Title:
Variable-volume insulated shipping container
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A variable-volume shipping container has both cushioning and insulating characteristics, so that it may be used to ship items which are fragile, or items which require temperature control (such as refrigeration or warming). The container includes an expansible volume-varying element which expands in thickness while maintaining its plan-view shape after the container is closed and secured, so that fragile items are held snugly, or so that items needing temperature control, such as refrigeration, are held in good heat transfer relation to a refrigerant (such as dry ice) placed into the container along with the items to be shipped. Methods of making expansible volume-varying elements of various configurations and having a differing number of expansible elements are disclosed.



Inventors:
Lantz, Gary (Lake Forest, CA, US)
Application Number:
12/380354
Publication Date:
08/06/2009
Filing Date:
02/26/2009
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
220/592.2, 206/521
International Classes:
B65B1/04; B65D81/02; B65D81/38
View Patent Images:



Primary Examiner:
ORTIZ, RAFAEL ALFREDO
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Law Office of Terry L. Miller (Mission Viejo, CA, US)
Claims:
I claim:

1. An insulated, cushioning shipping box for items needing cushioning and temperature control during transit, said shipping box comprising: an outer shape-retaining box including substantially rigid walls defining a cavity of fixed volume, and said walls further defining an opening to said cavity; means providing a rigid lid for closing said opening so as to enclose said fixed volume; an expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member received in said cavity of fixed volume; said shipping box being capable of receiving into said cavity of fixed volume and within said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member an item to be shipped along with a mass of temperature control material to be disposed in selected heat-transfer relationship to said item, said mass of temperature control material having a volume decreasing with time; said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member expanding about said item to be shipped within said fixed volume of said cavity so as to urge said mass of temperature control material upon said item to be shipped to maintain close heat transfer relation between said mass of temperature control material as said mass of temperature control material decreases in volume with passing time; whereby, the item to be shipped is received in the cavity of fixed volume in a selected heat transfer relationship with the mass of temperature control material, and as the volume of said mass of temperature control material decreases with time said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member increases in volume to substantially maintain said selected close heat transfer relationship.

2. The shipping box of claim 1 wherein said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member includes a first member of substantially C-shape, and a second member also of substantially C-shape within said fixed volume and intermeshing with one another so as to define an inner cavity of variable volume for receiving said item to be shipped.

3. The shipping box of claim 2 wherein said first member and said second member of said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member cooperatively expand within said fixed volume cavity so as to urge said mass of temperature control material into tight heat transfer contact with said item to be shipped.

4. The shipping box of claim 1 wherein said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member includes only a singular expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member, and said singular expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member expands between a fixed rigid wall of said container and said mass of temperature control material so as to urge said mass of temperature control material into tight heat transfer relation with said item to be shipped.

5. A method of using an insulated, cushioning shipping box for items needing cushioning and temperature control during transit, said method comprising steps of: providing an outer shape-retaining box including substantially rigid walls utilizing said substantially rigid walls of said box to define a cavity of fixed volume; providing an opening to said cavity, and a substantially rigid lid for closing said opening so as to enclose a fixed volume; providing an expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member received in said cavity of fixed volume; into said cavity of fixed volume receiving an item to be shipped; along with said item to be shipped receiving into said fixed volume a mass of temperature control material to be disposed in selected heat transfer relationship to said item to be shipped; utilizing a mass of temperature control material having a volume decreasing with time or a shape becoming indefinite with time; expanding said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member within said fixed volume of said cavity so as to urge said mass of temperature control material into tight heat transfer relationship with said item to be shipped to maintain said selected heat transfer relationship between said item to be shipped and said mass of temperature control material as said mass of temperature control material decreases in volume or becomes of indefinite shape with passing time.

6. The method of claim 5, further including the steps of utilizing said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member to define a variable volume cavity within said fixed volume cavity of said box, and decreasing the volume of said variable volume cavity with time during transit of said box so as to maintain said selected heat transfer relationship of said item to be shipped and said mass of temperature control material.

7. The method of claim 5 further including the steps of utilizing a mass of packing material to surround said item to be shipped within said fixed volume cavity on all sides save one side within said box, and providing on said one side of said item to be shipped within said cavity of said box a mass of temperature control material, which mass of temperature control material decreases in volume or becomes of indeterminate shape during shipping and with the passage of time, and utilizing said expansible volume-varying cushioning and insulating member to urge said mass of temperature control material on said one side of said item to be shipped into a substantially constant heat transfer relationship with said item to be shipped during transit of said box and item to be shipped.

8. A shipping container, said shipping container comprising: an outer shape-retaining enclosure including rigid walls defining a fixed-volume cavity and an opening to said fixed-volume cavity, said shape-retaining container including a rigid lid for closing said opening; plural expansible volume-varying panel members received in said cavity along said walls and cooperatively defining therein a respective variable-volume cavity, each of said plural expansible panel members comprising: a resilient foamed polymer panel part having cells which are at least partially open, said panel part having a determined shape, an undeformed thickness dimension, and edge dimensions; a fluid impermeable film encapsulating said panel part and excluding ambient air from said cells of said panel member so that said expansible panel member maintains a thickness dimension only a fraction of said undeformed thickness dimension of said panel part, whereby, an item to be shipped is received in the variable-volume cavity and immediately before closing said lid a user provides an opening through said film allowing entry of ambient air and expansion of said plural panel members about said item within the closed shipping container.

Description:

CROSS REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATION

This application is a Continuation-In-Part of U.S. application Ser. No. 11/221,054, filed 7 Sep. 2005, and the disclosure of which is incorporated herein to the extent necessary for a complete and enabling disclosure of the present invention.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

The present invention relates generally to shipping containers, and more particularly relates to a variable-volume insulated shipping container. The shipping container can advantageously be used both for shipping fragile items which possibly are of irregular shape, and for shipping perishable products which require cooling or refrigeration during transport. The container has an external protective and shape-retaining (or rigid) receptacle, which may be defined by a crate or cardboard box, for example; and an internal insulative and volume-varying structure. The volume varying structure may receive the item(s) to be shipped, possibly along with a quantity of refrigerant, such as dry ice. Immediately before the outer container or receptacle is close, provision is made for the volume-varying structure to expand in thickness while substantially retaining its plan-view shape, thus filling all available ullage volume within the outer container. During shipping of the container, as the volume of the dry ice decreases, the volume-varying structure continues to expand insuring close contact of the dry ice with the item(s) being shipped.

2. Related Technology

Traditionally, containers for shipping temperature sensitive products have generally included conventional cardboard shipping containers having an insulating material therein. The insulating material may be simple loose-fill Styrofoam “peanuts,” for example, in which a chunk of dry ice is placed along with the material to be shipped. Another variety of conventional insulated shipping container utilized panels or containers made of an insulating material, such as expanded polystyrene (EPS). EPS is a relatively inexpensive insulating material, and it may be easily formed into a desired shape, has acceptable thermal insulating properties for many shipping needs, and may be encapsulated or faced with protective materials, such as plastic film or metal foil, or plastic film/metal foil laminates.

Containers including EPS are often provided in a modular form. Individual panels of EPS insulation, possibly wrapped in foil or the like, are preformed using conventional methods, typically with beveled edges. The panels are then inserted into a conventional cardboard box type of shipping container, one panel against each wall, to create an insulated cavity within the container. In this arrangement, the beveled edges of adjacent panels form seams at the corners of the container. A product is placed in the cavity and a plug, such as a thick polyether or polyester foam pad, is placed over the top of the product before the container is closed and prepared for shipping. In many cases, a coolant, such as packaged ice, gel packs, or loose dry ice, is placed around the product in the cavity to refrigerate the product during shipping.

Alternatively, an insulated body may be injection molded from expanded polystyrene, forming a cavity therein and having an open top to access the cavity. A product is placed in the cavity, typically along with coolant, and a cover is placed over the open end, such as the foam plug described above or a cover formed from EPS.

For shipping items which are particularly sensitive to temperature (i.e., temperature which is either too high or too low), such as certain medical or pharmaceutical products, expanded rigid polyurethane containers are often used, as expanded polyurethane has thermal properties generally superior to EPS. Typically, a cardboard container is provided having a box liner therein, defining a desired insulation space between the liner and the container. Polyurethane foam is injected into the insulation space, substantially filling the space and generally adhering to the container and the liner. The interior of the box liner provides a cavity into which a product and coolant may be placed. A foam plug may be placed over the product, or a lid may be formed from expanded polyurethane, typically having a flat or possibly an inverted top-hat shape.

For shipping particularly fragile objects, objects which have an irregular shape, or items which are particularly sensitive to temperature (i.e., temperature which is either too high or too low), conventional shipping containers are frequently found to be less than optimum. That is, the fact that the product and coolant are typically placed together within the cavity in the container, may have several adverse effects. When shipping certain products, it may be desired to refrigerate but not freeze the product. Placing a coolant, such as loose blocks of dry ice, into the cavity against the product may inadvertently freeze and damage the product. Even if held away from the product, the coolant may shift in the cavity during shipping, especially as it melts and shrinks in size, inadvertently contacting the product.

Accordingly, there is a need for an improved shipping container to maintain temperature sensitive items in a determined relation to a refrigerant, such as dry ice. There is also a need for a shipping container that has particular utility for shipping fragile items of irregular shape.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The present invention is directed generally to an improved shipping container which has both volume-varying properties, and insulating properties, and which may be used for shipping item(s) which are of irregular shape, or which require a temperature-controlled environment during shipping, or both.

One aspect of the present invention provides a plan-shape-retaining expansible panel member usable as a volume-varying insulator or cushion for shipping, the expansible panel member comprising: a resilient foamed polymer panel part having cells which are at least partially open, the panel part having a determined plan-view shape, an undeformed thickness dimension, and edge dimensions; a shape retaining base sheet having a respective plan-view shape substantially alike in size and shape to that of the panel part, the base sheet also having respective edge dimensions which approximate those of the panel part, the base sheet and panel part being arranged congruently to one another; a fluid impermeable film encapsulating the base sheet and panel part and excluding ambient air from the cells of the panel member so that the panel part maintains a deformed thickness dimension which is a fraction of the undeformed thickness dimension; whereby, the base sheet and the panel part are placed within the film while open to ambient air, and ambient air is at least partially removed from the cells so that the panel part defines a deformed thickness dimension which is less than the undeformed thickness dimension and defines a plan-view shape approximating that of the base sheet, and the film is then closed so that thereafter atmospheric pressure maintains the panel part substantially at the deformed thickness dimension until a user pierces the film to admit ambient air to the panel member.

According to another aspect, the present invention provides a method of making a plan-shape-retaining expansible panel member useable as a volume-varying insulator or cushion for shipping, the panel member being expansible substantially only in thickness, the method comprising steps of: providing a resilient foamed polymer panel part having cells which are at least partially open, configuring the panel part to have a determined shape, an undeformed thickness dimension, and edge dimensions; providing a fluid impermeable film; placing the panel part within the fluid impermeable film while open to ambient; providing a press having a cavity of substantially the determined shape and thickness less than the undeformed thickness; utilizing the press to deform the panel member along the thickness dimension to press out ambient air at least partially from the cells so that the panel part defines a deformed thickness dimension which is less than the undeformed thickness dimension and defines a shape approximating that of the cavity, and while maintaining the compression of the panel part closing the film so that thereafter atmospheric pressure maintains the panel part substantially at the deformed thickness and substantially in the shape of the cavity.

Other objects and features of the present invention will become apparent from consideration of the following description taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWING FIGURES

FIG. 1 is an external perspective view of a shipping container embodying the present invention;

FIG. 2 is a perspective view of a three-part insulative and expansible, volume-varying element according to the present invention;

FIG. 3 is an exploded perspective view of the container seen in FIG. 1, with a pair of the three-part insulative and expansible volume-varying elements as seen in FIG. 2 preparatory to these elements being united before an item to be shipped is in placed into the container;

FIG. 3A provides a fragmentary elevation view of an encircled portion of FIG. 3, and illustrates an integral or “living hinge” feature of the three-part insulative and expansible volume-varying elements;

FIGS. 4, 5, and 6 each provide a cross sectional plan view taken through the container of FIGS. 1 and 3, after an item to be shipped have been closed in the container along with a quantity of dry ice pellets, and show the progressively decreasing volume of the dry ice and increasing volume of the expansible volume-varying elements with the passage of time;

FIG. 7 provides a perspective view of an alternative embodiment of an expansible volume-varying element (which is of six-part form) according to this invention;

FIG. 7A provides an exploded perspective view of a shipping container including an external box, and one of the alternative six-part expansible volume-varying elements as is seen in FIG. 7 preparatory to assembly of the shipping container;

FIGS. 8, 8A, and 8B provide sequential illustrations of steps in the method of making a single (or one-part) expansible volume-varying element according to the present invention; and

FIGS. 9, 9A, 9B, 9C, and 9D provide sequential illustrations of steps in the method of making a three-part expansible volume-varying element according to the present invention.

FIG. 10 provides a perspective illustration of a container as seen in FIGS. 1, 2, and 3 in its “flat” form for shipping of the container itself to a user.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS

Turning now to the drawings, considering FIGS. 1-3 and 3A in conjunction, and giving attention first of all to FIG. 1, a shipping container 10 in accordance with the present invention is illustrated. This shipping container 10 has shock absorbing or protective characteristics. The shipping container also has insulating characteristics. And still further, this container 10 has volume varying characteristics (i.e., the internal volume of the container is variable). In order to provide all of these desirable characteristics in a single container, the container 10 most preferably includes an exterior cardboard shipping container or box 12, with rigid walls generally referenced 14, and including flaps (best seen in FIG. 3, and referenced 14a, 14b, 14c, and 14d) which when open define an upper opening 16, leading to a rectangular prismatic cavity 18 within the box 12. It will be understood that the bottom of the box 12 is closed by other flaps (not seen in the drawing Figures), but which are conventional in the pertinent art. Thus, the cavity 18 is of fixed volume. It will be understood that other rigid receptacles, such as a crate made of wood, or a metal shipping box, or a trunk can be used in substitution for the cardboard box 12.

FIG. 2 illustrates one expansible volume-varying (i.e., variable-volume) element 20 for use as part of the container 10. The element 20 has shock absorbing protective qualities, as will be explained, has insulating qualities, and also has volume-varying qualities. As is seen in FIG. 2, the expansible element 20 according to this embodiment is of three-part configuration, although the invention is not so limited. The element 20 includes a first expansible panel part 22 hingeably connected to a second expansible panel part 24, and hingeably connected to a third expansible panel part 26. The panel parts 22, 24, and 26 are sized along their major dimensions to generally correspond to the wall sizes of the box 12, as will be further explained. The expansible panel parts 22, 24, 26 are integrally connected to one another by flexible integral webs or “living hinge” sections, indicated 28 and 30 on FIG. 2. As will be seen, the hinge sections 28, 30 also provide for a determined fluid flow communication among the three expansible panel parts 22, 24, and 26. The element 20 has a fluid-impermeable “skin” indicated on FIG. 2 with the numeral 32. It is the skin 32 which forms the integral webs between panels 22-26 for hingeably connecting together these panel parts, while also providing for fluid flow communication among the panel parts, as will be further explained.

Further, it will be noted in FIG. 2 that each of the expansible panel parts 22, 24, and 26 has a certain overall thickness, which his rather thin with respect to the side dimensions of these panel parts. This certain overall thickness is a variable for the element 20, as will be explained, so that the volume of this element 20 is also a variable. The panel parts 22-26 have a substantially fixed plan-view shape, and vary their volume by expanding in the thickness dimension.

Considering FIG. 3, it can be seen that according to this embodiment, a first expansible panel element 20a can be hinged in to a Z-shape and is thus inserted into the box 12 with one panel covering the floor of the box, one panel (i.e., the middle panel) covering one side wall 14 of the box 12, and one panel hinged outwardly through the opening 16. As thus prepared, another panel element 20b, is hinged into a U-shaped configuration and is placed into the box with the three panels 22, 24, 26 of this element 20b each covering one of the remaining side walls 14 of the box 12. The two panel elements 20a and 20b need not be the same size, and in fact it is easily understood that the sizes of the panel parts of each of the elements 20a and 20b will be selected in view of the sizes of the floor, side walls, and top wall of the box 12.

As is seen in FIG. 3A for example, the panels 22, 24, and 26 of the elements 20 are each connected by a “living hinge” 28, 30 (only the hinge 28 being seen in FIG. 3A) which is in the form of a flexible web of sufficient thickness that it accommodates the hinging of the adjacent panels 22, 24, 26 through at least 90° when the panels are in their initial rather thin configuration (shown in dashed lines in FIG. 3A), and even if the panels 22-26 are in a thicker configuration (i.e., of increased volume), as is shown by solid lines in FIG. 3A. This cooperative configuration of the two panel elements 20a and 20b as seen in FIG. 3 thus provides an interior cavity (indicated with the numeral 34 on FIG. 3.

In order to use the shipping container of FIG. 3, item(s) 36 to be shipped is placed into the cavity 34 (attention now to FIG. 4). If the items require refrigeration, then a quantity of dry ice pellets 38 (best seen in FIG. 4) can be placed about the item(s). Alternatively, a quantity of Styrofoam “peanuts” may be placed about the items(s). These peanuts can also be represented by the pellets 38 seen in FIG. 4. As so prepared, the cavity 34 will still have a certain amount of ullage volume, and the items to be shipped will not be snug or “tight” with the dry ice pellets, Styrofoam peanuts, or other packing material placed into the cavity 34 along with the items 36. It will be understood viewing FIG. 4 that this is a plan view, but that an elevation view would look similar. So, an underlying bed as well a top layer of dry ice pellets, Styrofoam peanuts, or other packing material is desirably provided in the cavity 34 all around the item(s) 36 to be shipped. Returning to a consideration of FIG. 3, it will be understood that with the container 10 so prepared to be closed, as the top panel of element 20a is hinged into place (see arcuate arrow FIG. 3) the user of the container 10 will use a pin, hobby knife, awl, or simply the point of a ball point pen, for example, to effect a small puncture in the skin 32 each of the elements 20a and 20b.

Conveniently, the element 20b can be pierced at any place along any one of the top edges of the panels 22-26, and the projecting panel of element 20a can be folded into place and the outside surface (i.e., the skin 32) of this panel can then be pierced. Because the panels 22-26 each have fluid flow communication with the other panels of the element 20a or 20b, it does not matters where the user effects the punctures or pierces of the elements 20a and 20b. The result of the puncturing of the elements 20 is that they begin to take in ambient air and start a rather slow expansion in their thickness dimension. So, the user of the container 10 has adequate time to close the box 12. That is, after piercing the elements 20a and 20b the user then immediately closes the flaps 14a-d of the box 12 (i.e., before the elements 20a and 20b significantly expand), and secures these flaps—perhaps with glue or tape, providing a closed shipping container packed with contents to be shipped, as seen in FIG. 1.

As is seen in FIG. 4, the elements 20a, 20b, in a short time after the closing of the container 10 expand in thickness enough to be conformal to the mass of pellets 38, and so that these pellets 38 are urged into snug engagement with the contents 36. Although the panel elements 20a and 20b are resilient and conformal, they have a substantially fixed or constant plan-view shape, as was seen in FIG. 2. In the case of items 36 needing refrigeration, the resulting snug engagement of the dry ice insures good heat transfer between the dry ice and the contents 36. In the case of an item 36 (possibly of irregular shape, and possibly fragile) which is surrounded by Styrofoam peanuts or other packing material, the snugness provided by the expanding elements 20 insures that the item(s) 36 cannot rattle or shift about within the box 12 during transport. The force provided by the expansion of the expansible panel elements 20 is not generally sufficient to damage even the most fragile of items which would commonly be shipped by common carrier.

Those ordinarily skilled in the pertinent arts will understand that dry ice deliquesces (i.e., evaporates from a solid directly to a gas) with the passage of time. Consequently, the mass of dry ice pellets 38 loses volume during transport of the container 10. Accordingly, viewing FIG. 5, the container 10 is shown in cross section at a time later than that seen in FIG. 4, and at a time when the dry ice 38 has significantly decreased in volume. However, as is seen in FIG. 5, the expansible volume-varying elements 20a and 20b have expanded in thickness sufficiently that the remaining volume of dry ice pellets 38 is still snuggly urged against the items 36 being shipped in the container 10. Still later in time, viewing now FIG. 6, the container 10 is shown in cross section at a time later than that seen in FIG. 5, and much later than the time shown in FIG. 4, and at a time when the dry ice 38 has decreased in volume so that only a small fraction of its original volume remains. But, as is seen in FIG. 6, the expansible volume-varying elements 20a and 20b have expanded in thickness even more, and sufficiently so that the small remaining volume of dry ice pellets 38 is still held against the items 36 being shipped in the container 10. In this way, continued refrigeration or cooling of the contents 36 is ensured during transit of the container 10 to its destination.

In view of the above, it will be appreciated that the expansible volume-varying elements 20a and 20b have an initial volume that is in the range from about 10% to about 25% of their final expanded volume. This change in volume of the expansible panel members 20a and 20b is effected rather slowly over a period of time, and is initiated by a user of the container 10 by piercing or puncturing the elements 20 so as to allow ambient air and gases to enter into the panels through the skin 32. The expansible volume-varying elements 20a and 20b have a substantially fixed plan-view shape and increase in volume by increasing in thickness. Shortly after the box 12 of container 10 is closed, expansion of the thickness of elements 20a and 20b will have substantially eliminated all ullage volume within the box 12.

Further to the above, and especially in view of FIGS. 4-6, it will be understood that the volume-varying element(s) need not surround the item to be shipped as is seen in FIGS. 4-6 in order to secure the advantages of this invention. That is, the temperature control element (in the illustrated example, dry ice, although the invention is not so limited) may be urged into a selected heat transfer relationship with the item being shipped without surrounding the item being shipped. This may be illustrated by imagining just one side of the package illustrated in FIGS. 4-6. If the package included only a single volume varying element, and a mass of temperature control material (i.e., dry ice, for example) and the remainder of the package volume were filled with conventional packing materials, then the temperature control element would still be urged into a selected and preferred heat transfer relationship with the item being shipped as the dry ice (or conventional ice or blue ice, for example) reduced in volume or melted during transit of the package.

Turning now to FIGS. 7 and 7A, an alternative embodiment (i.e., second embodiment) of the present inventive insulated shipping container is illustrated. Because this second embodiment shares many features and structures in common with the first embodiment described above, these features are indicated on FIGS. 7 and 7A with the same numeral used above, and increased by one-hundred (100). Viewing FIGS. 7 and 7A in conjunction, it is seen that an insulated shipping container 110 in accordance with the present invention includes an exterior cardboard shipping container or box 112, with walls generally referenced 114, and including flaps (best seen in FIG. 7A, and referenced 114a, 114b, 114c, and 114d) which when open define an upper opening 116, leading to a rectangular prismatic cavity 118 within the box 112. It will be understood that the bottom of the box 112 is closed by other flaps (not seen in the drawing Figures), but which are conventional in the pertinent art. The cavity 118 is of fixed volume. FIG. 7 illustrates a multi-part or multi-panel (but unitary or integral) expansible volume-varying element 120. This volume varying element 120 includes 6 expansible panel portions 122-132, These expansible panel portions 122-132 of the volume-varying elements 120 are hingeably connected by respective flexible web or “living hinge” sections 134-142. The panels 122-132 have a fluid impermeable skin 144, and this skin forms the hinge sections 134-142 while also providing for fluid flow communication among the panel members 122-132.

As FIG. 7A illustrates, the expansible volume-varying panel element 120 is sized and configured to be folded into an open wall structure 120a seen in preparation to this wall structure being inserted into the cavity 118 of box 112. As inserted into the cavity 118, the wall structure forms its own cavity 134 within the box 112. Within the cavity 134, contents to be shipped may be inserted along with a quantity of dry ice pellets (if refrigeration is needed) or along with a quantity of Styrofoam “peanuts” or other packing material (if refrigeration is not needed). The panel 132 is then closed over the packed cavity 134, and a perforation or piercing is formed in the element 120 by the user of the container 110. Then, immediately, the flaps 114a-d of the box 112 are closed and secured. As before, the expansible panel portions 122-132 in a short time expand such that all ullage volume within the box 112 is eliminated.

FIGS. 8, 8A, and 8B provide sequential illustrations of steps in a method of making a single (or one-part) expansible volume-varying element 146 (shown completed in FIG. 8B) according to the present invention. In other words, the embodiment of FIGS. 8-8B includes only a single expansible panel portion. Considering first FIG. 8, it is seen that a flexible but shape-retaining base sheet 148 is provided. This base sheet 146 will preferably have edge dimensions selected to approximate the size of a wall of a box within which the panel 146 will be used (recalling the description above). The base sheet 148 may be made of a number of materials which provide acceptable physical characteristics. For example, a plastic base sheet of polyethylene of about 15 to 40 mils thickness may be used. However, the Applicant has determined that the most economical material for use as base sheet 148 is paperboard. Because paperboard may be had commercially in a variety of thicknesses, weights, and stiffnesses, and at very low costs, it is a simple matter to identify a low-cost, functionally effective material for use in making the base sheet 148.

Atop of the base sheet 148, a block, sheet, or panel 150 of foam material having substantially the same edge dimensions as the base sheet 148 is received. Most preferably, the foam material 150 is open cell (or at least partially open-cell) resilient foamed polymer material. A number of foamed polymer materials are available and are acceptable for use in the panel 150. FIG. 8A shows that the combination of base sheet 148 and foam block 150 are received into a bag 152 of polymer film material. A number of polymer film or sheet materials are available which are acceptable for making the bag 152. A particularly effective material is a nylon film sheet, similar to that which is used to make impermeable bags for fumigation. Other polyester or polyether, or polyolefin, bags materials, such a polyethylene and polypropylene films are available. The bag 152 is elongate and is sufficiently deep that it provides a skirt portion 152a with an opening 154 providing access to the cavity 154 of the bag.

The base sheet 148 and foam block 150 are slid into the cavity 154 of bag 152 so that the skirt 152a is extending beyond the base sheet 148 and foam block 150. Then, as is illustrated by opposed arrows “F” in FIG. 8A, the foam block 150 is compressed in the plane of panel 146 (but is not substantially compressed or made smaller in transverse planes). That is, the foam block is not compressed or made smaller along the edge dimensions of the base sheet 148. This compression of the foam block 150 may be effected by applying vacuum to the cavity 154, for example. When vacuum is used to evacuate the bag 152 and effect compression of the foam block 150, the base sheet 148 is effective to support the foam material in the edge directions of the base sheet, so that the foam material does not wrinkle or warp into saddle or “potato chip” shape. Alternatively, the assemblage of base sheet 148, foam block 150, and bag 152 may be compressed along the lines indicated by the arrows “F” of FIG. 8A by using a pair of opposed flat pressing members (not seen in FIG. 8A).

As FIG. 8B shows, after the work piece for an expansible panel 146 is compressed to a relatively small thickness, which is a fraction of its undeformed thickness, and while the compression is maintained (arrows “F” of FIG. 8B), the skirt 152a of the bag 152 is heat sealed (as is indicated by the opposed arrows 156 on FIG. 8B) to create a seal line 158 extending across and closing the skirt 152a. Subsequently, the skirt 152a is trimmed to a comparatively short length, as seen in FIG. 8B, maintaining the seal line 158. It will be understood that subsequent to the steps shown by FIGS. 8, 8A, and 8B, if a user of the expansible panel pokes a hole in the film of bag 152, then the panel 146 will aspirate ambient air as the foam 150 expands, and the panel 146 will expand toward its full thickness. During this expansion, the foam material will expand on the side away from the base sheet 146, so it is desirable that a user of the expansible panel 146 place the base sheet toward a wall of a box, and the foam side of the expansible panel 146 toward the items to be shipped. In the case of a transparent film being used to make bag 152, the user will be able to easily see which side of the panel member 146 to place toward the items being shipped. On the other hand, if a film is used to make bag 152 which is not transparent, then the panel member 146 can be marked during manufacture to indicate which side a user is to place toward items to be shipped.

FIGS. 9, and 9A through 9D illustrate steps in the method of making a three-part, or three panel, expansible volume-varying element, such as the elements 20a or 20b seen in FIG. 3. Viewing first FIG. 9, it is seen that similarly to the embodiment illustrated in FIGS. 8-8B, the expansible panel element will include foam blocks or panels, each indicated with the arrowed numeral 200. These foam blocks or panels 200, however, in the embodiment of FIGS. 9-9D do not need to be supported on a base sheet, such as the base sheet 148 referred to with respect to FIGS. 8-8B. However, the foam blocks or panels 200 are received into a plastic bag 202, which is this instance is deep enough to accept three of the foam blocks 250 in spaced apart arrangement. The plastic bag 202 includes an elongate skirt 202a, as is seen best in FIG. 9. The bag 202 defines a cavity 204.

FIG. 9A illustrates that the three foam blocks 200 in plastic bag 202 are placed into a pressing apparatus, generally indicated with arrowed numeral 206. But, FIGS. 9 and 9B illustrate that in preparation for the step of FIG. 9A, the bag 202 is heat sealed, as indicated by arrows 208 to form an interrupted heat seal line (indicated by numeral 210) adjacent to each of the foam blocks 200. Thus, a web 212 (i.e., recalling hinge portions 28 and 30 seen in FIG. 2) is defined between each adjacent pair of the foam blocks 200. Because the heat seal lines 210 is interrupted, fluid flow passages (indicated by connecting arrows 214 on FIG. 9B) are defined within the webs 212. It will be seen that FIG. 9 illustrates the bag 202 both in its initial condition with the blocks 200 inserted and spaced apart, and in its condition after the webs 212 (i.e., hinge portions 28, 30—recalling FIG. 2 once again) are formed

Returning to consideration of FIG. 9A, it is seen that the pressing apparatus includes a base portion 216 including a peripheral flange or wall portion 218. Similarly, the pressing apparatus 206 includes a lid portion 220 also including a peripheral flange or wall portion 222. The base portion 216 and lid portion 220 are hingeably connected by hinges 224, so that the lid 220 may be closed on and be congruent with the base portion, as is indicated with arcuate arrow 226, viewing FIG. 9A. It will be understood that when the lid 220 is closed on base 216, a determined separation between these two items is maintained by their respective flanges 218 and 222 abutting one another, so that a substantially closed cavity 228 of determined thickness is formed. As is seen in FIG. 9A, the skirt 202a of the bag 202 is extended outwardly from the pressing apparatus 206 before the lid 220 is closed. With the work piece for the expansible panel element prepared according to the illustrations of FIGS. 9 and 9B, the lid 220 of the apparatus 206 is forcefully closed (arrow 226 of FIG. 9A) compressing the foam blocks 200 along their thickness dimension (but not substantially causing any compression along the edge dimension of these foam blocks) to a thickness which is only a fraction of their uncompressed thickness. During this compression of the foam blocks 200 (indicated by force arrows F on FIG. 9C), air is expelled via the extending portion of skirt 202a (as is indicated by the arrow on FIG. 9C). In order to assist with the expulsion of air from within the bag 202 and from within the foam blocks 250, a partial vacuum may be communicated to the inside of skirt 202a seen protruding from the pressing apparatus in FIG. 9C.

Upon completion of the pressing step of FIG. 9C, and with sufficient evacuation of air from within the foam blocks 250 and from within bag 202, a heat seal line 230 is formed across the protruding portion of skirt 202a, as is indicated by the opposed arrows 232 in FIG. 9D. Upon opening of the pressing apparatus 206, and removal of the expansible panel element from within the cavity 228, this panel element will appear the same as the element 20 illustrated in FIG. 2. In view of the above, it is apparent that a differently configured pressing apparatus and a larger configuration of plastic bag may be used to manufacture the six-part expansible panel element 120 seen in FIGS. 7 and 7A. Still alternatively, a five-panel element similar to the element 120 seen in FIG. 7 may be made by eliminating the sixth panel portion 132. In that case, when the panel element is inserted into a box, the resulting cavity (i.e., like cavity 134 seen in FIG. 7A) will be open at the top. In order to close that open top before the box is closed and sealed, a single expansible panel element such as element 146 seen in FIG. 8B, may be utilized.

Turning now to FIG. 10 a container 10 as is seen in FIGS. 1-3 is illustrated in its “flat” form, which the container will have during its own shipping to a user (i.e., to a store, for example, where a user will purchase the container 10). As a contrast and comparison, it is well understood that common Styrofoam coolers (i.e., ice chests, for example, made of EPS) are very bulky for manufacturers to ship to stores where they are kept in inventory until a user purchases them. Similarly, the stores have to devote a large storage area to these ice chests even though they weigh very little. That is, conventional EPS coolers and ice chests are light but bulky and take up a lot of space. In contrast, the insulated container 10 seen in FIG. 1 offers an insulating value at least as good as the common commercial ice chest having walls about 1 inch thick of EPS. Further, the container 10 may be provided with a simple handle for convenient carrying (perhaps of twine), and with an internal plastic bag, allowing melt water to be retained. Thus, the present invention offers an insulated container that can be employed for all uses conventionally calling for a Styrofoam cooler or ice chest. Further, the present container allows a great savings in shipping costs and in storage requirements over conventional EPS ice chests and coolers.

Viewing FIG. 10, it is seen that the box 12 is in its “flat condition, with the top and bottom flaps open and the walls 14 pivoted into conjunction with one another. In this condition, a large number of such boxes 12 may be shipped on a pallet and can be stored in a small space. Similarly, FIG. 10 shows a pair of the panel elements 20, which may be used as illustrated in FIG. 3 to provide insulation within the box 12. As is seen in FIG. 10, the pair of panel members 20 are also in their “flat” condition, and a large number of these panel members can also be shipped on a pallet and stored until they are needed. That is, as seen in FIG. 10, the panels 20 are partially evacuated and have (and maintain) their compressed thickness which is a fraction of their full thickness. As thus supplied to a user, the user would take one of the boxes 12, and a pair of the panel elements 20, and would also store these components of the container 10 in their “flat” condition until ready to use the container. Then the user unfolds the box 12, and tapes or otherwise secures the bottom flaps in place. The panel elements 20 are each pierced by the user allowing them to expand to their full thickness, and they are placed into the box 12 as illustrated in FIG. 3. Then the user (if desired) places a supplied plastic bag into the cavity 34 to retain melt water, possibly attaches a twine handle, and uses the container as an ice chest or cooler in the normal way. Moreover, the box 12 may be provided with a pair of opposite hand holes (i.e., forming a pair of opposite handles on the box) to allow the box to be conveniently carried, or it may be provided with a inexpensive twine handle allowing one-handed carrying.

While the invention is susceptible to various modifications, and alternative forms, specific examples thereof have been shown in the drawings and are herein described in detail. It should be understood, however, that the invention is not to be limited to the particular forms disclosed, but to the contrary, the invention is to cover all modifications, equivalents and alternatives falling within the spirit and scope of the appended claims. For example, it is apparent that the five or 6 panel elements seen in FIG. 7 may be manufactured with a web spanning between and connecting the panels 122-130 (rather than having that web trimmed as is seen in FIG. 7). An advantage of the embodiment in which the web is not trimmed (in addition to eliminating the manufacturing cost of this trimming step) is that in a use to contain refrigeration within a container, the refrigerated air (or carbon dioxide in the case of deliquescing dry ice) is cold and tends to run down and out of a container much as water would run out. In the case of carbon dioxide this phenomenon is even more pronounced because of the density of the carbon dioxide being higher than air. With the connecting webs intact, when the panel element is formed into the open wall structure seen in FIG. 7A, the connecting webs between the panel portions 122-130 form an effective “basin” which would hold water, and which will likewise retain cold air or cold carbon dioxide. This “basin” effect assists in retaining the cold air or gas within the container 10, and prolongs the refrigeration effect that may be obtained from a quantity of dry ice or other refrigerant. It is also clear in view of the above, that the single panel expansible element as shown in FIG. 8B, for example, may be rolled into the shape of a tube, and then may be utilized within a cardboard shipping tube, for example, to receive items to be shipped.