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Time to take another look at in mould labelling?

19 July 2016

The balance between costs and benefits of in mould labelling has recently undergone a shift. Nigel Flowers says that now is a good time for the food sector to look at this technology.  

In mould labelling (IML) is beginning to generate 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 still commands the IML market with 58% of overall demand, huge growth is being seen in  emerging markets – including South America and Asia Pacific – which have seen an annual growth 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. 

A recent study by The Freedonia Group predicts that the technology 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. The most common injection moulding 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 adjusted to deliver the required degree of melt in the film.

With the weight of packaging being more closely scrutinised IML-IM can offers a cost effective light-weighting solution, having the ability to form robust thin-wall containers with visual shelf appeal. Most filmic IML labels are around 40 microns. 

While label substrates have become thinner and lighter, they have also advanced from decorating a small portion or strip of a pack to being able to cover the entire container. For food packaging applications this is a big development as labels can now incorporate multilayer barriers and even provide full coverage, minimising oxygen penetration to help extend shelf life and reduce product waste. 

The cost of converting to IML is equally encouraging. The capital costs of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag systems, for example, have declined by 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.  New technology developments have also increased cycle times which can now vary from four seconds upwards. 

No sector is immune from competition for consumer attention, and IML has proven benefits in terms of image quality, consistency and overall visual impact. Tactile and visual finishes can make a container standout and it it is this that is driving many brand owners towards IML today. 

Previous challenges, such as label distortion on deeper containers –for instance ice cream tubs and yellow fats – have been solved and it is now possible to apply labels to containers 80mm deep, while staying consistent and true. 

The modular flexibility of todays systems enables a wide range of packing shapes and label types to be run through one system, so smaller production runs are now possible. 

For those contemplating converting to IML, the wider IML machine footprint does, of course, need to be taken into account. Effectively, a label insertion system requires the same amount of space again as the IM machine itself! However, for those with the physical capacity to expand, and the imagination to spot the opportunities, now might be a good time to take another look at IML. 

Nigel Flowers is managing director of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag UK.

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