In-mold decorating of durable products provides environmentally alternative to painting and chrome plating

The regulatory burden on manufacturing has skyrocketed over the past few years. According to a report from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the cost of federal regulations in 2012 was $2.028 trillion (in 2014 dollars). Of that amount, $330 billion was for environmental compliance. The average manufacturing firm in the U.S. pays $19,564 per employee per year in regulatory compliance costs (including OSHA, taxes and environmental). For small manufacturers with fewer than 50 employees, that burden rises to $34,671 per employee per year, said the NAM report.

Douglas Woods, president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology, wrote an interesting editorial in a issue of IndustryWeek about a year ago, in which he described the dilemma of manufacturing in the United States. Basically, he compared the government's efforts to promote manufacturing to Dr. Doolittle's "Pushmi-Pullyu," a strange Llama-looking creature with one head at each end of its body. Every time the Pushmi-Pullyu head at one end tried to move forward, it was prevented from doing so by the other end's head.

"While legislation, policy and initiatives have come forth with the aim of pushing the industry forward, a snarled web of tax and regulation likes underneath and hinders any movement toward real progress," wrote Woods in the IW publication.  

Regulations regarding VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from various manufacturing finishing processes are heavily regulated, which has many manufacturers looking for better materials, methods and processes by which to manufacture their products. One alternative for decorating plastic products that is becoming more in demand is in-mold decorating that includes a variety of methods including film insert molding (FIM) as a way to avoid painting parts, and in-mold labeling of chrome-like parts as an alternative to chrome plating.

The Tausus Hybrid badge 

The winner of the 'Best Thermoformed Durable IMD Part' at the recent In-Mold Decorating Association's annual Symposium was TASUS Canada Corp. for its Hybrid Badge designed and manufactured for Hino Motors Manufacturing. The unique flexible (conforms to contoured surfaces) IML badge, utilized a bright chrome fluoropolymers film that is environmentally friendly, i.e. it requires no secondary chrome plating which means that it contains no hexavalent and trivalent chromium, and it highly durable. Using the IMD (In-Mold Decorating) that consists of six separate screen printed colors plus a UV protective clear coat provides a very cost effective method to produce a multi-colored thermoformed part. Complex registration and tight tolerance forming is achieved through distortion art and a precise control of temperature across the printed sheet.

The 'Best Injection Molded Durable IMD Part, Gold Award' in the IDMA competition was the Logitech Mouse Top Housing, submitted by the molder, In Mold Technology Inc. that also supplied the label. Using the in-mold decorating technology allowed the customer (Logitech) to achieve their design intent of a rich high-gloss finish, incorporating a second surface gradient graphic for maximum first-surface durability for this capacitive touch mouse. The product was run in both high-gloss black and white.

Chris Brown, vice president of In-Mold Technology, a Bellingham, WA, molder specializing in IMD, said: "From an environmental standpoint in the U.S. and other countries, restrictions have been tightened. There's definitely a push do to a better job of preventing VOCs and materials considered hazardous to the environment. There are a lot of initiatives to get away from processes like electroplating and painting including big initiatives to get rid of painting."

Brown noted that in certain areas in China just getting a permit to paint is getting tougher and tougher, and there are areas in that country painting is prohibited. "Companies like Amazon used to paint the front face of their Kindle but now they have teams of people working on paint reduction programs," Brown said. "People inquire about IMD techniques to replace paint."

Digital printing of the labels is a much cleaner process than painting, however, Brown added that it doesn't work in all cases. "Painting has had its place in our industry for a long time and it won't be an overnight process to replace," he said. "The dipping process in electroplating works but there's so many other ways to achieve the metallic look like vacuum metallization and vapor deposition that don't produce the byproducts that electroplating does. While that business has its place demand for that process has shrunk as corporations try to become more responsible and government regulations have gotten stricter."

Painting of parts has been around for a long time, and many OEMs and their suppliers have invested heavily in robotic paint lines to handle the parts, particularly the larger parts for automotive, tractor, lawn and garden equipment and other large parts. For that reason, these companies aren't quick to make the change to IMD. However, Brown pointed out that at same time the robots are being programmed to handle the film insert molding for large parts outside the packaging industry through in-mold transfer methods, i.e. transferring the formed film from a carrier to the mold for the back-molding process.

"Eliminating the more hazardous processes is coming along but people aren't quick to change and it takes time and money to change," Brown added. 

In-Mold Technology has presses capable of IMD that range from very small 20-ton work to 400 ton work, with the 100-

The Logitech Mouse 

150-ton range being its "sweet spot" such as the Logitech hand held mouse. The company has global customers including parts for automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers.

Most suppliers of materials and the IMD process itself agree that this technology takes a lot of education to the OEMs before they look at it as a viable alternative to the traditional forms of decorating.

Neil Bolding, manager of quality for the technical marketing department for MacDermid Autotype Inc. that specializes in supplying specialty hard-coating films for IMD primarily for automotive cockpit applications, agrees that education is key. "We'd like to get more into appliance application such as the touch pad membrane control panels for laundry products," said Bolding. "In the U.S. we haven't seen a big movement into in-mold decorating but from a technical and aesthetic standpoint, it's cost related more than anything else. In-mold decorating can take three components and turn into one part for cleaner aesthetics."

Bolding concurs that in-mold decorating offers the ability to have added design features built into what is typically required, with form, function and cost considerations. "A lot of education needs to be done," he said. "In many ways it's a question of what the market is asking for and how do you supply that cost effectively."

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