P&G says iMFLUX has created a new way to mold
July 30, 2018
Hamilton, Ohio — After four years of secrecy, Procter & Gamble Co. is pulling back the veil on its Imflux process — an injection molding technology that uses low, constant pressure to fill the mold, controlled by software and pressure sensors in the mold and the nozzle.
“It’s a low, no-hesitating, constant pressure,” said Gene Altonen, chief technology officer of Imflux.
Altonen, a 27-year veteran of P&G and an injection molding expert, said: “Imflux is making real-time adjustments for viscosity shifts, whether it’s the material, the temperature or something in the mold. It is going to make these changes in real time, which gives you a more stable process.”
Imflux stands standard injection molding on its head — with its tradition of high-speed, high-pressure injection and the crossover point to pack-and-hold.
“We do these phases of the process simultaneously. We’re filling and we’re packing and we’re cooling all simultaneously. And because we’re doing that, when we finish filling the mold, it’s basically a done part,” Altonen said. A thicker part may need some additional cooling, but that is dramatically reduced, he said.
“You’re not putting the shear and the heat in,” Altonen said. Compared to traditional injection molding, he said, Imflux cuts mold costs, reduces cycle time and allows molds to run on smaller machines, cutting capital investment costs because the molder needs fewer presses.
P&G officials have been tight-lipped since forming Imflux Inc. in 2013.
Imflux CEO Nathan Estruth said a big part of the reason for all the secrecy is that P&G wanted to secure patent protection for the injection molding process. Now Imflux has more than 25 U.S. and 35 international patents, Altonen said. For patent applications, the number grows to about 70 in the United States and 100 internationally.
Altonen said Imflux will file 10 or more patents this year. He said the company also has a lot of trade secret technology, which is not patented.
Another reason for the hush-hush: The company wanted first to spread the technology within P&G’s internal injection molding operations and to outside molders that are considered strategic partners, Estruth said. That term describes outside molders that have the most volume of P&G work or who handle complete platforms.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble is a $65 billion consumer-products dynamo, a new-product machine. P&G has churned out brands and products like Gillette, Head & Shoulders, Crest, Mr. Clean, Tide, Dawn and Swiffer. Nearly all of them have some injection molded plastic content — mostly caps and closures, but also Gillette razors and blades and Braun shavers, which use engineering resins.
P&G does some molding in-house at its own plants and also uses outside molders. Company officials have declined to give a breakout, but Estruth said the first priority was transferring the technology inside P&G’s plastics universe.
“We wanted to make sure that we started to adopt it and embed it in P&G, which takes some time. It’s a long-term journey. It’s a big company, right?” he said. “But we wanted to make sure that we had first-mover status there and really were protecting the technology, and basically ensuring that we had sustainable competitive advantage vs. P&G’s competition in the marketplace as we did it.”
Imflux has moved to license the technology outside of P&G and its own packaging supply base — custom molders who supply a broad range of markets like automotive, medical, telecommunications and noncompetitive consumer products and packaging. “Anywhere that we think that there’s a throughput benefit or a material savings benefit, we’re willing to tackle,” said Jared Kline, vice president of customer operations.
Kline said so far, the licensing to non-P&G, custom molders has largely come from word-of-mouth and connections in the plastics industry. And Imflux’s connection to P&G means clout.
“While we’re a startup that’s trying to scale a disruptive technology, at the end of the day, P&G is an advantage to us because just about everyone in the industry will want to return our calls,” Estruth said. “So I don’t have to have a booth at NPE.”
But that is changing. Although Imflux still does not plan to exhibit at NPE next year, the company is opening up. In June, Imflux process engineer Ethan Stiefel spoke at Penn State Erie’s Innovation and Emerging Technologies Conference. Altonen, the top technical person at Imflux, made a presentation Oct. 5 at KraussMaffei Corp.’s open house in Florence, Ky.
KraussMaffei listed Imflux along with other suppliers as “participating partners” in the open house.
That signals another strategy by Imflux: to share its software and sensor technology with machinery makers, who play a key role in transferring new technologies to the broad injection molding market. Kline said Imflux is working with a number of other machinery companies, including Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., Wittmann Battenfeld Inc. and Milacron Holdings Corp., with more to come. “We actually partner with them to make an integrated software solution,” he said.
Imflux leaders drew back the curtain for a visit by Plastics News on Sept. 21 at its 200,000-square-foot headquarters in Hamilton, a northern suburb of Cincinnati. There, about 150 employees toil away designing and making molds for Imflux, working with customers and further refining the molding technology.
Many are experienced P&G plastics processing and tooling experts, like Altonen, a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Packaging and a holder of more than 50 granted patents, and Ralph Neufarth, an authority in mold designing and building who has been at P&G for 20 years.
Imflux has collected a diverse group of processing and toolmaking talent from leading plastics college programs at Penn State Erie, Ferris State University, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Shawnee State University and Pittsburg State University. The business also has recruited plastics veterans, like John Rousseau, who brings 35 years of experience in engineering, quality and tooling to his post as vice president of manufacturing at Imflux.
Rousseau, who joined Imflux in June, is in charge of the toolmaking operation. He said the company is always looking for good talent.
“If we find somebody that I don’t even have a spot for that is going to be an exceptional addition to the team, we’ll figure out how to make that happen,” he said.
Injection molding innovations from Imflux could save P&G several hundred millions of dollars a year in material costs and capital costs, since officials say they reduce mold costs and allows molds to be run in smaller-tonnage machines. One report said the savings could be up to $1 billion.
Estruth, the CEO, said Imflux has not come up in quarterly conference calls with financial analysts, but that executives have given out some cost-savings numbers to analyst meetings.
“It’s important for P&G from a core standpoint because we’re delivering savings,” he said.
The company does not publicly disclose details about the savings. The topic is sensitive, in part because P&G faced a proxy fight this year from billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, who runs Trian Fund Management LP. Peltz has been critical of P&G leadership and wants a seat on the board.
Even though P&G announced that Peltz lost his fight for a seat, he has refused to concede.
The Wall Street Journal called it the “biggest and most expensive proxy fight in history.” The boardroom battle transfixed Cincinnati, where P&G was founded in 1837. The company headquarters occupies a prominent place in the city’s skyline.
Beyond the internal cost-reduction savings for P&G-related injection molding, the broader licensing could reap bigger rewards.
Imflux officials are keeping mum about the technology-transfer numbers. They refused to identify both outside licensees and internal P&G molders — or even give out the number of companies using Imflux.
The firm’s website does say that Kline, an 18-year P&G veteran, has led “hundreds of installs across three continents.” (Each machine equipped with Imflux technology is considered an “install,” he said, adding that a license is on a per-machine basis.)
Kline also declined to say how much a license costs. An industry source said the amount is $50,000 for a license and an annual maintenance fee. Kline would not comment.
“It depends on the customer,” he said.
How it works
As he gave a PowerPoint presentation in an Imflux conference room, Altonen explained how the process is different — and in many ways, the opposite of injection molding practice since William Willert invented the reciprocating screw more than 60 years ago.
“With conventional processing, the school of thought is, inject really fast,” he said. “If you inject really fast, then you’re able to take advantage of the shear thinning properties of polymers, and so you’re getting that material into the mold at the lowest possible viscosity. And because you’re injecting very fast, you’re injecting at very high pressures.”
The long-standing injection molding process also has three distinct steps: fill, pack and cool. One important transition is moving from fill to the pack-and-hold stage, known as the switch-over point, a critical action to counteract the natural shrinkage in the cooled mold, and to fill out all the mold details with melted plastic before the plastic starts to solidify.
“We’re going to ram that stuff in there until I get to 95 percent full, then I’m going to switch over to a hold pressure,” he said.
“With Imflux, it’s kind of the opposite,” Altonen said. “We fill very slow; we’re filling at a very slow flow rate. And we’re doing that at very low pressures, which again is counterintuitive because the industry would eschew that your material’s going to freeze off and you’re going to have a short shot.”
Altonen said any hesitation in the injection cycle means Imflux wouldn’t work, resulting in a short shot and part defect. Proprietary software is crucial.
“The important thing is I’ve got to respond to the cavity pressure changes and I’ve got to do it with no hesitation. So there’s a lot that goes into the algorithms that guarantee that it’s not going to hesitate and create a problem,” he said.
On the hardware side, Imflux adds two types of sensors to the press and the mold.
A pressure transducer is mounted in the nozzle. “That becomes our primary control signal for our controller to maintain constant pressure in a manner that will not allow hesitation anywhere in the flow of the material in the mold,” he said.
Another pressure sensor goes inside the mold, usually placed at around 80 percent of fill, that measures the flow front. Altonen said the process uses just one sensor per mold, even on multicavity molds.
An Imflux-invented sensor called NightHawk gets bolted to the outside of the mold, to measure strain and deflection in the mold. “When we measure strain, we can convert that strain into a proxy for cavity pressure,” Altonen said.
That’s a big innovation, Altonen said. “And the advantage with this NightHawk technology is it’s very simple to add to a mold,” he added.
With data from the sensors, the Imflux software, in real time, adjusts the injection pressure to maintain the no-hesitation molding. The system can push a little harder if the viscosity goes up or a little less hard if the viscosity goes down. The melt front gets to the cavity pressure sensor at the same time in both instances, Altonen said.
“You get big improvements in the quality of the part. Because of the nature of how we fill, we get very, very tight dimensional control,” he said.
Company officials claim the technology’s ability to manage very large swings in viscosity makes Imflux ideal for running recycled plastic and materials with lots of colorants and additives.
“This allows you to run one process and just adjust for those processes real time as you dump them in,” Altonen said.
For bioresins, which can be shear- and heat-sensitive, Altonen said the self-adjusting flexibility, and the ability to run a very wide range of melt flow indexes, means Imflux can help a biomaterial work for many more applications.
Altonen also said Imflux offers what he called “unique advantages” for gas-assisted molding “because we form a very uniform and cooler wall section around that [gas] bubble. We can get larger bubbles and more uniform wall sections around the bubble.”
A trip inside Hamilton
The Imflux facility includes some walled-off areas on the floor as well as special, keyed-entry rooms. Kline said that level of security ensures customer confidentiality — and is the same reason company Imflux officials don’t give out any information on customers.
Altonen said Imflux brings the actual machines from customers to the Hamilton facility.
“We build molds here, and we’re putting them in our customers’ presses. We’re fully qualifying them in these presses. When that’s all done, we’ll pick the whole thing up and move it to their facility in the end,” he said.
Imflux also does R&D and mold trials. The company does not do any production molding.
In the “public” area of the building, about a dozen injection molding machines are lined up — a broad range of makes and clamping force tonnages including Milacron, Demag, Engel, Fanuc and Haitian. Some presses are newer, and others are older. All-electric. Hybrid. Fully hydraulic.
“This is all because we’ve got to train our people across this whole range of equipment,” Altonen said.
The older machines serve another purpose: demonstrating how Imflux sensors and software can make an old machine learn new tricks.
Brandon Birchmeier, technical director of field engineering, led some demonstrations. He molded a bucket mold with regular injection molding then switched on Imflux to show the difference, with no flash or molded-in stress, charting both on the controller screen. While traditional molding spikes pressure way up then down for the pack and hold, Imflux is more like a plateau. Fill is slower for Imflux, but the velocity changes, as dictated by the specifics of the part and polymer material.
“It’s automatically profiling itself to the geometry of the part. … We’re not telling it how fast to fill. We’re letting it decide itself how fast to go,” Birchmeier said.
Imflux also fills out the bucket mold more completely. It builds pressure to fill the flat area, on the bottom of the bucket, and then, as the melt hits the sidewalls, it starts slowing down, automatically, shot-to-shot.
Imflux also helps evenly fill out challenging areas like ribs and living hinges, he said.
Birchmeier said the NightHawk sensor gives the molder options on when in the cycle the sensor generates the pressure information, more than a fixed sensor can.
“I can make my sensor measure 50 percent full. I can make it measure 90 percent full. So I’m very flexible. And I can bolt it on the mold, in the press, in about an hour,” Birchmeier said.
Visitors to Imflux usually start with the bucket demo, running on a 450-ton press. Birchmeier said that normally, that part would need a 600- or 700-ton press to mold the buckets without flash.
He moved over to a 150-ton, 1996 Demag press to show, from one cycle to the next, how it changes from traditional high-pressure scientific molding using 12,000 psi to Imflux with 7,000 psi.
Molds: designed by Imflux
Rousseau, the VP of manufacturing, has a background in automotive molding and toolmaking, including work at Eclipse Mold Inc., KenSA LLC and Plastech Engineered Products Inc.
Imflux builds tools designed for its process, and “depending on the workload, we might reach outside once in awhile” to outside mold makers, he said. “But all tool design finalization goes through us to ensure that we’re taking Imflux into consideration in the tool design.”
Rousseau said toolmakers also can retrofit Imflux controls onto existing tools.
It’s a challenge just making enough Imflux molds for P&G and its major injection molding suppliers. Then there is the broader area of custom molders, including some giant automotive molds that Imflux cannot make in-house. Rousseau said the company is studying the best ways to penetrate that much bigger market and increase revenue while keeping the level of mold-building quality high.
Imflux does complete program management from the design to final runoff, working closely with customers. Because the plastics molding business is so diverse, Imflux has staffed up with toolmakers from a broad range of industries, including aerospace, medical, packaging and automotive. Mold jobs are ranked in different categories and matched with the mold making team that has appropriate experience. Every mold and mold design change gets a full Moldflow simulation analysis.
“We’re not beholden to one specific industry and one way of thought,” he said of the melting-pot staffing approach.
In Hamilton, the company runs a full-service mold operation with three-, four- and five-axis milling machines as well as wire EDM and sinker technology.
Rousseau said the operation also has an automated production line with one side making electrodes and the other side doing cavities and core sections.
One of the most recent patents, granted June 20, covers aluminum tools cooled by a closed-loop evaporative cooling system where the circulating fluid changes back forth between a liquid and a gas. Aluminum tooling is much less expensive that hard steel tools. Rousseau said that Imflux can be used on aluminum molds, with beryllium copper inserts, but at this point, the company is focusing on steel tools.
How Imflux came together
Usually, in injection molding, big technological innovations come from machinery manufacturers or plastics molding companies, not from consumer products giants. But Procter & Gamble Co. already had major talent in plastics.
So P&G constantly worked on improving its processes. But starting a standalone company? That was new.
Former P&G CEO A. G. Lafley set the tone when he decreed the company would focus on new technology, new brands and new business. Altonen recalled Lafley asking why car manufacturers can put a new model out in 18 months but it takes P&G three years to put a new cap on Pantene.
Lafley started a skunkworks division called FutureWorks, and the vice president was current Imflux CEO Nathan Estruth. He said the company changes the name from time to time, but the effort is the same: “You’re always renewing, figuring out ways to drive new value and new innovation.”
Lafley laid down the challenge: come up with breakthroughs that would deliver speed to market at lower costs.
About six or seven years ago, Altonen said, the injection molding team set an aggressive goal: molds at half the cost and half the time. A team of about 20 plastics leaders from across P&G met plastics leaders in what he called an “upstream corporate development project.”
He recalled the thinking: “Our approach that we settled on was, we said, what’s driving the cost and lead time of these molds? A lot of it was driven just by high pressure. You got hard steel tools. You got these multiple-step machining processes — you got to rough things, you got to semifinish a rough part and finish it. Really, you’re in the queue all the time, and we said, what if we could make molds that didn’t require all that strength and all those steps? And lower pressure might be an enabler do to that.”
Altonen is credited as the inventor of the core technology, but Imflux also consulted with other industry experts, including Milko Gergov, who created the Intellimold process that uses pressure transducers in the nozzle and the mold. His name is on some of the Imflux patents, along with the P&G inventors.
Gergov is a consultant for Imflux. “Milko’s a great, very smart guy. We work very closely with Milko,” Altonen said.
Gergov still owns his company, MGV Enterprises LLC in Ann Arbor, Mich. Altonen said Imflux bought some assets of the company. “We work and talk with Milko routinely,” Altonen said. “He’s a great guy. Great thinker.”
By looking critically at molds, the P&G plastics gurus moved to the molding process. “We developed a way to do low-pressure processing by filling extremely slow,” Altonen said. “And if you talk to people in the industry, they tell you, ‘You can’t do that.'”
The research surprised even the P&G experts. As Altonen said: “It’s absolutely counterintuitive.”
“We realized that, oh my gosh, when I fill slow, I would expect my cycle times to get longer. Well, they didn’t get longer, they got shorter. But not just a little bit shorter, a lot shorter. And so, we understood right away now at this point that, the processing technology could really stand alone all by itself and offer huge value to not just Procter & Gamble, but to the broader injection molding industry.”