In today’s overcrowded consumer market, it’s the tactile and visual finishes of a container that gives it a unique standout on-shelf and in the consumer’s hand. When it comes to creating head-turning packaging in the food, personal care and consumer sectors, In Mould Labelling (IML) using injection moulding has the advantage over adhesive printed labels for quality, production costs, sustainability and those all-important emotional brand connections. Kevin Heap, packaging expert at Sumitomo (SHI) Demag UK explains why.
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From a quality perspective, IML leads the way. An unlimited range of colours, images and graphic designs can be applied to lids and containers using IML, resulting in photo-like images to create highly decorative and visual shelf displays. Likewise, brand owners can opt for matt or gloss finishes.
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Shaped packaging containers also lend themselves well to IML. Brands are increasingly turning to unique, geometric and asymmetrical packaging forms and shapes to create visual intrigue. Some emerging developments, especially in the cosmetics and personal care markets, include wavy rectangular or bulb-like containers, such as those used for liquid soap. In the food sector, products with dual compartments, such as yoghurt pots or snack dips, are also more commonplace today. It can be more challenging to stick printed self adhesive labels onto these less traditional packaging styles. However, because injection moulded labels are applied in the mould, it is much simpler for converters and manufacturers to achieve a consistently high quality finish.
Compared to other decorative techniques, IML is also much more flexible. For instance, you can easily adjust the format of the label to the packaging. It is even feasible to change the artwork during the production process.
For markets like confectionery, the adoption of IML is especially beneficial. Eager to eliminate the secondary decoration process, move to lighter weight containers and reduce scrap rates, IML caters varied tub sizes, seasonal gift packs and anniversary editions, generating full-colour IML graphics easily, to provide strong visual and brand reinforcement with quick processing changeovers.
In the personal care market, products once confined to the back of a vanity unit, now take pride of place on the bathroom shelves. For statement or higher-value brands, moulded labels are more resilient. Because the labels don’t peel off and are water resistant, for items like shampoo bottles, this helps to enhance the consumer experience.
Sustainability is another factor where IML has the advantage. Because the label is printed directly onto the packaging material, householders can recycle the packaging as a single container, making packaging more environmentally friendly. From a manufacturers’ perspective, printing the text and visuals directly onto packaging also means fewer resources are being used. In addition to reducing manufacturing costs, fewer machines and materials are required.
Most IML processes are automated and longer term this can save a business a significant sum on resources. In addition, the decoration aspect of their labelling can now be brought in-house rather than outsourcing, streamlining production and realising further cost savings.
While label substrates have become thinner - most filmic IML labels are around 40 microns - they have also advanced from decorating a small portion or strip of a pack to covering the entire container. For fresher foods, such as baked items, 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.
Previous challenges, such as label distortion on deeper containers - for instance ice cream tubs and yellow fats - have also been solved. It is now possible to apply labels to containers 80mm deep, while staying consistent and true. Smaller production runs are also feasible, with digital technology especially suited to shorter IML runs.
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.
Industry commentators predict that injection moulded IML will continue to grow the most rapidly of all primary-packaging label technologies between now and 2020. In part this can be attributed to widespread adoption of thin-walled packaging. 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.