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P&G says Imflux has created new way to mold

By Bill Bregar | PLASTICS NEWS

Hamilton, Ohio -- After four years of secrecy, U.S. consumer products giant 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.

P&G, a $65 billion company with a stable of global brands including Gillette, Head & Shoulders, Crest, Tide, and Swiffer, has formed a 150-employee business unit, Imflux, where it's developed new molding technology that it's begun licensing to the industry.

P&G officials have been tight-lipped since forming Imflux Inc. in 2013, but are now starting to give out details at industry events.

They 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, employees design and make molds for Imflux, working with customers and further refining the molding technology.

In some ways, Imflux executives said, the process turns traditional injection molding upside down.

"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.

The company said it relies on proprietary software and different types of sensors it adds to the press and the mold.

The Imflux technology grew out of an aggressive goal that P&G set for itself about six or seven years ago, Altonen said: could they make 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."

Altonen 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."

The company estimates the molding innovations from Imflux could save P&G several hundred million 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.

CEO Nathan Estruth said Imflux has not come up in P&G 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.

Imflux officials said the technology is being licensed on a per-machine basis, and they declined to comment on licensing fees and suggested it can depend on the customer.

Beyond the internal cost-reduction savings for P&G-related injection molding, however, 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.

P&G has started working with a number of plastics machinery companies. Altonen, for example, made a presentation Oct. 5 at KraussMaffei Corp.'s open house in Florence, Ky.


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