Like many other industries in 2022, the world of plastics is currently facing shortages. Namely, resin. This shortage has the potential to create gaps in supply chains, which can have a trickle-down effect in the production, design, and delivery of household products and appliances that use plastics (think washers, dryers, dishwashers, microwaves, and more).
The positive news? Manufacturing lines have faced shortages before, and our teams around the world are busy researching alternatives to help ensure supply chains can continue moving smoothly. What is this taking? It involves adjusting our in-mold labeling (IML) formulas, finding new reliable sources for materials, and lots and lots of testing.
IML printing requires resin. Resin is human-made, and there are several choices depending on the final use of a product or testing specifications. Traditional choices for IML resins include:
PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) - this resin is often used in disposable products like water bottles or cosmetic cases.
ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) - this type is used for harder surfaces, like hard-shell luggage, or computer keyboards and mouses.
PC (Polycarbonate) - this material comes in thick, clear sheets and is often used in place of glass. Think car dashboards, eyewear lenses, electronics, and even greenhouses.
PMMA (Polymethyl methacrylate/Acrylic) - similar to PC, this resin is clear, durable, and shatter-resistant. Applications include safety glasses, telescopes, rear lights for vehicles, LCD screens, aquariums and more.
It’s helpful to first think about how an IML product is created, with three main ingredients: film, inks and resin. If we picture the IML process as a sandwich, the film and resin would be the bread, and the ink would be the filling in the middle.
In the IML process, we typically print the ink onto the back of the film, and then use an adhesive to unite the resin layer. This is the main step that results in high-quality IML products — adhering the film and ink to the resin.
So, due to chemical properties and reactions during the process, many films and inks can only work with specific resins. For example, an adhesive used for PET will not cohere well to an ABS resin. This could result in delamination or breakage over time.
Because of this, we’re currently researching two main areas: alternative resins and alternative adhesives. Adopting these alternatives can offer flexibility in the long-run, and ideally keep supply chains from short-term stalling due to a lack of traditional IML materials.
Right now, we are both actively searching for alternatives and being presented with new material options from the manufacturers we work with. Production feasibility is our first concern, so we start small. We produce a few parts, measure and test, and then repeat a few times. If the outcome appears to be positive, we propose further review and testing to our customers.
This phase can take some time. Because we’re introducing new materials, they need to go through our (and often our customers’) rigorous testing protocols. Every material has the potential to react differently to water, fire, humidity, UV rays, touching, pressing, and more. Some of these tests take months to complete, meaning the entire process can take up to 4-6 months before full production.
We also need to consider how a new material is going to affect our production equipment. Some resins can be adopted without changes, while others require modifications and monitoring to ensure our production parts don’t get damaged along the way. Occasionally, we are able to build new tools to keep the IML process running smoothly, though that alone can require another 4-6 months of creation and testing.
Challenges like these are part of the rich heritage we have as manufacturers, and we’re confident we will all come out stronger and with new innovations because of it. Right now, we’re in a phase of testing, adopting, researching, and trying new things. While the innovation phase takes time, we’re looking forward to having new processes in place for the future. This kind of flexibility in IML printing has the opportunity to open new doors when it comes to plastics printing — cost-effective alternatives, more design freedom, expanded sourcing avenues, and more.
Contact us if you’d like to start a conversation about your IML printing needs. We’re here to brainstorm with you, and find a way to bring your product to the market like we’ve done for thousands of others in our 45-year history.