How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

In the early 1970s, two Boeing engineers used a sandwich press to put a slice of foam between two pieces of airtight nylon and invented the self-inflating sleeping pad for campers. Therm-A-Rest still uses that basic principle today, just the sandwich machine has given way to an entire factory in Seattle. This is that production process today.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 1: Hadouken

These huge blocks of foam arrive at the Therm-A-Rest factory in Seattle from a local supplier. There, they immediately undergo various karate kicks, martial arts combos and WWF-worthy body slams courtesy of the staff. This isn't technically part of the production process.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 2: Slice The Foam

The blocks of foam are loaded onto what's basically an air hockey table. A cushion of air enables them to slide onto the platform effortlessly and, when switched from blow to suck, it then securely holds the foam brick as the platform rolls back and forth through that horizontal bandsaw blade you can just see stretched between the machine's two red towers. Starting at the top and working to the bottom, the foam is sliced into the final thickness required by the pad.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 3: Stamp The Shape

The next machine is basically a big cookie cutter, stamping the foam into the various lengths, widths and shapes required by the company's product range. There isn't exactly a huge industry out there producing self-inflating sleeping pads, so Therm-A-Rest has to design and make all this tooling in-house.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 4: Stretch The Foam And Cut The Holes

Without pre-made, bought-in solutions, Therm-A-Rest starts with its desired result, then engineers its tools backwards. Holes in the foam save weight, but if they go straight up and down, they will spoil the insulation.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

So, the giant machine you see in the background here locates each piece of foam on a one-ton pallet, then compresses that foam, stretches it lengthwise, then stamps holes into it that, when the pad returns to its shape, actually pass through diagonally. That way, when you sleep on it, you "close" the holes with your bodyweight.

That simple result requires that one-ton pallet to be lifted up overhead and across for each pad stamped, starting at the bottom left and moving to the top right. It's a ridiculous amount of effort, but the result it a lighter pad that retains its warmth.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 5: Collect The "Dots"

The foam doughnut holes are sucked out of the press, into the duct that runs up and over the walkway, then blown into giant plastic bags. Rather than waste them, Therm-A-Rest uses the oddly shaped little pieces of foam to fill its range of camp pillows.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 6: Ready The Outers

Polyurethane-coated nylon in various weights and finishes arrives at the factory and is cut to size.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

This lady applies the Therm-A-Rest decal, then inspects each outer for defects on a light table.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 7: Weld The Layers

These two guys stack each piece of foam between the top and bottom layers of PU-coated nylon, then insert them in what's basically a big sandwich press. Hot oil flows through the machine from the white pipes you see on the wall behind and around the outer perimeter of the pad. The two layers of nylon are pressed together with that heat and permanently bonded.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 8: Cool The Pads

The pads slide out of the sandwich press and onto this bank of box fans, where they cool for a brief period.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 9: Insert The Valve

This machine inserts the valve hardware, a plastic block that holds the valve and allows air to pass through the welded perimeter, then mounts the screw-on valve you'll be familiar with operating.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 10: Trim The Excess

The extra nylon is trimmed by hand, resulting in the final product.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 11: Test Inflation

Every single pad that Therm-A-Rest makes is inflated to 2psi, then stored inflated for 36 hours. If it doesn't hold that pressure, the pad is recycled. As you can see in the top photo, the factory floor is quite literally full of pads undergoing that test period.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 12: Dunk Test

The valves are dunked in a bucket of water to ensure their air-tightness. Any bubbles and they start over. This is one of the newer, more expensive NeoAir pads, but all Therm-A-Rests are tested the same way.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 13: Compress Pads For Shipping

Following the 36-hour test, the pads are placed in this wooden press, which compresses them to the minimum possible thickness. The tubes you see on the bottom right attach to the valves and vacuum the air out.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Step 14: Roll And Box

The pads are rolled by hand into a plastic sheath. The valve is left open to account for changes in pressure and temperature during shipping.

How Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Pads Are Made

Pads are then boxed and shipped to retailers around the world. When you get yours, you just unroll it and the foam will expand, drawing air into the pad. Top that off with one or two breaths and you're ready for a good night's sleep.

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