BOSTON - A vending machine that dispenses as many as 54 varieties of Snapple Beverage Corp.'s iced tea and soft drinks uses shock-absorbing plastic to catch glass bottles dropping as far as 40 inches. The plastic ``recovery unit,'' designed by ECC International Inc. of Orlando, Fla., won the best product award in the appliance category at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division new product competition last month in Boston.
The recovery unit, fabricated from six different parts, is made of a reaction injection molded urethane elastomer. It replaces a vacuum-formed plastic component assembled from roughly 40 different parts.
The part was designed by Phil South and Greg Vogelpohl of ECC, a company that manufactures vending machines and training simulators for military aircraft and ground vehicles.
South said the RIM process allowed ECC to mold large parts consistently and produce a component that was easy to assemble into the vending machine. The urethane elastomer also offers enough flex and lubricity to handle the impact of the beverage bottles. Users of the machine view the bottles through a window and watch the selection drop into the recovery unit.
``The recovery unit really absorbs all the shock of the bottle,'' South said.
Milfoam Corp. of Hamden, Conn., built the molds and is producing the recovery unit for ECC. President Douglas Pfenninger said the company invested $350,000 in new equipment and a 7,000-square-foot building expansion to handle the Snapple business, which calls for production of 10,000 units this year.
Milfoam, which employs 30 people, now has 24,000 square feet of space in Hamden.
Pfenninger is pleased with the new, shock-absorbing design.
``If you were doing that in metal or hard plastic, you wouldn't have that effect,'' he said.