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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Tragic Saga of the Packing Noodle

While Burchard was experimenting with refrigerator insulation, he came up with a novel way of molding low-density foam. The foam wasn't a very good insulator (in other words, not useful to him at the time), but he was impressed by how light and strong it was. He realized that he could use it to improve upon the packing peanut. Burchard shaped the new material into rough- textured lightning bolts of foam that locked together to stay put under the weight of heavy, priceless objects. He christened his creation Expans O Fill and in 1998 sent it to Michigan State University's School of Packaging for independent testing. It trounced all seven competitive products, transmitting up to 90 percent less shock and cushioning four times better than the packing peanut. Five years later, 3M bought the design, renamed it the Packing Noodle, and rolled it out in 2004.

Even though the Noodle was a vast improvement over the peanut, "they didn't sell well," says Carter Swift, a brand manager at 3M. "They were just too different." The Noodles came fitted together in compact, shrink-wrapped blocks. Retailers loved them because they took up such little shelf space. But consumers didn't understand that the blocks broke apart into hundreds of Noodles. In June, Burchard's brilliant idea was discontinued, and once again we're left with only God (and a few lesser earthly products) to protect our precious cargo.

link: Packing It In: Why the Foam Noodle Couldn't Cut It in the Protection Racket


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