Foam modeling fills a packaging design gap

Despite the advent of 3D printing to assist packaging development, there remains a place for old-fashioned model-making even for leading-edge plastic packaging design operations.

For example, RPC Design (Rushden, UK), has just completed construction of a foam modeling studio, which the company says will enable its designers to rapidly make mockups of packaging in order to test and modify them before release.RPC foam studio

The team has been successfully making 3D-printed models for some time and operates a standalone 3D printing facility. Until now, however, printing costs and the time involved in creating suitable CAD data can make the process time-consuming and expensive.

"We realized there was a step missing in which we needed to produce 3D models quickly and easily, test them in-use, and modify them until we were satisfied,” explains Brian Lodge, Design Manager at RPC Design. “It's a lot more difficult to work sculpturally on a screen than it is in the round, where designers can resolve difficult areas of pack design before converting them to digital data."

An additional benefit of the foam modelling studio is that it provides customers with a chance to alter their packs' proportions and ergonomics before they commit, resulting in more effective and easier-to-use solutions that better enhance brand image.

Lodge responds to PlasticsToday’s questions about its new capability.

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What exactly are the types of “packs” that are modeled?

Lodge: In theory we can model any pack that we design from a 5-mL eye dropper bottle up to a 25-L chemical drum. We design for all the main plastics molding techniques—blow molding, injection molding and thermoforming—so the scope of work can be quite wide from a 5-L oil bottle to a soup pot to a ready-meal tray.

However, in reality we use the process for larger items like bottles, dispensers or tubs where there are visual or ergonomic issues that need to be addressed before going to expensive CAD. We can adopt the basic principles of design thinking where we can make a quick mock up, try it, improve it and modify quickly and effectively. No matter how good at CAD modelling you are, you don’t know how a product will feel or work until you have it in your hands. Using foam models means we can make those mistakes quickly, early and cheaply before cutting a mold or even becoming involved in expensive CAD work.RPC's Brian Lodge

What’s the nature of the foam that’s used?

Lodge: We use Craftfoam Blue. This is an extruded polystyrene foam with a very close cell structure that leaves a smooth surface when worked. We can cut it with a saw, knife or hot wire, shape it with rasps and other woodworking tools and finish it with sandpaper. It is very light, easy to work and adapt to whatever shape we need. Additionally you can glue it, paint it and decorate it to produce a more visual model.


Have customers used this service yet?

Lodge:  We have used this technique on several products. We developed a dispensing system for garden chemicals but were unsure of pack size. To fit it efficiently onto a pallet meant there were two alternative footprints that would work. We quickly modelled both options to show a short stubby one and a taller, more elegant pack. It was easy for the marketing team to choose the one they liked best from our models.

Another project was for an AdBlue pack where the liquid needed to be poured into the filler tanks on cars. However, the position of these varies from car maker to car maker so designing a bottle that would readily access the various filling options was important. These are typical used for foam models. We view it a very much a development tool that can ensure right first time delivery.

What’s a typical turnaround time?

Lodge: How complex it is and the reason for making it can alter the construction time. Typically a 5-L bottle takes half a day to get an accurate model, then after testing we can make improvements if necessary.RPC foam studio close up

The main savings in time and cost are related to the “right first time” issue as mentioned before. A blow-molding tool can cost £50k or £60k [USD $64,446 or $77,336] and take 20 weeks to have manufactured. If it’s not right the cost of modification and rework and the time this takes are major issues when product launches are looming.

For what markets is this service available?  

Lodge: RPC Design works on products for RPC sites around the world so there are no limits for markets or location including in the U.S. We have recently been working on projects in China and South Africa as well as the UK and mainland Europe. This technique is relevant to all of these areas.

Final thoughts?

Lodge: We see foam modeling as one tool in a wider design process. It enables us to realize a design in 3D very quickly and modify and update the design as needed. It is part of a suite of techniques we employ including basic freehand sketching, CAD modelling, photorealistic rendering, engineering simulation, 3D printing, etc., all of which are necessary to create a successful design. For us foam modelling was a missing integral part of our process so the new facility is a very welcome addition to our capabilities.


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