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To Decorate or Not to Decorate – That is the Question!
   by Jeff Peterson
   Strategies   Fall  2007
  
Custom injection molders and other processors often have struggled to determine if decorating the molded parts they produce should be accomplished in-house or through a contract decorating company. The answer certainly is not always cut and dried, and there can be many factors involved in determining the right direction to take. Is the project intended to be long-lasting or is it a short-term mold? What is the complexity of the decoration on the part? Is it a wet or dry decorating process? These are just a few of the questions that a molder must ask before determining the best approach.

Advantages of Using a Contract Decorator
There are many advantages to utilizing a contract decorator verses decorating in-house. First (and most obvious), decorating is the focus of a contract decorating company, where molding is the focus of an injection molder. There are many who will argue that it’s best to let the company with the expertise in a specific field perform the work. “When a competent decorator is selected, the molder is gaining the expertise of the entire company from the fixture design on up,” stated Steve Brock, sales manager for Unique Assembly & Decorating, Inc. “In the hands of the right contract decorator, the project should be more successful since decorating is the sole focus of the company.”

When a one-time order comes in with a request for decoration by a method that a molder currently does not provide in-house, then using an outside source is definitely the best approach. Most contract decorators offer a multitude of services, including pad printing, screenprinting, hot stamping, painting, and others. In addition to the convenience of using a contract decorator for short-run or one-time jobs, it may be worthwhile to consult a decorator at the beginning of any project to help determine the best way to decorate the product. A contract decorator might be able to offer an alternative method of printing or decorating the product, saving the molder and the end customer overall costs or providing a more aesthetic look to the product. This could be the difference between receiving the order or watching it go to a competitor. For example, if the product includes a multi-color logo or image, it may be less expensive to apply a heat transfer, where the image is pre-printed on a polyester film carrier and can be easily hot stamped to the product, verses having it pad printed or screenprinted in several colors in register. This, again, depends on the application and the number of pieces that must be decorated.

Another advantage to utilizing an outside source for decorating is that it is not necessary to have skilled operators on staff. This is especially important for more difficult decorating jobs. “Determining whether it is necessary to send a decorating job to a contract decorator often comes down to the level of difficulty,” states Jordan Rotheiser of Rotheiser Design – a longtime consultant to the plastics and decorating industries. “The most demanding applications usually go to contract decorators because few in-house decorating departments possess the equipment and skill levels required for the most difficult jobs.”

Contract decorators also can be helpful with the start-up of a project, knowing that the molder may bring the decorating in-house down the road. There have been applications where the molding company has purchased the decorating equipment and actually installed it initially in the contract decorator’s facility. The decorator can work out all of the details with ink, foil, tooling, and so forth before the machinery and job are passed on to the molding company. This can work well if the molder and decorator are up front with each other and both understand what the long-term plans are for the project.

Every molder should have a good handle on the known cost verses the perceived cost of the project. By outsourcing the decorating portion of a project, the molder has a known decorating cost. Poor production days, equipment maintenance, printing consumable costs, operator sick days, and absenteeism become the responsibility of the decorator – all of which can increase the overall costs when the project is complete. Because the decorating portion is a secondary process and not the main focus of a molding company, many times these costs are much more difficult to control.

Finally, consider that using an outside vendor for decorating services, especially when ink and/or paint is involved, will eliminate the regulations that go along with pad printing, painting, or screenprinting. “Setting up a paint line or other decorating line requires a great deal of paper work and a construction permit that must be applied for months in advance of building it,” states Paul Saddler, president of Screen Tech. “There are also EPA and OSHA standards that must be followed, including the reporting of VOC levels and tracking the waste stream all the way to final disposal.” This is the life-line of a contract decorator’s business and all regulations must be followed carefully. By outsourcing the decorating portion of a project, the molding company can concentrate on what it does best – making plastic parts.

Advantages of Decorating In-house
On the other side of the table, there are molders who are more comfortable with keeping secondary processes, such as decorating, in-house. “We have found that having complete control over the entire project from start to finish has been the best approach for us,” states Scott Titzer, vice president of Infinity Molding and Assembly. “This helps us stay competitive and keeps lead times to a minimum.”

Having decorating and assembly services in-house has helped molders like Infinity to provide “value-added” services, keeping profit margins up and differentiating themselves from other custom molders.

Eliminating freight costs is certainly an advantage to keeping decorating in-house, although the type of product that is being decorated and the location of the contract decorator must all be considered. Fragile products are more apt to be decorated or assembled in-house where there is a major concern with breakage or damage. There have been cases where a contract decorator has set up a printing area in a molder’s plant and brought in its own operators to eliminate the shipping and handling of a product.

In-house decorating also is more prevalent for molders who specialize in molded products that are commonly decorated or virtually always decorated. A drink cup manufacturer or cosmetic product manufacturer are good examples. Most all of these types of products are decorated in one manner or another.

Another growing trend is the ability to decorate a product in the mold via an in-mold label. The technology for this continues to grow with advanced technologies in robotics and in-mold decorated labels. It is an excellent choice for safety labels and other labels for durable goods, including toys, lawn and garden equipment, and others where permanence (even with heavy use) is crucial. Another advantage of in-mold labels is that the decorating is done on the label before it is applied, eliminating any use of wet ink in the process. Companies such as Chicago Decal Company work closely with durable goods customers who produce plastic parts to help them decorate the part in the mold. “In-mold decorating is not the solution for all applications, but it can be the answer for plastic parts where a permanent label must be applied. We have worked with many molders to set up a system that speeds production by eliminating any post-mold decorating processes,” stated Dave O’Neill, sales manager for Chicago Decal Company. “And to offer the most value to molders, we like to be involved throughout the process from concept through production. That ensures a successful project.”

Every application should be evaluated carefully before a decision is made as to whether to keep the secondary process in-house or utilize a contract decorator. The bottom line is that molders should look at each project from every angle before making a final decision. What might seem to be the best decision on the surface may be a deterrent to the profitability of a project in the long run.

References:
Dave O’Neill, Chicago Decal Company, www.chicagodecal.com, (630) 850-2122
Scott Titzer, Infinity Molding and Assembly, www.infinity-mai.com, (812) 831-5116
Jordan Rotheiser, Rotheiser Design, (847) 433-4288
Paul Saddler, Screen Tech, www.stdesigns.com, (812) 376-0310
Steven M. Brock, Unique Assembly & Decorating, Inc., www.uniquepadprinting.com, (630) 241-4300