In a manner atypical to its corporate style, Proctor & Gamble is promising a revolution in the injection molding field with technology it is developing through a newly formed subsidiary in Ohio that is rapidly staffing up and planning major equipment acquisitions.
Emphasis to date is on business impact, and not on revelation of any technical details except through patent applications. P&G CFO Jon Moeller told financial analysts: “It’s a
A pressure-regulating valve is the mechanical heart of P&G’s molding invention. A plug (shown in the middle) is actuated to control resin flow. USPTO drawing
disruptive proprietary breakthrough in the packaging area, and when rolled out across our businesses, it should deliver about $150 million in cost savings per year and will allow us to avoid about $50 million in capital expenditures annually. It will also bring significant sustainability benefits. It could reduce resin usage by over 100 million pounds per year and eliminate energy usage by over 250 million kilowatt hours. And finally, we’re hopeful that this breakthrough will allow us to reduce our time to market for package development by up to 50%.”
So what do we know?
In August, P&G spun out a new business called iMFLUX that had been incubated in its R&D area for about three years. Heading up the company is Nathan Estruth, a 22-year P&G veteran who most recently was VP Corporate Platforms (New Business Creation). Heading up R&D is Gene Altonen, VP Research & Development and described as the inventor of the iMFLUX core technology.
The company told economic development officials in Ohio, that it plans to spend $50 million in machinery and equipment in the next three years, and will have a payroll of $17.5 million by 2017 (230 jobs). Production is expected to begin next summer in a new 317,000 s.f. facility in Hamilton, Ohio.
So what is the technology?
A patent application filed late last year states: “Embodiments of the disclosed method surprisingly allow for the filling of a mold cavity at low melt pressure without undesirable premature hardening of the thermoplastic material in the mold cavity and without the need for maintaining a constant temperature or heated mold cavity.”
That implies a constant melt pressure on resin in the mold cavity that (within a 30% range) is very carefully monitored and adjusted. Because pressures are lower (under 6000 psi during filling), less expensive materials can be used to produce injection molds.
The technology includes use of a pressure relief valve located between the point of injection and the mold cavity. The purpose of the valve is to reduce pressure of the melt as it is being injected and to maintain pressure during filling.
So far, we have in-mold sensoring (located near the end of fill), closed-loop control, and a pressure-regulating valve that can maintain constant pressure in the mold cavity. It’s a particularly neat idea because the type of packaging eyed by P&G is very high cavitation.
It seems clear that one of the major goals of the P&G research was to reduce wall thickness of containers below 1 mm in an effort to reduce the amount of resin used and to reduce costs. That’s no trivial task for conventional injection molding.
In the currently used approach, resin adjacent to the walls of the mold cavity solidifies soon after injection. That layer shuts off the path of resin flow from the injection point. That problem escalates as molds are cooled in an effort to cut cycle times. Increasing the pressure of the melt as it is injected overcomes the “freezing” phenomenon. Boosting pressure using conventional technology can entail a significant increase in machine cost. Higher pressures can also reduce mechanical properties of the molded part, a major problem if thinwalling is your goal.
The new approach applies to many resins, although P&G’s focus is clearly on materials most important to its packaging: polyethylene and polypropylene. It’s fair to say that P&G sees this as a business that can be licensed globally.
The P&G invention tosses on its head conventional teaching in the injection molding field that resins typically require pressures of at least 6000 psi, and sometimes substantially above that level.
Implications of the breakthrough are that machines can be made with less firepower, but need to be controlled substantially more accurately than in the past. Aluminum alloys can be used for molds, reducing product development cycles and tooling costs. And products can be made thinner with no loss of mechanical properties, significantly cutting resin costs.
It looks like a wow. If P&G can deliver, it may go down as the most significant technology breakthrough since invention of the reciprocating screw in the 1950s.