NIGEL FLOWERS, Managing Director of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag UK, invites those who have not revisited in-mould labelling for a while to give it another long, hard look…
No one could describe in-mould labelling (IML) as the new kid on the block and perhaps having been around for so long makes it easier for brand-owners and packaging converters to overlook it. This is despite the fact that the balance between costs and benefits has actually undergone a considerable shift in recent years.
IML is gaining traction in the UK and Europe and generating interest beyond the automotive sector and yellow fats food categories. Now, other packaging categories, such as DIY, and a much wider range of foods are reaping the benefits.
Industry analysts signal that, while Europe commands the IML market with 58% of overall demand, its growth is barely on the radar compared to emerging markets, including South America and Asia Pacific – which have enjoyed an annual growth pattern of 17.5% and 7.5% respectively. Based on global IML volume, the injection moulding format (IML-IM) dominates at 68% in comparison to 31% for IML extrusion blow moulding and a mere 1% for thermoforming. This reflects the much deeper penetration of the technology in Europe, where, currently 95% is IML-IM compared to the other IML alternatives.
ON THE UP
Looking ahead, a new study by The Freedonia Group Inc. predicts that IML will grow the most rapidly of all primary-packaging label
technologies between now and 2019, with stretch, sleeve and heat-shrink labels also experiencing solid growth.
When it comes to the application of labels, techniques vary. In injection moulding the most common approach is to index pre-cut labels into the mould using a dedicated robotic arm, and immobilise them using vacuum or static electricity. The polymer is then rear-injected into the mould, while heat and pressure are carefully adjusted to deliver the required degree of melt in the film.
Converters and brand-owners in the UK and of Europe may express concern about entering a whole new market with a different set of suppliers. However, because the networks and reputations have had plenty of time to bed-in, new entrants stand a much better chance of latching onto established supplier relationships.
Europe’s track-record in IML-IM, along with its tried-and-tested supply chains, is a real advantage in this maturing primary packaging market. An experienced eye can conjure up cost savings – and other benefits – from unexpected sources.
Our company, for example, has actively recruited more in-house packaging specialists. Having access to this type of knowledge is invaluable, as packaging tends to need bigger and more complex moulds than other sectors. But at the same time, it typically requires less clamp force. Recently, Sumitomo (SHI) Demag reduced the machine specification for one packaging application from 160 tonnes, initially down to 130 tonnes, and now to just 100 tonnes.
WEIGH IT UP
The use of materials in IML also offers benefits. With the weight of packaging more closely scrutinised than ever before, IML-IM offers a cost-effective method of forming robust thin-wall containers with lots of visual shelf-appeal.
Most filmic IML labels are around 40 microns. Enhancements in pre-mould handling technology give converters the option of using label materials at the thinner end of the spectrum.
While label substrates have become thinner, they have also advanced from decorating a small portion or strip of a pack to covering the entire container. For food packaging this is a big development, as labels can incorporate multilayer barriers and even provide full-coverage to minimising oxygen penetrating the pack, extending shelf-life and reducing product waste.
The cost of converting to IML is equally encouraging. At Sumitomo (SHI) Demag the capital costs of systems have declined at an estimated 12-15%. Much of this can be attributed to the simpler integration of robots, which in the last five years has stripped out some significant expenditure in IML installations. Meanwhile, IML cycle times have got faster, varying from four seconds upwards.
CATCH THE CONSUMER
No sector is immune from today’s much fiercer competition for the consumer’s attention, and IML has proven benefits in terms of image-quality, consistency and overall visual-impact. Tactile and visual finishes gives a container a unique standout and that’s driving brand owners towards IML.
Higher-quality results are largely the result of dependable supplier relationships between IM machine manufacturers and tool, downstream equipment and IML robot manufacturers. This joined-up approach is vital in label converting to ensure the ideal machine calibration to achieve optimal functionality.
Finally, for those contemplating converting to IML, the wider IML machine-footprint must be factored in too. Effectively, a label insertion system requires the same amount of space again as the IM machine itself! However, converters that have the physical capacity to expand, and the imaginative capacity to spot the opportunities, will offset any drawbacks against the huge – and growing – advantages offered by this technology.