For custom thermoform manufacturer Plastic Ingenuity, the best way to demonstrate its skills at a trade show like PACK EXPO Las Vegas is through examples of its work. Among the showpieces exhibited this year was one that won an award in Design Excellence in the Institute of Packaging Professionals’ (IoPP’s) 2023 AmeriStar awards: a thermoformed installation tool for OtterBox-brand smartphone screen protectors. Described by Rob Helmke, marketing manager for Plastic Ingenuity, as a “package plus,” the custom thermoform not only holds the glass screen protector in place in the carton, but it also improves upon OtterBox’s former installation tool, making application of the screen protector easy to follow and extremely precise for consumers. In addition, made from 100% rPET, the composition of the tool allowed OtterBox to address consumer concerns over plastic packaging.
As Zach Muscato, Plastic Ingenuity’s corporate sustainability manager, recalls, longtime customer OtterBox approached the company in early 2022 expressing concerns with its existing installation system. “Their customers were providing feedback, negative feedback, reporting that the way the current apparatus worked was just not efficient for them,” he says.
The former kit consisted of a loosely packed installation guide along with the screen protector and an injection-molded device that had to be sized to the height of the consumer’s phone. “The tool had some locators [to position the phone], but there was a lot of give and play, so it wasn’t necessarily the most accurate,” Muscato relates. “To install the protector, the customer would have to pull out the screen protector, pull the various films off the glass, locate the protector onto the phone using protrusions on the device, and then apply the protector. So there were a lot of steps, and given the inconsistency of how the phone would align with the tool, it led to alignment issues with the protector on the phones.”
Partnering with OtterBox, Plastic Ingenuity designed a thermoformed tool with a sliding mechanism that adjusts to fit any size smartphone, with the screen protector attached and held securely within the tool until application. The move from injection molding to thermoforming reduced the cost of the tool, and the sizing mechanism means that OtterBox was able to standardize on one package size for all its screen protectors. “The only thing that’s changing is the screen protector size,” says Muscato. “That’s really where the rubber meets the road—with the ability to accommodate multiple phone sizes with one package.”
The challenge, however, was manufacturing the intricate tool using thermoforming. “It required us to think about things a little bit differently,” says Muscato. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we get that precision of an injection-molded part with thermoforming?’”
As Muscato explains, injection molding is a precise process because you have control of the dimensions on both sides of the part. There’s a core and a cavity, and the plastic is molded between them. With thermoforming, there’s just a cavity, which means one-sided control. He shares that Plastic Ingenuity accomplished this through features on the tool that mate together, “designing them in such a way where there’s no play in the critical dimensions that the consumer needs for proper placement.”
Adds Helmke, “With our package, it’s accurate within 15 thousandths of an inch every time. It takes the art and science out of it [the installation]. You just pop the phone in, and its repetitively perfect.”
The switch to thermoforming also eliminated the need for injection-molding tools, which reduced OtterBox’s costs by 40%, shares Plastic Ingenuity.
Another aspect of the design was its aesthetics. The tool itself is attached to a sleeve within the outer carton that folds out and is printed with step-by-step instructions on how to use the installation tool. A QR code printed on the sleeve enables consumers to access an online video of the process.
As noted, Plastic Ingenuity was also able to meet OtterBox’s requirements for a more sustainable package through the use of 100% rPET as opposed to the virgin plastic materials that were used in its previous system. Furthermore, the tool is recyclable in certain municipalities and regions.
According to Muscato, incorporating recycled material into a package is a seamless process, as long as it’s designed in from the beginning. He shares that before starting the OtterBox project, Plastic Ingenuity advised the company of some compromises with recycled content, namely color and haze. After taking the material to its brand team, OtterBox gave Plastic Ingenuity the green light use rPET, building the use of the recycled material into its brand story. To highlight the recycled-content and recyclable nature of the tool, OtterBox has included copy in several places on the packaging about the material, with instructions on recycling.
When it comes to increased sustainability with the redesign, the tool is lighter: 20.1 g as compared with the 29.2-g weight of the previous tool. This, says Plastic Ingenuity, has improved transportation efficiencies for OtterBox and has contributed to lower carbon emissions during distribution.
Of the final thermoformed installation tool, Helmke says: “One of our goals has always been to provide functional packaging. So not only does the tool protect and preserve the contents inside, it actually is a useful tool to execute the goal of putting the screen protector on. And then the fact that you can recycle it, really helps with the sustainability and circularity initiatives OtterBox is trying to achieve.” PW