LEONHARD KURZ won the 3rd main prize of the Bavarian Innovation Award for the IMD VARIOFORM® process with functional In-Mold Labeling (IML). The prize is given to outstanding innovative achievements and is therefore only awarded to a select few companies and service providers.
Since 2012, the initiative of the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Bavarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and the Association of Bavarian Chambers of Crafts has been awarding up to seven main and special prizes every two years. In 2020, a total of 190 Bavarian companies were nominated. The selection is diverse: From start-up companies to small craft businesses to large industrial companies from a wide range of sectors.
A prize that shows Bavaria's willingness to innovate as a business location and is only awarded to selected technologies. It is therefore no easy feat to earn this honor. Why did the prize go to the IMD VARIOFORM® technology? In a nutshell, because this process decorates plastic elements and adds functionality in a single processing step.
As KURZ has anchored the topic of sustainability in its corporate values, the development of technologies, processes, and products that contribute to resource conservation and, ideally, to a controlled circular economy, is an important objective.
Together with an extensive partner network, KURZ developed IMD VARIOFORM® with functional In-Mold Labeling as a series-ready process that can be used in various sectors. KURZ, as the project initiator, has its roots in surface decoration, but goes beyond that here, not least thanks to the expertise of its various subsidiaries. Design aspects, backlighting, and touch sensors play an important role in a holistic concept of the final components. KURZ brings together the best from the KURZ Group. After all, things only get truly exciting once you leave the comfort zone of tried-and-tested solutions.
KURZ works together with customers from a wide variety of markets. The desire for Human-Machine Interface solutions (HMI) is not only a major topic in the automotive sector. Organic product shapes, backlit surface designs, and replacing buttons and switches with touch operation are central approaches in many industries. Representing everything in a finished process, i.e., one that is capable of series production, has increasingly turned into a vision. On the one hand, this means developing highly efficient technology that easily decorates highly 3D-deformed components and, at the same time, equips them with a 3D-deformed sensor that enables touch operation. In cooperation with the machine specialist WITTMANN BATTENFELD and the tool expert GKTool, the production process was practically initiated based on the award-winning concept component. The created components have a futuristic design with backlighting effects and allow control of the light color, for example, via a touch control panel. The sensors come directly from KURZ subsidiary PolyIC and can be 3D-deformed due to their ultra-thin metal mesh support structure. This means that they can be flexibly adapted to even the most challenging shapes of a component.
With this innovation, KURZ has succeeded in bundling the four manufacturing steps of decorating, thermoforming, integrating a sensor, and punching a component in one production stage directly in the injection mold. Plastic sheets are formed in 3D using a high-pressure forming process that combines pressure and temperature. A specially developed foil feed device is used to refine the component, which guides the laminate foil through the tool. The blank is then cut fully automatically into the right shape, followed by the injection of a thermoplastic melt as a functional in-mold label. An example of this technological innovation is a specially designed component with a slider control function and backlighting.
The use of recycled plastic materials is also no problem with this innovation. The components are fully recyclable thanks to the thin-film technology of the decoration and the wafer-thin touch sensors.
Touch sensors have been around for a while, but touch sensors that function smoothly when completely 3D molded were actually patented during the development stage of IMD VARIOFORM® with functional In-Mold Labeling. Depending on the programming, the sensor can also control things other than the light color, such as the program selection of a washing machine. The day-night design approach, which makes the operation of surfaces really intuitive and can also be customized by selecting the light color, also makes an important contribution to the overall work of art that is innovation.
Just how innovative the technology is also becomes clear when considering that it is not only suitable for human-machine interface applications in the automotive industry. Rather, the process can also be used for household appliances or consumer electronics, turning them into functional products with a premium design. This technology is therefore rightly recognized as the next generation of leading finishing technologies.
Of course, there were some challenges that had to be overcome, starting with the creative concept. The following questions arose: What about the vision can be represented, and how? What should the final concept component look like? And which materials should be used to ensure recyclability at the end of the product life cycle?
For example, the backlighting capability of the surface design up to the edge of the component is one of the challenges that requires that the touch sensor on the rear side is translucent. It was a great project for all the technicians and engineers involved from the various partner companies, especially because it required the interplay of many individual skills and the consideration of many details.
The surface design, in particular, offers the possibility of visually supporting and highlighting a component’s design language. The dynamic decor with its impression of refractory prisms emphasizes the three-dimensional character of the component and highlights the advantages of technological innovation with its depth effect.
With the IMD VARIOFORM® component, in which the touch function is located in the central three-dimensionally shaped area, it was important for all parties involved to also provide the user with visual guidance to ensure intuitive operation. The very concise, large decor that wraps around the operating area makes it easy to operate the fully integrated touch sensor. The gentle gradient (the color gradient of the prism decoration towards the center of the component) visually guides the user to the center of the component, where the striking prism decoration appears again - but in an abstract, reduced version. The slider function of the touch sensor is seamlessly integrated underneath. Here, the backlighting effect supports the so-called tag design. Especially in poor lighting conditions and the absence of physical buttons, for example, it is all the more important to offer the user visual guidance in addition to a haptic tactile aid.
Apart from HMI integration, the currently strong trend towards a sense of well-being is also becoming increasingly important in all industries. The possibility of making the decor translucent makes it possible to create ambient lighting, the light color of which you can change and adjust via the slider depending on your mood. And an individually designed surface appearance can be created for different areas of application. If recycled plastic is used, it can be visually highlighted with a corresponding finishing or laminated with a wafer-thin layer of varnish.
The entire development process was a great team effort that went beyond KURZ’s company boundaries, and a great deal of know-how and commitment were needed. We relied on a strong trio to develop this technology: The machine manufacturer WITTMANN BATTENFELD Deutschland GmbH developed an injection molding system especially for the process. In this way, the plastic passes through the production stages of decoration, thermoforming, injection molding, and punching directly in the punching tool.
With GKTool, GEORG KAUFMANN Formenbau AG, we had a specialist for injection molding tools on our innovation team. GKTool’s patented In-Mold Wrapping (IMW) bending and trimming system is integrated into the process. This makes it possible to already finalize the plastic component during the injection molding process.
KURZ is an international company. The development ‘made in Bavaria’ was ultimately a product of customer feedback. Going forward, IMD VARIOFORM® can be used in various industries worldwide. HMI surfaces are on the rise, and not just in the automotive sector. In the future, touch operation and backlighting designs will be everywhere, from electric toothbrushes to futuristic smartphone speakers. Our IMD VARIOFORM® technology with functional In-Mold Labeling is the logical step towards efficiency and sustainability.
Sustainability will continue to play a central role for KURZ in the future. Relieving pressure on people and the environment and leaving a better world for future generations is our greatest motivation. Together with our customers and partners, we at KURZ want to further advance the concepts of Design for Recycling and the Circular Economy. We already have our own recycling program: The PET carrier material of the decorations, which is used for transferring wafer-thin varnish layers to paper or plastic surfaces, is recycled without residue. We are currently planning to set up recycling facilities at all our production sites around the world.
Combining the visions of the show cars and products of the future will be our own personal goal. Of course, this goal also comprises exciting projects, new paths, and a lot of interaction with experts from different industries and disciplines.
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