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Got Foam? Illinois Company Boasts Molded Foam Benefits for Medical and Beyond
Sonoco Protective Solutions is busy trying to get design engineers to think "inside the box" when developing a lighter-weight, more robust, and cost-effective design for various electro-mechanical devices, especially in the medical industry.
For medical devices, replacing the internal sheet metal, screws, fasteners, and brackets with molded foam components can mean a much lighter and robust product, which is especially beneficial now that some medical devices are making their way into homes, said Sonoco Protective Solutions Marketing Specialist, Jessica Irons. This alternative way to manufacture a medical product's chassis involves using custom molded expanded polypropylene (EPP) foam components as the internal structure of the device and using the natural resiliency of the foam to allow internal components to just snap into place, thereby eliminating the need for fasteners and screws. Components within the device are protected and held in place by a sandwich of light weight, molded foam components that are designed specifically to hold the various internal components. This results in a stronger, lighter, and more cost-effective final product, she said.
"The natural properties of the foam make it resilient and you can have a snap-fit of the product, so rather than having to screw things in, you can design it so the fan or other component can snap into place," Irons said. "You're saving on both screws and assembly time. It's (EPP) lighter and, at the end of the day, your entire product becomes lighter."
Expanded polypropylene foam can be molded into complex shapes without losing its resiliency. The EPP chassis allows components such as tubes, pumps, circuit boards, and fans to simply snap into channels and cavities that have been molded into the chassis. Eliminating fasteners simplifies the assembly process and makes it easier to disassemble the product for cleaning and repair. Products can also wind up running cooler because of complex air channels that can be created within the molded parts. In medical applications, the use of EPP has been steadily growing, particularly where complex shapes are required to package electronics, route tubing and wiring, and survive rough environments away from the hospital.
Another advantage of the material is that an initial prototype can be produced using a CNC mill to cut a billet of the EPP material, eliminating the need for prototype tooling. "Because we can get EPP in big blocks of foam and we have CNC tables in our engineering centers, we can quickly create a prototype that you can do test fitting and shock and vibration testing on, without having the cost and delay associated with having to buy a prototype tool," Irons explained. Components of the medical device can be assembled into place on the EPP foam prototype chassis, and modifications can be made directly to the foam using a razor knife or hot wire cutter.
The biggest challenge, Irons said, is getting medical device designers to think differently about how a product is designed and manufactured. Through advertising, trade shows, and "lunch and learns," Irons and others meet with engineers at design firms and OEMs to get them to realize that using EPP molded foam offers a large reduction in the amount of fasteners needed, a cooler running product, a more rugged product, a product that.s easier to service, and a reduction in the number of assembly steps needed to manufacture the product. And a lot of these factors reduce costs, Irons added.
For the automotive industry, Sonoco Protective Solutions provides molded foam components that are designed to reduce vehicle weight and absorb energy in automobiles. Light weight vehicles are becoming increasingly important to the auto industry in order to help meet fuel efficiency targets. Foam components in cars are ever-expanding and include floorboards, side panels, bumpers, seat bolsters, head rests, and trunk spacers.
Sonoco Protective Solutions (www.sonocoprotectivesolutions.com), which used to be known as Tegrant, was recently purchased by the packaging giant, Sonoco. Based in Arlington Heights, Ill., Sonoco Protective Solutions not only offers specialty molded components, but also offers protective packaging and material handling, all of which are highly customized. With three design and testing centers, Sonoco Protective Solutions can take any idea and offer a custom solution, Irons said.
"No product we do is a stock item. Whatever the customer wants, we make," Irons said, adding that the company provides packaging for an array of industries, including furniture, consumer products, electronics, HVAC, solar, and automotive. The company's TransGuard® line for returnable material handling is a custom molded tote used by the auto industry. A tier one supplier might use the tote to transport headlights to the assembly line. Instead of a hard, injection-molded tote, Sonoco Protective Solutions offers a custom-molded tote that is stackable, durable, and reusable. "You can mold it so that it holds those headlights just right so that they nest, are protected, and are not scratched or damaged," Irons said, adding that the TransGuard® tote, unlike an injection-molded tote, can be customized to a particular height.
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