of the biggest drivers of in-mold decorating in the appliance market is the ability to create a seamless backsplash. People see the edge of a label and want to pick at it, but IMD allows a flat appearance with no edge. And, in-mold appliques bring variability to the options for decorating. We’re able to change out a label to adjust to different markets and different product models without requiring a change to the mold.

Ziegler: Another big advantage with in-mold decoration, from a manufacturing point of view, is the ability to scale the production process. It eliminates a lot of the part movements throughout the facility, consolidating multiple processes into a single step during molding.

O’Hearn: The trend in automotive interior appearances is toward sleek, flat gloss, and that can be difficult – and expensive – to achieve with some decorating processes. IMD offers an advantage in pricing for high-volume projects when total costs are taken into consideration. And it’s scalable as volumes increase just by adding another molding machine and getting another mold.

How are in-mold electronics being used in the automotive and appliance industries?

Ziegler: On the appliance side, capacitive touch is all we’re seeing – except, of course, for the giant laundry knob that everyone loves for some reason. But with automotive, we’re seeing a lot more touchscreens. They have a seamless design and hidden-til-lit features that are popular with drivers. With hidden-til-lit – or another term is dead front – the icons or indicators aren’t visible all the time. The front surface appears as a texture or metallized finish, and then light is applied from the back to make the icons visible.

O’Hearn: With in-mold electronics, only one mold is needed, and you can do anything in terms of design – put the buttons anywhere, have all the configuration options. People like having a volume knob when they’re listening to the radio in their car, so what’s the tradeoff to keep that sleek design going? Maybe there’s a depression on the mold where a slider moves the volume up and down. The driver can feel it but doesn’t have to look at it – and it doesn’t add cost for the molder or OEM because they don’t need another mold or another assembly step to add the knob.

What are the challenges when using in-mold electronics?

O’Hearn: The problems are similar to what we have with decorative type IML or film insert molding, but the failures are much more severe. If a trace washes out, then it’s a non-functioning part. In-mold electronics require much better process control and better inspection as the process goes along because the appliques are very expensive and you don’t want to get to the end of the molding cycle to find out an LED doesn’t work. Also, you have to be aware of the connectors when building the tooling, because the connector has to go from inside the mold to outside the mold, with a space for the connection to happen.

What’s coming next?

Tully: In appliance, a lot of the backsplashes have been right-handed, and some of that restriction was due to the size of the circuit board that would be required. But now, we’re encouraging designers to use the entire space. We’d like to see a more fully utilized backsplash, with a design that opens up and uses the width of the panel.

O’Hearn: I think we’ll start seeing surfaces that are more intuitive and that have never been done before because of the restrictions that were due to flat circuit boards. It’s cutting edge, and that’s why it will take a while to grow. The designers don’t know how to use it or what the capabilities are, and the engineers don’t know how to put it into a stack. We have to be the experts and push this up to the designers, rather than waiting for it to come from the top down.