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Thinking inside the box

01 August 2015

No, not our heading, but a marketing message that leading foam converter, MSA Foams uses to describe its approach to this specialist market. Les Hunt reports.

In these applications for Oliver Valves and Oliver TwinSafe, branding can be replicated and re-enforced through the use of corporate colours and logos in the foam itself

Foam packed cases; we’ve all had occasion to use them, whether it’s to ensure the security of camera equipment in transit or to keep our tools in some sort of order for that job we keep putting off. That’s one end of this market; for more demanding applications – protecting delicate instruments from shock and vibration, or transporting high-value components between manufacturing sites, for example – then we have to turn to specialists with the expertise, the capabilities and the materials knowledge to get it right. One such company is MSA Foams Ltd, a Zotefoams accredited foam converter and member of Peli UK Group, the latter world renowned for its rugged protective cases.

MSA Foams Ltd was acquired by Peli in 2012, since when it has undergone huge investments, both in manufacturing space and manufacturing machinery. The site at Ferndown in Dorset, which was acquired following the acquisition, has more than quadrupled the size of the facility. Meanwhile, capital investment – mostly in state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment – has topped £300,000 in as little as two and a half years.

A variety of machining techniques are deployed across the site according to production volume requirements and design considerations. Of particular note is a water jet cutting machine; with a working pressure of 65,000psi, this is able to cut intricate patterns in foam to great accuracy and with a wall thickness of just 1mm between cut-out shapes.

Achieving similar levels of accuracy and intricacy of cut shape, MSA Foams also operates a number of CNC router machines, including twin-headed units that rout out designs on two pieces of foam simultaneously, thus doubling the production rate. More conventional die-cutting methods are used for simpler geometric shapes. Foam sheets can be heat-bonded via a lamination process in order to achieve the desired thickness of foam. This can be applied prior to machining or following water jet or die cutting when a foam base is required to complete a protective case insert.

MSA uses various foam materials supplied by the leading UK polyolefin foams manufacturer, Zotefoams. The latter's closed-cell, cross-linked polyethylene foam, in particular, offers a high level of protection and good machinability, and as it is produced via an innovative nitrogen expansion process, it is completely inert, with no chemical residues that might otherwise cause staining or corrosion, or result in unpleasant odours.

Another aspect of MSA’s operations is its strong design capability. Sales director Craig Hastings refers to MSA as a ‘solutions company’, and while some might dismiss this as just another example of marketing/sales speak, in MSA’s case, it is particularly apt. The company has established a sound reputation for problem solving among its many and varied clients - from blue-chip engineering giants to museum curators with precious objects to ship. With its five-strong, dedicated design team and a clutch of high-end design software tools at its disposal, MSA holds claim to possibly the best design and design problem resolving resource in its sector.

IT systems at the Ferndown site include Solid Works and AlphaCam; of particular note, the company has made additional investment in Catia, which enables it to respond directly to the needs of aerospace and automotive customers, without incurring the inconveniences and uncertainties associated with CAD file conversions.

In some instances, certain products or systems that are to be the subject of containment in MSA foam case inserts must not be removed from their place of manufacture for reasons of confidentiality or sensitivity. In order to meet the needs of these special customers, MSA has recently introduced a remote product scanning service, where a member of the design team will travel to the customer’s premises with a mobile digital 3D scanner kit to capture an accurate 3D digital model of the component.  This service is available either offsite, as described, or components can be delivered to MSA’s headquarters for scanning. Alternatively a CAD file is all that is needed to produce a prototype of the insert.

MSA has extensive experience in producing presentation cases to display products with a truly professional finish, putting the customer's brand one step ahead of the competition. In one example, working in partnership with Peli UK, a Peli Storm case was chosen by Nike to present its new T90 Laser IV boots to key international strikers. This case is often used by the military to transport and protect arms, but Nike had an altogether different weapon in mind! Peli and MSA worked in partnership with branding designers, Accept & Proceed who were responsible for the concept, design and art direction on this project.

“All parties were delighted with this full time result," notes Peli account manager David Smith. "It has demonstrated the features we can produce in both custom foam and branding the cases so effectively.”

Offering premier league protection, these Peli Storm cases are available in more than 20 sizes and can also protect laptops, photographic gear and any fragile or expensive equipment, both home and away. The waterproof, crushproof qualities of a Peli weapons case combine with a laser etched, superior custom foam insert, to hold the Nike T90 boots perfectly. The finishing touches include a screen-printed 'T90' and Nike logo on the case lid and a unique decal for each star player.

MSA Foams supply all types of markets, including the military with defence packaging, the automotive and aerospace sectors, and industrial customers requiring bespoke foams for instrumentation and electronics.

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