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In-Mold Labeling: The Technology and Future of IML

For the past several years, there has been an increasing trend in the use and attraction of the “no-label” look. While still relatively new technology, many companies are switching to in-mold labels to attain such a look. Despite having a market share of only 2%, in-mold labeling, or IML, is a growing development.

The Basics of In-Mold Labeling

The process of IML begins in the same way that self-adhesive labels are manufactured; however, the IML has its own procedure requiring different machines and materials. Although ­­products using in-mold labeling appear to have no label at all, the label is actually bonded to the product- opening a wide variety of benefits. Whereas self-adhesive labels are glued to the surface of the product, IML fuses the label to the product resulting in the absence of the time, equipment, and labor costs of post-labeling procedures.

The In-Mold Decorating Association describes the process: a label “is placed in the open mold and held in the desired position by vacuum ports, electrostatic attraction or other appropriate means. The mold closes and molten plastic resin is extruded or injected into the mold where it conforms to the shape of the object. The hot plastic envelopes the label, making it an integral part of the molded object.” (1)

Arjobex America, one of the world’s leading brands in labeling substrates, is one of the suppliers of IML film. Market manager, Mike Dispenza, highlights the advantages of IML: “It can add structure to the plastic package which can reduce container weight and lower overall cost. The labels are applied during the container making process, labels are inserted into the mold cavity and containers come out fully labeled- as opposed to other decorating methods that require application after the contained is made. This second step can cost more.”(2)

IML-B, IML-I, and IML-T

IML can be processed three different ways: IML-B, IML-I, and IML-T. IML-B, or EB-IML, utilizes “blow molding” technology and is typically used on bottles. This technology is predominate in North American markets according to Labels US Tagleef Industries’ News, a section of Ti/AET Films. Ti Films offers: “a wide range of bi-axially oriented polypropylene packaging films suitable for applications as diverse as food packaging, labelling, adhesive tapes and other applications.” (3)

IML-I and IML-T applies the technology of injection and thermoforming. Commonly used in Europe, IML-I is generally used for open top containers. TI News reports: “The learning curve was steep, but AET has successfully developed a full line of I-IML films to meet the unique requirements of the North American market.” Ti/AET films has also developed white opaque voided, solid-core white, and transparent films as well as a custom engineered film for use with “cut-in-place” technology and a portfolio of lamination grade IML-I films with high gloss, protected ink and are dishwasher safe. Both variations have their benefits- IML-T being able to produce faster and IML-I being able to produce more intricate designs.

Paper or Plastic

Although in-mold labels can still be made of paper, the use of film-based IML is dominating the field. First to incorporate film-based IML, Arjobex America created a film for blow-molding using HDPE. Because most conventional bottles constructed with HDPE, bottles with HDPE film have 100% “regrind content.”  The film is also more durable and malleable allowing it to be used on products of various sizes and shapes while also being able to sustain its image and appeal over time.

The IML-I market is constantly expanding for better performance. A prime example, Ti/AET Films use of transparent films allows the consumer to see the product in clear containers creating a larger appeal to the consumer.  Similar to Arjobex’s film, AET’s labels are constructed of the same polymer, polypropylene, amplifying the products recyclability.

Just as important as the compound of the label, companies must consider the ink used to design the label. INX International Ink Co., a $1.3
billion company established in 1896, is the” leading provider of inkjet inks for digital printing.”(4) INX Digital’s “unique experience with innovative design and development of inkjet systems can provide customer-driven solutions in the areas of inkjet printing, production workflows and material handling. Inkjet print engines and printers are available as standalone products or for customization and integration into existing printing operation.”

Making the Mold

Different equipment is needed to manage the very thin and light material of IML film. IML must be die cut, but the procedures vary. Schober USA provides custom-built, high performance rotary equipment such as die-cutting equipment used to cut the thin film of in-mold labels. The company’s goal is: “to supply our customers with equipment built to the highest engineering standards and with cutting edge technologies so our customers can reap the benefits of increased lifetimes, higher production speeds and machine output, and superior quality products.”(5) Schober manufactures two different equipment variants specified for roll-fed or sheet-fed runs as well as systems for each to process short or long run jobs.

Die-cutting offline through machines like Schober’s is a more manageable option than die-cutting inline and slowing the process for many labeling companies. Not only is the process too demanding for inline, but the static electricity generated in the thin films presents a problem. The static can be beneficially, however, if used effectively to pin the label to the mold before the injection process.  Meech, a company that specializes in electro-static control technology, has addressed this issue with its 994 Hydra- a “miniaturized in-mold labeling pinning system.”(6) The 994 Hydra has miniature pinning heads to fit small mold tools, resistive coupling for “smooth, spark-free pinning,” easily-mounted small distributor housing, and a detachable supply cable for easy installation and replacement.

A Constantly Changing Market

IML has gained 2% of the total label market and its future prospective looks positive. Allowing products to be completely recyclable greatly boosts the benefits of IML along with the lack of time, energy, labor and space IML can save without post-mold labeling machines. However, every system has its trials and rivalries and the competition for labeling technologies is challenged by sleeve and heat-transfer systems.

A major obstacle faced by IML-B revolves around mass production and repurposing. Since the blow molding factories are separate from where the products are manufactured, brand owners are concerned that manufacturers will order a large inventory of pre-labeled containers to balance bulky orders from substantial retailers and the retailers will cancel or change their order. This would leave manufacturers with large quantities of pre-labeled, unusable containers. Many brand owners have implemented ‘late stage differentiation’ methods to prevent this risk and leave the shortfalls at a minimum.

Overall, IML provides the cheapest unit cost as well as having the highest quality in the field. Significant retailers such as Walmart are ardently encouraging durable and viable labeling systems such as IML. Sizeable companies, especially household product sellers, are looking into specialty IML including cold foil stamping. A trending growth and interest in IML-I is happening in both Europe and North America and is spreading globally.

Spreading the Word

Just like any relationship, communication is key is providing a functional and profitable system in the world of labeling. The Alexander Watson Associate holds several conferences, seminars, and workshops covering a variety of topics linked to labeling.

The latest IML related conference was held in April in Lijnden, Netherlands. The AWA In-mold Technologies Seminar had: “a label materials panel discussion and presentations by key industry players from all segments of the value chain who use in-mold technologies for decorating: associations, raw materials suppliers, equipment suppliers, converters, label printers, molders, brand owners and all who are associated and interested in the in-mold technologies for decorating.” Opening this doorway of communication between all parts of the labeling industry is fundamental.

The next event, The International In-Mold Labeling and Decorating Conference & Exhibition or AWA IMLCON and IMDCON 2014, will be held February 19-21 in Phoenix, AZ.

At a previous conference in 2012, Clare Goldsberry covered the importance of communication in IML. Goldsberry, an editor for Modern Plastics Worldwide, explained: “Mold makers typically build the type of mold they are asked to build and seldom try to educate OEMs and brand owners on available technologies. Mold makers need to educate and be educated in IML technologies and be prepared for innovation and collaboration. … Label suppliers need to educate brand owners and mold makers on label materials for IML, new technologies in inks and sustainability options.”

All parties need to communicate for the labeling industry to progress at its highest potential. The IMDA also lists major events in the IML field on their website. For further information, visit www.awa-bv.com or www.imdassociation.com.

More information:

 (1) http://www.imdassociation.com

(2) http://www.arjobexsecurity.com

(3) http://www.ti-films.com/americas/en/ti-news/highlights

(4) http://www.inxdigital.com/

(5) http://www.schoberusa.com/

(6) http://www.meech.com/

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