Edited by Erin La Row and Dianna Brodine, Plastics Decorating

When picturing a towel dispenser found in a public restroom, the image that comes to mind likely is a gray or white metal box – functional, but not exactly stylish. Kimberly-Clark wanted to change that, using in-mold decorating techniques to bring design elements to a product found in washrooms around the world.

Led by the ICON™ Automatic Towel Dispenser, the ICON™ collection is a new family of hand towel, soap and toilet paper dispensers created to enhance the washroom experience and aesthetic. The products offer endless flexibility for customization and integration into a wide variety of environments.

Design innovation

The dispenser category hasn’t experienced significant innovation in decades, with any changes focused on cost reduction and underwhelming, incremental improvements. The initial launch of the ICON™ dispenser featured six interchangeable faceplate styles developed with an eye on design trends and evaluated in prototype form with architects, interior designers and end users. These included micropatterned white, micropatterned black, ebony luxe, warm alabaster, a wood-grain look and a cherry blossom design.

The platform is designed to support unlimited color, material and finish customization, and is intended to change and grow over time. In addition to curated color material finish options, customers can upload bespoke imagery to create unique dispensers that match any environment and capture personal or brand expression.

The dispensers’ design flexibility is enabled by an in-mold decorating (IMD) process using film provided by KURZ. Using IMD, no post-molding secondary decoration process is required; instead, automation is utilized to pin the film carrying the desired pattern or image into position within the mold. When the resin is injected, the film becomes a permanent part of the molded product. Once the molding cycle is complete, a fully finished, decorated part with a hard coat emerges from the mold.

Since the look of the finished piece is determined by the colors and patterns on the film, it’s simple to react to design trends or end-user preferences by changing what is printed on the film with no additional engineering interventions or operator process variabilities to consider. Multiple design effects can be created, allowing the dispensers to blend in or stand out through the use of pigments, metallics, matte, gloss or any combination of those design elements. A combination of printing processes can be used as well; for instance, gravure printing can be used to print an image or pattern with photo quality, and then screen printing can be added to achieve a haptic effect. In addition, the IMD process can be used to decorate a multitude of substrates, including resins made from post-consumer recyclates, offering flexibility for environments where sustainable materials may be preferred.

Health and safety impact

Washroom dispensers may not immediately come to mind when contemplating “high design” – a significant limitation when interior designers are planning spaces. In many high-end environments, the dispensers had been abandoned in favor of baskets stocked with paper towels, cloth hand towels or even a human attendant.

Once considered a convenience, reliable touchless dispensers became an essential front-line tool in the fight against COVID-19. Conceived and developed during a global pandemic, ICON™ products embody Kimberly-Clark’s “Better Care for a Better World” initiative, meeting a need for touchless dispensing. Due to the design options available with the ICON™ dispenser, towel dispensers were able to integrate into a design theme – combining beauty and safety while reducing the spread of germs.

A sustainable improvement

In addition to supporting enhanced hygiene, ICON™ dispensers offer functional and aesthetic longevity not typical in this product category. Dispensers have been considered a semi-disposable product – a necessary evil required to provide towels and toilet paper. When damaged or outdated, they are replaced and often discarded. ICON™ products have been designed to be upgradable. The face plates – often the first elements to become outdated or damaged – are replaceable. The most sustainable dispenser is the one already installed. Replaceable parts provide extended functional and aesthetic longevity.

Looking ahead

Due to the ICON™ collection’s recent introduction, it’s too early to assess commercial performance and bottom-line business impact. Nevertheless, early feedback from architects, facilities managers and end users has been overwhelmingly positive. People are surprised by the system’s design flexibility, options for customization and future possibilities. Architects & Interior Designers now can tailor dispenser appearance to complement their interiors instead of compromising their designs.

Regardless of market performance, the development of the ICON™ system has had a significant impact on how Kimberly-Clark Professional™ designs new products. In the past, new product development was object-centric and focused on protecting the paper products. Now, new product development focuses on people, seeking to understand the needs of a broad range of users. The process included multiple feedback sessions with all stakeholders, from installers and interior designers to custodians and building managers worried about tenant retention. Some of these feedback sessions included novel approaches to elicit feedback, such as a dispenser “speed dating” session that was created to better understand aesthetic preferences.

In-mold decorating was the plastics decorating process, in combination with expertise from KURZ, that enabled this unique combination of design and functionality. For its innovation in a product category previously marked by a lack of change, the Kimberly-Clark ICON™ dispenser was the winner in the In-Mold Decorating Association’s 2022 Awards Competition for the “Best Use of IMD for Consumer Goods / Durable Products.”