Durable Decorating Trends in Automotive and Appliances

By Dianna Brodine, vice president, editorial, Plastics Decorating

Decorated plastic parts intended for the automotive, appliance, outdoor recreation or electronics industries have different durability requirements for their appearance than many packaging applications, such as a yogurt container, that will head to the recycling bin after consumption. When long-term durability – decades, rather than months – is the goal, part designers have to not only meet the appearance demands of the brand owner or OEM, but also ensure that appearance looks as good in 10 years as it did on day one.

During last fall’s Plastic Product Decorating Summit, Dick Holcomb, global key account manager with Nissha USA, and Nick Velting, director of sales for Serigraph, talked about the colors, finishes, shapes and electronics integrations that brand owners are interested in when designing durable goods. Holcomb works closely with appliance and consumer electronics customers, collaborating with them on new designs to deliver best-in-class products to the industry. In Velting’s role, he serves industries such as automotive, appliance, consumer products and medical, from printing to forming to molding, all in one facility.

What are brand owners, OEMs and consumers asking for right now?
Velting: Right now, I’d say integrating electronics in some form, whether that’s lighting or functionality, seems to be the big trend in automotive and appliance.

Holcomb: I would agree with that – we’re seeing the integration of electronics; lighting, which could be multiple colors; and hidden-til-lit functionality. With hidden-til-lit, you don’t see any icons or controls until the power is activated. We also see requests for capacitive-touch sensors on the back of an in-mold decorated (IMD) product. On the design side, it could be chrome plating, matte or gloss surfaces, or a combination of matte and gloss. And sometimes the customer is designing patterns that blend into the home or environment.

Is the automotive industry the trendsetter in durable products decorating trends?
Velting: It’s been my experience that automotive is generally the leading trendsetter. But ahead of automotive, there is the aftermarket automotive arena – and the aftermarket is pulling from pop culture influences. The design trends trickle down – the aftermarket automotive industry was ahead of the game with things like hidden-til-lit, carbon fibers and some of the other creature comfort functionalities that we’re now starting to enjoy in our vehicles.

Holcomb: I’d say the appliance industry follows the automotive industry. With the automotive industry, there are many different brands, multiple changes and many different components inside an automobile. There are more technical patterns inside vehicles, including lighting and haptic surfaces. With appliance, the standards are still stainless steel, brushed stainless steel and black stainless steel, although we’re seeing some of the mattes and patterns in the appliance industry. But generally, I think appliance is a couple of years behind in adopting the trends that are coming out of the automotive industry.

How are electronics integrated
into in-mold applications?
Velting: As we go more into the electrification and autonomy of vehicles, there’s going to be more necessity for rider comfort as opposed to driver situation. And with that, there are more and more places inside the vehicle where the consumer is going to have the ability to adjust those creature comforts – the seats, temperature, the radio. That’s leading to new types of panels and larger screens. In the appliance industry, we’re starting to see the smooth surfaces with the dead-front (non-conductive) panel that automotive has been utilizing for the last five to 10 years.

Holcomb: We’re implementing a lot of electronics into plastic parts. For the automotive industry, we are embedding heaters and heating systems into plastic parts. For example, electric cars don’t have traditional radiators; instead, they have a plastic panel on the front, and that can ice up in winter conditions, which affects sensors. With our consumer electronics and appliance customers, Nissha is manufacturing capacitive sensors in Japan and those are being laminated onto the back of in-mold decorated parts. Just like with a cellphone, appliance customers want to be able to swipe the LCD screen, so we’re seeing a lot of that in development. We’ve had feedback from research groups with our customers that the older generation still likes the knobs and buttons on appliances, but most of what we do utilizes capacitive-touch functions.

What are the trends in appearance –
colors, graphics, finishes?
Velting: Piano black continues as a customer request. Metalization also is big because everyone seems to want backlit chromes. And we’re starting to see a shift in appliance to either muted, matte colors or what might be called “Pottery Barn finishes” – colors that really pop. We’ve also seen a shift to the brushed steel look. In the consumer electronics area, we are starting to see more of an emphasis on design in parts that were previously functional, utilitarian-type products.

Holcomb: We’re seeing trends where the appliance customers are using more pastel cabinets, and they’re using matte and gloss combinations. Brushed metals and stainless steel looks still are very popular. In appliances, you have to appeal to a large segment of society to sell the products, but what Nissha is targeting is beyond visual. It’s the feel and touch of something that makes the customer want to interact with the surface. That can be a fabric-type finish, an elastomeric-type finish or a silky touch – anything that inspires the consumer to interact with the device.

What types of finishes or coatings need to be utilized to protect these decorated parts?
Velting: In the automotive world, specifically in interiors, we’re seeing a lot of requests for 2H hardness, and we have customers who push the envelope wanting the 3H. On the exterior, as decoration is becoming more prevalent, we’re seeing the need to use hardcoats to prevent stone impingement. In the appliance and consumer goods world, we’re still dealing more often with chemical resistance needs.

Holcomb: We use a certain type of UV-cured hard coat on our in-mold decorated parts. After it’s molded, it goes through a UV curing oven, which crosslinks the hard coat on the surface of the part. That’s typical for appliances and consumer electronics. Now, automotive requires UV resistance in the hardcoats, so that chemical formulation is obviously different. The type of substrates determines the type of hardcoat, but they’re very durable, chemical resistant and scratch resistant.

What are customers going to ask for next?
Holcomb: Sustainability is key these days. We have a vacuum metalization process in our printing technologies, so customers don’t have to use traditional plating to achieve a metallic look, and we’ve seen interest in that for our parts with chrome trim. We’ve also seen the desire for authenticity of materials, so there’s a downtrend in the desire for wood grain and instead that might be replaced with an organic material or textile.

Velting: We’re going to see knobs come back in small amounts because there are concerns about flat surfaces and the desire and ability of consumers to engage with those, when there are times when a knob might be easier.

This panel discussion was presented at the 2023 Plastic Product Decorating Summit. The 2024 event will be held September 18-20 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For more information and to register, visit www.productdecoratingevent.com.