Used for heavy industrial applications and long a favorite of science fiction writers and movie makers over the past decades, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (laser) technology is carving out a niche in micro-machining molds and in post-molding decoration to alter the look and feel of containers.
One of the companies at the forefront of this underutilized package design tool is R&D/Leverage, which unveiled its new Laser Processing capability at Pack Expo 2012 as the company's latest addition to its "idea to mold" holistic approach to package creation around structural brand development and mold manufacturing.
Adam Nelson, the company's laser business manager, reports a "tremendous amount of interest" in the technology at the show. That interest was split among a visitor base of converters and of brand owners, the latter of whom see the benefit of lasers in creating iconic textures for custom containers.
According to Nelson, consumer packaged goods makers can benefit from custom, machine-based textures, structures and surface treatments that go far beyond milling and that have an added eco-friendly appeal.
Adds a tactile aspect to packaging
"Our Laser Processing is a truly repeatable process that delivers visual and tactile qualities and grabs consumers at the point of sale," Nelson says. "Our experience tells us that the tactile aspect of a package is as important as the visual cues-the package has to look and feel good in the consumer's hand.
"Without using chemicals or complex, time-consuming mechanical processes, we can now customize organic and non-organic textures to perfectly match the brand requirements of a product," he continues. "Our micro-machining laser-defined texture can machine metal to 0.0005 of an inch-eight times smaller than the human hair-and do it as much as five times faster and six times as efficiently as conventional tooling."
Examples of organic textures include custom-designed rain drops, wood grain, leather-look, pebble patterns, even fingerprints. Non-organic textures might include geometric shapes, herringbone patterns, plaids and more.
"We can literally create a texture from an image of an organic and, for example, generate a maple leaf design with veins for a syrup package," Nelson says.
In other words, lasers can do for package design what high definition has done for television.
The technology is applicable to any plastic-molded product whether for a medical, personal care, food or beverage application. Other vendors offer post-mold laser-decorating techniques to customize plastic or glass containers (see "Lasers add a touch of class to glass" below).
"The idea of widening the design space for brand owners is very exciting as they are constantly pushing their packaging to help differentiate the product in the market," states Nelson. "The idea is to focus on both the conscious and unconscious needs of the end user. We have found that a visual look through variation of texture is as important as the more traditional idea of uniqueness through shape only. We also believe the tactile feel gives the user a positive experience that they unconsciously desire, but generally have a hard time directly communicating."
The company says that the laser-enhanced design details can be functional for the package as well, for example a unique grip on a container handle that really engages the consumer.
Widen the design space
The laser is used not to create a mold, but to supplement, enhance and otherwise add intricate detail features to the mold.
"We still use conventional machining technologies for creation of the large cavities, but have found that the laser offers us flexibility in manufacturing," Nelson tells Packaging Digest. "We create the blow-mold cavity on a milling machine and then use the laser for processing of micro cavities, texture patterns or other features. We are generally five to seven times faster with the laser than traditional mold tools such as Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) and more like 10 to 12 times more cost effective because there are no additional electrodes, manufacture of electrodes or other supplies that are needed for conventional machining."
According to Nelson, R&D/Leverage uses 100-watt YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet) lasers that are fitted to a machine platform with 5-axis positioning capability that allows them to create complex geometric shapes used for blow-mold or injection mold cavities.
In an interview in November with PlasticsToday (see www.packagingdigest.com/pt-laser), Nelson said that the new laser equipment available to moldmakers today has made laser reproducible and brought a technology into manufacturing that can greatly increase efficiency in time and cost when texturing is required for a mold.
"It's easier to bring in this equipment and train people in its use, and provide value-add through customization of textures" said Nelson. "While there's always the art work that's required to do this, the 3D software package allows us to take a picture of anything and translate that to a 3D surface and apply it to any portion of the mold. It opens up the design capability and allows the ultimate in customization of molded parts."
Nelson informs PD that the biggest hurdle is educating potential customers-or their customers-on what the technology can do so that options are considered during the creative and design phase.
LasX Industries Inc., 651-407-0011
Pochet du Courval, 973- 942-4923
Totani America Inc., 920-632-7319
Sidebar: Lasers add a touch of class to glass
In addition to the unique details that lasers can add to a range of products to lift even commodities such as soft drinks, Solev in France uses lasers to take aim at the company's specialty markets in high-end products such as perfumes, cosmetics and spirits. Used for bottle decoration in markets where branding and appearances are of paramount importance, laser cutting has been raised to an art form since 2010.
One recent example from Solev is for JPG "Classique" X Collection, Eau de Parfum in 50- and 100-mL glass containers supplied by Solev parent company Pochet du Courval. The bottles were further decorated by Solev including the sharp laser cut of the "dress" portion of the bottle that is highlighted with a special ultra-deep black varnish. JPG is a brand of Beauté Prestige Intl.
Sidebar: Other apps for lasers in and on packaging
Lasers have been around for years in packaging. One of the more common applications have been the online laser coding of production data onto packages or labels as a permanent alternative to inkjet or other coding methods. Another application upstream of packaging production includes the laser-cutting of complex designs into folding cartons.
Lasers are also used in film converting to yield value-added packaging. Examples include perforated or scored flexible substrates for easy-opening features or to create breathable films used in modified atmosphere packaging or for self-venting of microwavable products. For breathability and venting, lasers are claimed to have advantages over the mechanical alternatives such as controlled depth; consistent, clean holes with sealed edges; adjustable perforating patterns; and others.
One vendor in the digital laser converting equipment market is LasX Industries Inc., which at Pack Expo 2012 announced a partnership with pouch-making machinery supplier Totani America Inc., to develop equipment solutions that deliver in-line laser scoring and pouching capabilities to the package converting marketplace. LasX also maintains a toll division that provides contracted laser services for materials.