By Hallie Forcinio, writer, Plastics Decorating
Slowing demand for discretionary purchases like boats, motorcycles and travel, the possibility of a prolonged recession and labor unrest make it likely that volumes for plastics parts will remain steady or dip slightly in 2024 and not begin growing again until 2025, predicts Laurie Harbour, president and CEO of Harbour Results, Inc., an advisor to small and medium manufacturing companies. Despite these challenges, she said, “Plastics are in a good spot and decorating also is in a good spot because it differentiates products.”
Major trends in plastics decorating include expanding use of automation, reshoring of some production, an effort to maximize sustainability and the evolution of more complex part geometries. “We have to keep pushing the boundaries of our processes to effectively decorate more complex geometries in serial production,” said Scott Tacosik, director of Sales – Business Area Plastics at KURZ Transfer Products, L.P., a member of the KURZ Group and specialist in transfer technologies for decorative and functional applications.
There are many decorating choices including hot stamping, in-mold labeling (IML) and in-mold decorating (IMD). Use of all three options is expanding. IML and IMD are expected to register the strongest growth because the processes merge decorating and molding, streamlining a two- or three-step process into one step. “This provides cost benefits,” explained Tacosik.
“In-mold processes are gaining popularity for a variety of reasons,” said Dianna Brodine, managing director of the In-Mold Decorating Association (IMDA). First, an IML container or IMD part offers outstanding durability and long-lasting brand identity since the label or decorative film are virtually impossible to remove. The product can stand up to extreme conditions – whether a freezer shelf at the grocery store or a hot car on a summer day – and can be reused or handled over and over without losing crisp graphic elements, colors and patterns.
Another factor spurring growth is brand and consumer emphasis on recyclability and sustainability. In IML and IMD, the label or film that is applied during the in-mold process is made from the same or similar resin as the container being molded. Brodine explained, “That means the container is fully recyclable, with no need for chemical washes to remove adhesives or paper labels. That makes recycling easier for consumers and for the recycling centers.” In-mold processes also enable sustainable operations. Since the label or film is molded to the part during the injection or blow molding process, there is no need for post-mold decorating operations. The result is lower equipment expenses, production floor space requirements, labor hours and energy costs.
As in-mold plastics decorating processes gain market share, more molders are looking to develop expertise in IML and IMD. “However, understanding the intersection of the molding process, label construction and automation systems isn’t something that happens overnight,” Brodine warned, noting, “IMDA will be working hard to connect its expert members with those companies that are looking to enter the space.”
Another plastics decorating process, hot stamping, remains in high demand despite its long-term presence in the industry because metallic finishes offer lustrous, high-impact effects. “It’s also a sustainable technology because the transfer metallizing is so thin, it has no negative effect on the recyclability of the part,” Tacosik said. However, more education is needed in this area because many brand owners avoid metallic effects because they assume the resulting part is not recyclable.
“We also are seeing growth in haptic effects with the biggest being backlighting where a touch illuminates a decoration or indicator,” Tacosik added.
Whatever decorating method is chosen, it’s imperative to involve supply chain partners as early as possible and provide an understanding of part geometry, performance and finished appearance. “If suppliers are not involved early, problems often arise because Option A is chosen when Option D would perform better, cost less, etc.,” Tacosik explained.
Automation is becoming more prevalent in molding and decorating. The two processes also are becoming more tightly integrated, according to Harbour, who predicts this trend will accelerate. She explained, “Integrating decorating with molding reduces the number of operators needed to one per cell. This offsets the lack of labor that plagues virtually all manufacturing operations today. Virtually any process that involves part picking and placing can incorporate some level of automation. All it takes is creativity to figure out how to perform a process better. There are a ton of opportunities.”
Some processes rely more heavily on automation. IML and IMD, for example, automatically place the label or film into the mold cavity and remove the finished part from the molding cell. “Vision inspection, assembly and packing also are key automated processes that allow efficient production and high-quality output of IML and IMD parts,” Brodine said.
At Kurz Transfer Products, robotics are part of the production process and have improved inventory management. Moving rolls of material robotically has increased safety and precision and eliminates errors caused by grabbing the wrong roll.
“At Inkcups, we see both interest and product demand increasing for automation and the use of robots in our system offerings,” said Mark Barrett, vice president of Engineering at Inkcups, a global supplier of inkjet printing equipment, pad printing equipment, laser plate-makers, inks and corresponding supplies.
With a collaborative robot offered by Inkcups, an automatic barcode scan initiates loading of individual parts into the machine. Collision sensors eliminate the need for caging to protect the operator and simplify manual interaction with the system. Conveyors can feed and remove parts or exiting parts can be picked and placed into packaging. For multipart tools, the robot can load the parts into the tool (usually a flatbed) and then load the tool onto the imaging bed prior to high-speed imaging of the component array in the tool.
When considering robotics, Barrett advises doing an ROI analysis to justify the cost. Factors to consider include the number of hours the robot will run per day, the productivity of the automated system vs. manual operation, the value of the final product, and the impact automation will have on system yield/reject rate. Additional considerations relate to labor costs, worker safety, and the opportunity to deploy personnel to higher value-add activities.
A shift to onshoring
Supply chain issues have impacted every area of the plastics industry, whether due to material shortages or transportation breakdowns. “As a result, more companies are realizing the advantages of keeping all aspects of production close to home,” Brodine said.
Reshoring from low-cost countries and European markets is occurring and creating opportunities for domestic plastics processors, decorators and printers. However, Harbour does not expect a massive relocation of business, noting low-cost regions continue to actively quote business and still are winning work. She explained, “Although some companies would like to do more here, costs must be considered. Price will always be a factor.”
Kurz Transfer Products is experiencing a positive impact from onshoring driven by global economic and political forces, import taxes and the cost of inventory. Tacosik reported, “We are seeing onshoring, especially for plastic parts that are heavy and take up lots of space. If production is nearer, less inventory is needed and costs are lower.” Closer proximity to suppliers and OEMs also is beneficial during the product development process because it can help ensure designs are feasible to produce.
Sustainability continues to be a focus for consumers, manufacturers and regulators. “Every presentation we do comes with questions or concerns about sustainability,” Tacosik said. Brodine agreed, noting “Recyclability and sustainability are issues that will continue to impact the plastics industry in a big way as more US states create legislation surrounding plastics use and reuse.” There also will be impact from regulatory bodies around the world.
Although viewed negatively by many, plastics will remain widely used. However, Harbour predicts, “The trend toward more recyclable materials will grow.”
Brodine looks forward to NPE2024 (May 6-10, Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, FL). With more than 2,000 exhibitors and attendees from many countries, she said, “It will be interesting to watch the new resin and equipment introductions at the show.”