A stone CNC engraving machine allows Foam Fabricators to produce the typical order of 20 sample models in two days compared to the five days needed to cut the foam pieces by hand. In addition to saving time, the CNC router frees up engineers who previously had to pitch in and help cut foam pieces when a large quantity of samples were needed. With the exception of one person who loads the foam stock and removes finished pieces, the router can run unattended around the clock if necessary to turn out a large order.

Another benefit of automating the sample production process is that it enables the company to take on jobs it would have lost in the past. "When the shape of the customer's part was too complex to cut by hand, we had to turn away the work," says Nathan Musgrove, an applications engineer at Foam Fabricators' Jefferson, Georgia regional design and test center. "That hasn't happened since we installed the CNC machine. It can accurately cut even the most complex 3D shapes."

Foam Fabricators, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, is a coast-to-coast network of 14 facilities providing shape molded foam products, packaging, and components. Its foam products are used in the packaging of items such as electronics equipment and appliances, but they can also be found in other applications such as inside bicycle helmets. The company, which has 250 employees, molds a full range of materials including expanded polystyrene, expanded polyethylene, expanded polypropylene, and copolymers such as GECET, ARCEL, and RMER. These raw materials are injected as beads into molds, then heated with steam which causes them to expand and solidify into the finished shape. Foam Fabricators also fabricates flexible materials such as polyethylenes, polyurethanes, polypropylenes, and EPS, both molded and extruded.

Each of the company's regional design and test facilities is staffed with degreed packaging professionals and fully equipped with the latest in fabricating, drop testing, computerized data acquisition, and CAD systems. When a customer comes to Foam Fabricators with a new product that needs to be packaged, the first step is to work with one of the company's engineers to determine the appropriate material. Once this has been selected, the engineer uses the customer's specifications and CAD geometry to develop a rough design of the foam part. The Foam Fabricators engineer specifies the material, size, and performance characteristics for the product and uses the SolidWorks CAD system to create a 3D model of the initial concept.

At this point, most customers request between 20 and 30 samples for drop testing. Some customers have this testing done by Foam Fabricators while others prefer to take the samples and do the testing in-house. There was an additional drawback to producing samples by hand. Some of the shapes that customers needed were not possible to produce this way. For example, a jet ski manufacturer asked Foam Fabricators to make a bow flotation unit, a piece of foam that fits in the bow of a four-man jet ski to provide buoyancy. "This part had a lot of complex geometry and it was impossible to shape it by hand,"Stone processing machine. "We weren't able to make the sample, so we were unable to take on the job." A third drawback was that the handmade models were not highly accurate since the process of cutting them required some interpolation between surfaces. This was acceptable to some customers, but others wanted greater accuracy.