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5 Reasons to Upgrade Fiberglass Interior Parts to Thermoplastic

Railcar, mass transit, and aircraft operators and manufacturers face a multitude of challenges when considering new designs or fleet modernization plans for the interiors of their equipment. Cost reductions, stricter industry regulations, decreasing vehicle weight, and maintenance costs are just a few of the top concerns that must be addressed to ensure a successful project.

If any of this sounds familiar and your new design or existing interior parts are comprised of fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP/GRP), Productive Plastics believes that you may want to consider the advantages of converting to thermoformed blended polycarbonate plastic parts.

Both plastic thermoforming and fiberglass molding can be used to make applications for the transportation interior industry. However, blended polycarbonate and the thermoforming process used to manufacture parts from this material have some very distinct advantages over fiberglass that should and do motivate railcar and mass transit operators and manufacturers to convert.

1. Lightweight

Heavy weight is high cost. This has been a tenant in the aviation industry for a long time and is slowly being adopted by the rest of the transportation industry as factors affecting operating costs and environmental impact are examined. Lighter weight offers savings in both fuel and energy consumption, and decreases carbon footprint and operating costs. For example, a reduction of 800 lbs (~360 kg) to an average city transit bus can equate to a 2-3% savings in fuel consumption, according to a 2010 study conducted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Additional benefits are a tangible increase in the life of vehicle components, such as brakes and propulsion systems.

Thermoformed plastic is lightweight and can offer a substantially reduced part weight when compared to fiberglass. Depending on the type of thermoplastic polycarbonate blended material used and a few other factors, the average thermoformed part is 30% lighter than their fiberglass equivalents. A fact reinforced by comparing specific gravity weights of raw material product on industry material provider websites from companies such as Bayer MaterialScience or KYDEX,LLC.

 2. Overall Manufacturing Cost is Lower and Lead Times Faster

The manufacturing process of a fiberglass reinforced plastic part is relatively complex and labor intensive. Production often requires multiple tools to complete a single part. This increases both tooling and labor costs, and results in a relatively lengthy production time required to generate a finished piece.

The thermoforming process, on the other hand, is highly automated, relatively simple, and typically requires less labor. Most applications utilize only a single tool per part. Consequently, lead times tend to be shorter, and the tooling and labor costs reduced when compared to the fiberglass molding process. From a purely process perspective, thermoforming is often both faster and cheaper than the fiberglass counterpart in smaller production volumes of 250-3000 parts annually, a volume conducive to the transit industry and an advantage that is attractive to most decision makers.

3. Greater Design Freedom and Aesthetic Flexibility

One of the unique characteristics of the thermoforming process and material is its ability to produce extremely detailed and complex parts. Diverse surface texturing options, precise tolerances for mated parts, and complex geometry design are just a few of the possible applications that are otherwise difficult or costly to fabricate with fiberglass.  The availability of colored plastic raw material can, in most cases,  also remove the additional cost and time associated with the secondary process of part painting. These advantages give designers the freedom to create complex modern designs that are more aesthetically pleasing and functional.

4. Environmentally Friendly and Industry Compliant

As companies and passengers become more eco conscious and industry standards and government regulations increase, material providers have responded by creating products able to meet the challenging demands of the mass transit market. Thermoplastic raw material providers, such as Bayer MaterialScience and KYDEX,LLC, have a variety of blended polycarbonate and other thermoplastic materials options that are not only compliant with U.S. and European industry standards, but are also recyclable and VOC free, a trait not shared by most transit industry fiberglass.

5. Extremely Durable

Thermoplastic polycarbonate blends are, on average, 4 times more impact resistant than traditional fiberglass. The flexible and durable nature of thermoformed plastic material allows impact forces to be deflected over the materials surface, allowing the material to recover from impacts that would otherwise crack the more rigid and unyielding material of a fiberglass part. The benefits are an increase in part life and a reduction in part replacement and maintenance costs. Most transit thermoplastic is also highly resistance to stains, chemical cleaners, and graffiti.

A few considerations if you are planning to convert to thermoformed polycarbonate plastic:

This is easily a topic that could populate an entirely separate article. However, there are some important points, worth mentioning here, that should be taken into consideration to help ensure the success of your thermoplastic project.

Choosing the right thermoforming company

Custom thermoforming plastic part manufacturers are plentiful and often specialize in specific thermoforming techniques, so it is important to choose a company that posses expertise and experience in the markets and processes that coincide with your project’s needs. Ideally, for interior vehicle parts you should be seeking a custom thermoforming company that has extensive mass transit experience, top notch quality control, and in house design and reverse engineering capabilities (if you are converting from an existing part). A company that also incorporates lean manufacturing techniques and secondary assembly operations is often able to deliver the most cost effective and shortest lead time solutions.

Raw material selection

The polycarbonate blended thermoplastic that is used for mass transit applications is typically blended with a number of other materials and additives to achieve the desired properties required to meet the demands of the mass transit industry. This has resulted in a wide selection of available raw material products from providers, each with varying performance characteristics in tensile strength, flammability, chemical resistance, and weight to name just a few and engineered to meet industry standards such as EN 45545, DIN 5510-2, NF P 92-501 ( -504, – 505), NF F 16-101/102, FRA Type I, FRA Type II, ASTM E162, ASTM E662, SMP-800C, or BSS 7239. Partnering with a thermoforming manufacturer experienced in mass transit applications can be an invaluable asset in assisting with the proper material selection.

(For more information on the proper selection of industry compliant raw thermoplastic material for you project, please contact us)

With many part material options and manufacturing processes available, each with their own set of pros and cons, there is no shortage of choice for the transportation interior industry. While thermoformed polycarbonate blends may not be the answer for every application, it quite clearly provides solutions for the mass transit interior market that other materials and manufacturing processes are hard pressed to match.

Visit our Fiberglass vs. Thermoforming webpage for additional information and comparisons.

Looking for more technical information?

Download the Thermoforming Design Guide, Process Comparisons, Conversion Guides, and other useful thermoforming information from our technical resource library.

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