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Sputtered single-use silverware

DTI Globalwatch : 19 October, 2006  (Technical Article)
In D-2’s CM system a high-output DC power supply provides an electric field that helps energize argon gas into a blue plasma, consisting of positively charged argon ions.

Innovative use of a manufacturing technology that produces uncommonly high-tech products like DVDs can make even the most commonplace products high-class.

In June 2003 a leading U.S. manufacturer of injection molded disposables, Waddington North America (WNA; Chelmsford, MA), launched an exciting new line of patented, single-use cutlery that it trademarked “Reflections.” Before that time you could get your plastic knives, forks, and spoons in white or black. However, WNA’s Reflections line sparkles and shines like silverware.

A patent-pending inline vacuum metallizing technology called the CM System made this new line of disposable silverware a success. It was developed by D2 In-Line Solutions LLC (Gray, ME). Also known as “sputtering,” vacuum metallizing is a process for applying high-quality reflective metal films to injection molded plastic parts. High-quality reflective films also can be added for functional purposes. If you’re familiar with how CDs and DVDs are made, you know that fully integrated molding and vacuum metallizing zeroes out labor costs and WIP between those two steps of the process. D2’s roots are in optical disk manufacturing.

D2’s president, Don Parent, and most of his colleagues once worked for a company called First Light Technology (Saco, ME) and First Light/Steag, following its acquisition by a German company in the late 1990s. First Light helped pioneer the development of the downstream disk manufacturing systems used in today’s fully automated disk manufacturing lines. It was first formed in the late 1980s by a major equipment supplier to the international optical disk business, Netstal-Machinery Ltd. (Naefels, Switzerland).

Parent says D2’s technologies have terrific potential for cost-effectively adding value and functionality to many other molded products, no matter how mundane they might seem to be. With repeatable process control, inline metallization produces higher margins for commodities by providing distinguishing new appearances and capabilities. And he says it contributes to product differentiation without increasing labor content.

In doing so, Parent adds, inline sputtering can help to slow the so-called “race to the bottom” of price and margin.

What it is
WNA uses D2’s Cutlery Metallization systems in fully integrated workcells combined with state-of-the-tech injection molding machines and high-speed takeout robots. This was a very challenging robotics application. The robot had to remove the cutlery, appropriately stage the parts for the metallizer interface, and supply the parts to D2’s metallizer. For this application, a Model W632 robot with a custom-designed EOAT from Wittmann Inc. (Torrington, CT) was supplied, as was custom-built downstream automation. The robot’s gripper allows for the quick gripping and positive retention of parts from all of the cavities.

Parent says his company’s CM systems are designed for simplicity, reliability, and ease of use. Key machine components include various time-tested, off-the-shelf pumps, valves, power supplies, and cathodes.

Patented high-speed input/output barrel valves of D2’s own design provide 350-msec open and close times. “Some of these valves have demonstrated well over 3 million cycles to date, under production conditions with only basic scheduled maintenance,” says Parent.

D2’s CM systems also incorporate the use of high-performance sputtering magnetrons and power supplies from world-class vendors with proven track records of reliability in CD and semiconductor industries, according to Parent.

The operator interface is PC-based and is equipped with a touch screen and simple graphical menus. Operator and service-tech modes are designed to permit easy machine operation, but there also are selectable, higher-level diagnostic capabilities in the control. And major machine operating events, errors, unauthorized button pushes, and the like, are saved to a database to facilitate process optimization and diagnostics.

How it works
WNA approached D2 to help it develop an inline metallizing system that could make products that emulated the look of fine silverware at high speeds and at a reasonable price for a single-use item. Understandably, Parent saw this as a challenging prospect.

“We discovered early on that many of the solutions that work for CDs were not workable for the cutlery application,” he says. “Most disposable cutlery is manufactured from PS, which requires very different processing conditions from PC used for CDs. Our first CM system was the test platform from which the final, optimized inline process was refined.” As with any inline process, the cycle time and throughput of the CM system had to match the cycle time and throughput of the injection press. “Such rapid cycle operation requires very short load-lock roughing times and quick part movement,” Parent says. “This was accomplished through the design of our fast-acting valve, which quickly moves parts in and out of the system.”

For such a high-volume item as cutlery, the CM system is designed to metallize tens of millions of parts per year, with minimum labor content, and to match metallizing time to the high-speed cycle time. WIP within the cell amounts to just more than 1 minute of total production. The system also is designed for user-friendliness and for providing virtually instantaneous part inspection.

WNA has since purchased additional CM systems to increase production capacity and meet growing market demand for its Reflections products after forming an exclusive relationship with D2 for food service applications.

What’s ahead
“Our experience with the cutlery application has validated for us that this fully integrated workcell approach is financially viable on other high-volume, relatively low-cost articles,” Parent says. “The CM system is an area-for-area machine, meaning that, when properly sized, its processing/coating area fits well into the footprint and the available processing area of molding machines.

“Therefore, several different types of parts may be coated with our system, matching the capability of molding machines. And the CM system is scalable to a variety of molding machine sizes.”

In addition to its CM system, D2 has developed other patented and patent-pending inline vacuum metallizing systems for adding value and functionality to other types of products than single-use cutlery, including the following:

TLM deposits very thick metal coatings on plastic parts without overheating substrates. Applications include EMI/RFI shielding of telecommunications, medical, and aerospace applications. Also, TLM can provide erosion inhibition on polymer components in aerospace applications. D2 presently is designing and building a TLM-based system for Savcor Coatings OY (Mikkeli, Finland) to apply EMI/EFI coatings to mobile phone components.

PPM (Polypropylene Metallization). PPM applies reflective and colorized decorative coatings to molded PP parts without requiring any surface pretreatment or base coating. PPM reportedly is ideal for matching the look of, say, a molded top cap to a reflective metallized product label, providing a unique monolithic look to the end product. PPM is presently used for metallizing and coating caps for a high-volume personal care application.
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