In-Mold Decorating Project Success: More than Technology

by Dave Schoofs, Central Decal Company
To complete a successful project, you need to know how to use the tools, such as APQP, PFEMA and others, to overcome any challenges. Teamwork between suppliers and molders is key.

There are many articles written about “successful product launches.” Most articles focus on go-to-market strategies or on using tools such as APQP, PFMEA and FMEA to identify the feasibility and manage the engineering/developmental portion of the project. While all of these tools are important, innovative solutions require skills, techniques and other key elements critical for success.

Innovative projects are an adventure to a new destination. Like all adventures, you need to know where you are going and sometimes, it is more important to know why. You need to accept the fact that you will encounter unforeseen challenges, often at the worst possible time.

So, what is the real difference between the success and failure of an in-mold project? APQP, PFEMA and all the other tools are required, much like a hammer and screwdriver for weekend projects. Proper use of the tools can get you about 90-95 percent of the way to completion. However, to complete the project, you need to know how to use the tools – and have the drive – to overcome any challenges.

Assessing the in-mold project

Successful projects utilize the typical quality tools and five key elements during product and project development.

  1. Define the goal. Quite simply – why are you doing this? Common goals for in-mold decorating might include reducing cost, minimizing assembly, improving durability, minimizing scrap, providing consistent product, enhancing brand image, improving design aesthetics and enhancing user interface. No matter the goal, everyone must focus on achieving the defined goal; if not, the project is somewhat jeopardized.
  2. Define a team of players. Don’t develop in a vacuum. For in-mold projects, you need a team with representatives from the OEM, the molder, the toolmaker, the robotics company and the graphic supplier that is committed and can provide expertise and value. The team must be engaged early in the project, and each representative must develop and manage his/her support team. An indicator of a troubled in-mold project often is seen in a company that will design parts and tooling based on the advice of “experts” who have no skin in the game. The OEM will then shop the project and select the lowest cost supplier. A run-of-the-mill product may have success. If it is truly a cutting-edge design or new to the OEM and molder, the project may be in for a rough ride.
  3. Define an achievable timeline and milestones. That is not to say that you always need a lot of time. Instead, make the most out of whatever time you have for design, project review, testing and development of the tooling, graphics, robotics and fixtures.
  4. Define the project cost and price parameters that support the goal. By this, I mean the true “honest” total cost and prices. Don’t forget realistic quality/scrap costs, hidden assembly operations, logistics and the commodity management costs. Once defined, the team leaders own the costs and are responsible for monitoring and reporting any variances and suggesting cost avoidance solutions to the team.

The fifth element is probably the most critical and often defines the real difference between success and failure. So, what accounts for the last 5-10 percent? Before we get into that, let’s review a recent project that included some unique challenges.

In-mold project case study

To set the stage, an OEM manufactures two brands of durable lawn mowers. This company is not the largest manufacturer in its market; however, it rapidly is gaining market share because of the products’ value and durability. During the redesign of a product, the OEM’s marketing team identified that the location of the brand graphic on the side panel is highly susceptible to abrasion. This abrasion will damage and destroy the brand graphic, negatively impacting brand image.

So, the OEM started the four-step process. First the company defined the goal – “create the most durable and repeatable decorating method” – and in-mold decorating was selected. The OEM added project requirements that supported leveraging the housing across different brands, which is common in lawn and garden applications.

Next, the OEM selected the molder. The molder then selected the robotics team, the toolmaker and the graphics supplier. Why did the molder select these suppliers? It was not clear to me until near the end of the project. During this meeting, the team collectively committed to supporting a project for which

  • two brand graphics will be utilized that have significantly different sizes and shapes;
  • the housing is completely textured with a heavy, deep texture;
  • static charging is the only feasible method for label placement; and
  • the gate location required to minimize knit lines could push the insert.

The team was introduced to the project goals and given a 16-week timeline to mass production. The molder then defined the major milestones. The toolmaker, graphic supplier and robotics team defined their timelines, milestones, deliverables and costs.

Over the next 16 weeks of development and product validation, a true sense of camaraderie developed within the team. When challenges were encountered, there was no finger-pointing; rather, the response was “how do we, as a team, get back on track to achieve the goal?”

How was this team approach accomplished? First, we met as a team and collectively kicked off the project at the OEM’s location. Then, the team met weekly to review our activities and action items. Sub-teams were developed and were allowed to interact freely. As the graphic supplier, I worked directly with the OEM on the graphics development and provided marketing samples. We supported the EOAT and fixture development with fit and function samples. In addition, we worked closely with the molder to validate the label construction.

As we moved closer to launch, unforeseen challenges were encountered. These rapidly were addressed, and the project moved forward.

The project launched, and all went well until the second production round of graphics. The parts went from running well to running poorly when the second lot of parts was introduced. The inserts were identical to the first lot. What changed? Typically, this is when the shouting and finger-pointing begins, and the excuses start to fly. Rather than placing blame and taking the stance that the problem was someone else’s problem, the team worked together to resolve the challenge. As the graphic supplier, we committed and redirected resources to develop and validate countermeasures. The team members worked together and resolved the challenge within a short period of time. Now, after five months of production, total scrap is in the low single digits. The molder has defined the project as successful and at 100 percent of plan.

Why did we achieve success? It is quite simple. The foundation of this project included the five key elements, including the fifth element missing from the recitation above.

  1. The fifth key element is PAACE: the Professionalism, Attitude, Aptitude, Commitment and Experience of the team as it resolved unforeseen challenges. PAACE is not easily identified until challenges arise. Do the companies work together to resolve any and all challenges, or does ego and attitude get in the way?

So, what other factors supported success? Why did the molder select the suppliers, and how did the molder manage the team on this project?

  • The team members represented all elements of the project. This project was not designed and developed in a vacuum. This included tool design, resin selection, graphic design, etc.
  • All team members had skin in the game and provided value. Any non-value-added suppliers and influencers who did not have skin in the game were not on the team.
  • The team met weekly to review status and action items. The project leads and suppliers were allowed to interact freely. If anyone attempted to restrict the interaction, they were eliminated from the team.
  • The molder selected suppliers based on Professionalism, Aptitude, Attitude, Commitment and Experience.

Dave Schoofs works in product development for Central Decal Company, Burr Ridge, Illinois. Central Decal provides in-mold inserts, pressure- sensitive graphics, dimensional logos and permanent transfers that are functional, decorative, informational and enhance brand identity. For more information, call 262.689.5858 or visit