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Understanding Heavy vs thin gauge plastic thermoforming

While the difference in starting thickness between heavy gauge thermoforming (sometimes referred to as thick gauge or sheet fed thermoforming ) and thin gauge (also referred to as roll-fed) thermoforming may only begin as a few tenths of an inch in part thickness, the two are utilized in different applications than one another as the manufacturing techniques, machinery required, and project scope differ.

The machinery required is unique for each process category, meaning most plastic thermoforming manufacturers specialize in only one or the other. For instance, Productive Plastics is a custom heavy gauge plastic thermoforming manufacturer. So, you can save some time when searching for a processor if you know which category of thermoforming is the right solution for your application.

Here are the essential differences between heavy and thin gauge plastic thermoforming:

Plastic Thermoforming Heavy Gauge Thin Gauge
Manufactured Part Thickness (approximate) .060 -.375″ 1.5 – 9.5 mm < .125” < 3mm
Machinery Type Sheet Fed Roll Fed
Thermoplastic Materials Used (Most Common) ABS
Polycarbonate
HDPE
Polypropylene (many material variants available)
PETG
PET
Clear PVC
Styrene
Polypropylene  
Annual Volume Low – Mid Volume < 10,000 High Volume > 10,000
Typical Applications -Medical device enclosures
-Transportation interior parts (window masks, wall and ceiling panels, seating, luggage racks)
-Kiosk enclosures
-Industrial equipment covers
-Electronic equipment enclosures
-Clamshell packaging
-Food service packaging
-Disposable cups, plates, and trays
-Food containers
-Small medical device packaging

Does your application favor heavy gauge thermoforming? If so, contact us or download our Heavy Gauge Plastic Thermoforming Design Guide for more detailed information on the features and benefits of plastic thermoforming and to explore how Productive Plastics can provide manufacturing solutions for your product.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process
Please download the heavy gauge thermoforming design guide from Productive Plastics

Plastic Thermoforming, Pressure Forming, and Vacuum Forming – What’s the Difference?

The terms “plastic thermoforming”, “pressure  forming”, and “vacuum forming” are all used to describe plastic forming processes. While similar, there are subtle and important differences in these terms and processes that may not be well known outside of the plastic manufacturing industry.

Here is a brief breakdown to get you talking thermoforming like a pro in less than a minute:

Plastic Thermoforming is the generic broad label given to the plastic manufacturing process that heats thermoplastic sheet material (thermo) and then applies pressure or vacuum to form into a 3-dimensional shape (forming).

Pressure and Vacuum Forming are the 2 most common plastic thermoforming manufacturing techniques, under the umbrella of plastic thermoforming. They differ primarily in the method of applying pressure/vacuum to transform the heated plastic sheet into the desired 3-dimensional shape.

Pressure Forming Process

Pressure Forming Process

Vacuum Forming Process

Vacuum Forming Process
 

Plastic Thermoforming


 

Pressure Forming

Vacuum Forming

 Pressure Forming IllustrationVacuum forming Illustration
Process DescriptionSheet thermoplastic material is heated until pliable. Positive pressure is then applied above the heated sheet, pressing the material into the surface of a mold to create the desired 3-dimensional part shape.

 

Full Disclosure – The air under the sheet is also evacuated to assist in stretching the material over the mold, but the positive pressure applied is up to 5x greater.

Sheet thermoplastic material is heated until pliable and placed over a mold. The air is then evacuated between the heated sheet and mold creating a vacuum that pulls the material onto the surface of the mold to create the desired 3-dimensional part shape.

 

 

Watch a 1-minute video of a part being vacuum formed.

Key Benefits
  • Aesthetic surface finishes (texture, branding, in mold design)
  • Often eliminates need for post-production painting
  • High level of detail (rivals injection molding)
  • Tighter radius formation
  • Greater undercut depth and definition
  • In mold vents, louver, and attachment point geometry
  • Larger part capability
  • Faster cycle times
  • Lower tooling costs
ToolingNegative  toolingPositive  tooling (typically)
 

 

Primary Part Surface (Dimensional & Aesthetic)

 

 

 

Outside (part surface contacting the tool)

 

 

Inside (part surface contacting the tool)

Application Examples
  • Device Enclosures (medical, dental, kiosk, electrical, etc.)
  • Transportation (air, mass transit, rail) interior components (seating, window masks, wall and ceiling paneling, etc)
  • Material handling equipment interior components
  • Recreation and utility vehicle components
  • Food service components
  • Handling trays and dunnage
  • Pick up truck bedliners
  • Waste water management components
  • Portable toilet components
  • Large equipment enclosures
  • Agricultural related equipment and components

In addition to pressure forming and vacuum forming, there are other methods, such as twin sheet thermoforming (to be covered in a future post), that give plastic thermoforming a vast portfolio of manufacturing capabilities that offer product solutions to a wide range of industries and applications. Plastic thermoforming often outperforms other processes and materials such as fiberglass (FRP) , metal, or injection molding.

Want to learn more about which plastic thermoforming process is the right solution for your project?

Please contact us.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process

5 Questions to ask your manufacturer to understand if they can repeatably produce high quality parts.

The heavy gauge plastic thermoforming is an agile process capable of producing highly detailed, durable, and tight tolerance parts with almost limitless design possibilities. It provides a cost effective and fast to market solution for a number of applications such as Medical Devices and Rail and Aircraft Interiors. To take advantage of thermoforming, you need to leverage a team with the technical expertise and focus on execution and quality to ensure that you receive a high-quality product every time.

Not every plastic thermoforming processor is equally capable. Issues could arise from poorly designed tooling or poor tooling mediums, lack of processing controls, lack of quality controls, or no repeatable work instructions. Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where the food quality depends on the chef working? You want to ensure you receive the same high-quality product every time.

1. Does the manufacturer have an accredited quality control program?

ISO9001-2015-Certification-Productive Plastics

Ensuring that your manufacturer has adopted an accredited quality control program, such as ISO 9001, will indicate that the company has an active quality control process in place that has been evaluated and certified by an industry recognized third party. The accreditation documentation, often available on the manufacturer’s website, will give you detailed information on what aspects of the company have been certified and supporting quality documentation can often be requested from the processor.

2. Is the manufacturer’s facility organized and clean?

This may seem like a trivial point, but it can be a key indicator to a company’s commitment to quality. A company with a well-organized manufacturing floor is much more likely to take quality, efficiency, process improvement, and safety seriously. If you are not offered a tour of the facility, ask for and witness firsthand the quality control measures in action. Cleanliness and organization are vital since thermoforming is an “open mold process” meaning airborne dirt could end up as an inclusion in the finished part and become a cosmetic flaw.

3. Does the contract manufacturer utilize efficient manufacturing methodologies and conduct process improvement events, such as Lean Manufacturing and Kaizen events?

Lean Manufacturing focuses on the removal of inefficient practices in manufacturing, management, and administration operations, with regular evaluations of current processes with emphasis on continual improvement. Companies that are committed to following Lean Manufacturing techniques tend to have very efficient manufacturing operations, greater investments in equipment, and produce quality parts with a low rejection rate. This will lead to lower part costs from labor as well as a higher on-time delivery percentage.

4. Does the thermoforming partner have dedicated engineering experts to provide tooling design and construction project management?

Properly designed and constructed tooling is the foundation of plastic thermoforming and is essential to producing a high-quality consistent product. Poorly engineered tooling can result in part dimension variations, surface abnormalities, and other defects. See 6 Common Thermoforming Quality Issues Actually Caused by Improper Tooling. Tooling is also a byproduct of part design and leveraging experts can help avoid downstream issues.

5. Does the processor conduct a “Define and Discover” Innovation Engineering approach to seek avenues for collaborative project development and management?

Collaborating early on helps to ensure that the appropriate decision is being made and executed. We for example: start with the question, is this a good application for thermoforming? Sometimes we find ourselves recommending other processes, as your partner should be someone you can trust and leverage.

Ultimately, each project is unique. A commodity type part will likely not require the same level of quality in detail and precision as a multi-part medical device assembly. Finding a partner that can tailor a solution to your specific needs will help you to reduce costs while meeting quality requirements consistently.

At Productive Plastics, we go to great lengths to ensure quality

  • ISO 9001:2008 certified thermoformed plastics manufacturer and designer
  • Lean Manufacturing committed enterprise – Implemented 1998
  • Comprehensive Quality Management System (QMS)
    • Over 6 decades of thermoforming process and quality refinement (oven calibration and thermal environment management, ultrasonic measurement of material sag, and more)
    • Industry leading quality management procedures in every stage of the manufacturing process from design to delivery – High level of documentation, standardization, and tracability.
  • Tooling and Design
    • Dedicated part and tooling engineering team managing supplier performance and tooling construction. Design reviews to ensure expectations are met.
  • Investment in Technology
    • Continual investment in technology, such as the newest sensors, to ensure repeatability.

Have more questions about the role of quality manufacturing for your parts and components? Interested in exploring plastic thermoforming solutions for your OEM product?

Please contact us.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process

Where does your part get painted?

The manufacturing supply chain can be long and complex. Managing independent suppliers for design, tooling construction, assembly, part painting, and more can be challenging, and each has an influence on the quality, timing, and cost of the finished product.

For custom plastic thermoforming, post-production part painting is a key link in this supply chain. That is why Productive Plastics decided to bring our own painting operation under the same roof as our manufacturing facility.

Our cutting edge painting and finishing facility is solely dedicated to meeting the surface finishing needs of custom heavy gauge thermoformed parts manufactured by Productive Plastics.

What are the Benefits to Our Customers?

Reduced Risk

If a supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then strengthening or removing that link reduces the risk of a break. Consolidating the painting and manufacturing operation at Productive Plastics means that there is one fewer supplier to manage and monitor. This also ensures accountability, as it avoids any “finger pointing” between a thermoformer and a painter.

Reduced Cost

In-house facilities and complete control over the painting process reduces or eliminates the logistical, quality control, and transportation costs associated with an off-site supplier.

Reduced Lead Time

Our painting facility is 100 feet from the manufacturing floor, meaning that parts can be painted, cured, and ready for shipping or assembly in the same day that they are manufactured.

Increased Process and Quality Control

Incorporating a painting facility into the operation at Productive Plastics allowed us direct control of the painting process and quality management.  We implemented the same lean manufacturing techniques, proven processes, and quality controls and traceability that we have been evolving on the manufacturing floor for over 6 decades.

Strategically consolidating the manufacturing supply chain is just one of the ways Productive Plastics is constantly improving our ability to contribute to your product’s success. Contact us and give us the opportunity to show you how we can provide much more than a high quality plastic part.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process

Choosing Between Injection Molding vs Plastic Thermoforming: Part Size Has a Big Impact

When comparing a heavy gauge plastic thermoforming process and injection molding process to manufacture a part, aside from production volume, the size of the part is the largest factor that can impact the cost and even process feasibility.

In essence, the larger the part the more expensive it becomes to produce with injection molding. Comparatively, part size has a very minimal cost effect on plastic thermoformed parts. The breakeven point on cost between the two manufacturing processes (Deciding Between Plastic Thermoforming and Injection Molding – The Choice is Not Always Obvious) increases as part size increases to approximately 5,000 parts or higher depending greatly on how large the part is.

Why Does Part Size Affect Cost and Manufacturing Process Selection?

The injection molding process requires a very large up-front capital investment in the tooling and equipment needed to produce a part. This is because the nature of the process involves a very highly engineered 2-sided mold to create a part by feeding thermoplastic resin into a heated barrel with a rotating screw. The screw delivers the raw material forward collecting under pressure the amount required to fill the mold cavity and then injecting into the mold at high pressure and velocity. This action requires highly structured molds and equipment capable of withstanding very high clamping pressure.

As part size and dimensions increase, the complexity of design, engineering, and calibration required to construct, install, and process this 2-sided mold results in a significant increase in the cost of equipment, tooling and setup. The per-part production cost and lead time may also see an appreciable increase as the part size increases requiring much more robust molds and equipment. These increased capital expenditures will result in greater investment and overhead costs calculated in the piece price. Injection molding machines have a limited total mold size capability but can often accommodate multiple parts within the construction of a mold. Smaller part sizes equate to a higher number of parts manufactured per mold and machinery cycle. Larger part sizes decrease the number of parts that can be manufactured per mold and cycle.

Think of a muffin tray with 3-inch diameter muffin molds. Now take that same size tray but with 6 or even 10-inch diameter muffin molds and you imagine the impact on production and cost. In fact, most standard injection molding machines can only accommodate a maximum part size of 4’ x 4’. Larger machinery is available but is also drastically more expensive.

The heavy gauge plastic thermoforming process involves considerably less pressure, and most applications only require a single one-sided tool to produce a part. Additionally, only one part is formed per cycle in heavy gauge thermoforming applications cam lead to a significantly reduced initial tooling. While an increase in part size will still increase the tooling investment, the impact on cost is substantially less when compared to injection molding. Heavy gauge thermoforming equipment has oven zoning and variable sheet size capabilities which allow for a wide range of part sizes to be efficiently formed from the same equipment investment. This helps the thermoforming processes remain agile and makes scaling production for larger part sizes a relatively easy process. Since most heavy gauge thermoforming operations utilize cell-based manufacturing and CNC part trimming, a larger part can be produced with little impact, other than increased material, on per part cost, cycle time, and lead time. Productive Plastics can also manufacture part sizes as large as 9’ x 7’ providing a much larger part size capacity than injection molding.

Large part size infographic

Deciding Between Plastic Thermoforming and Injection Molding – The Choice is Not Always Obvious

Both injection molding and plastic thermoforming have widespread uses in a long list of industries. Each process has some unique features and benefits that are often advantageous for a specific application. In these instances, the choice to manufacture with plastic thermoforming or injection molding may be very obvious. This is most apparent in production volume. Low to mid volume tends to favor thermoforming, while high volume is usually more cost effective with injection molding.

However, a product’s needs and the capabilities of these two processes sometimes overlap. A part’s geometry may seem better suited for injection molding, but in a limited production run, but it may be drastically more cost effective to manufacture it with plastic thermoforming. This is just one example of an application where deciding between injection molding and plastic thermoforming may not be a clear choice. Selecting the right method in these situations requires a deeper appraisal of the features, benefits, and costs associated with each process.

The Clear Choice

As mentioned above, there are some instances when the type and specifications of an application drastically favor one or the other plastic manufacturing process when the choice is between injection molding or plastic thermoforming.

Injection Molding

Injection molding offers the key benefit of cost effectiveness at the mass production scale. When an application requires the production of more than 3,000-5,000 Estimated Annual Usage (EAU) identical parts with uniform wall thicknesses, injection molding often is the clear choice. This can be attributed to a high upfront tooling investment that is gradually offset by a generally low per unit manufacturing cost. The volume range of 3,000 – 5,000 is due to a variation on part cost in respect to part size. Smaller parts are generally cheaper to manufacture than larger.

  • Part production volumes > 3,000- 5,000
  • Uniform part wall thickness required

Plastic Thermoforming

Plastic thermoforming, on the other hand, has a substantially lower tooling investment and a slightly higher per unit manufacturing cost. This equates to a much lower total part cost at low to moderate part volumes. Plastic thermoforming becomes the clear choice when the volume of manufacturing is less than 3,000 – 5,000 parts per estimated annual usage. This process also has the capability to produce single parts with very large dimensions, whereas the injection molding process is limited to single part sizes of about 4 feet x 4 feet.

  • Single part dimensions > 4’x4’
  • Part production volumes < 3,000 – 5,000 EAU

Considerations When the Process Choice Is Not Clear

If your part or project doesn’t require a uniform wall thickness, large single part dimension, or has a volume requirement that is in the mid thousands, then you have landed in an area where the capabilities of plastic thermoforming and injection molding may overlap, and your process choice is not so obvious.

The good news is that you are now no longer handcuffed to a process that, while cost or size necessary, may not have the most comprehensive scope of benefits that would contribute the greatest to the success of your project.

Here are some points to consider for each process that can be taken advantage of or avoided now that you are free to choose a manufacturing method better suited to your project’s needs.

Plastic Thermoforming:

  • Large single part capability (maximum dimensions approximately 10’ x 18’)
  • Short lead time ( 6-12 weeks )
  • Able to reproduce injection molded level detail
  • Smaller investment in tooling
  • Lower equipment capital investment leads to lower set up and machine time costs
  • Can produce thinner wall parts than injection molding, resulting in weight savings
  • Greater options for part surface finishing (textures, patterns, distortion printing, painting, etc.) that can be accomplished in the mold.
  • Multi material structures for cosmetic and engineering structure options (e.g. Acrylic/ABS)
  • Variable part wall thickness depending on depth of draw
  • Improved cost effectiveness at lower to mid volumes (< 3,000-5,000)
  • Lighter part weight compared to injection molding for most applications
  • Less molded in stress than injection molding
  • Twin sheet capability for hollow parts and added structure

Injection Molding:

  • Longer lead time (22-24 weeks)
  • Large investment in tooling
  • Cost effective at high volumes ( > 3,000 – 5,000)
  • Efficient material use
  • High level of precise part detail
  • Limited single part size capability (maximum dimensions approximately 4’ x 4’)
  • Finished parts often require post processing painting or finishing
  • Greater design freedom on single wall parts

Want More Information?

What you see above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to comparing these manufacturing processes. For more information and for assistance in choosing the right process for your project, please contact Productive Plastics and connect with our industry experts and engineers to see how we can put over 62 years of manufacturing experience to work contributing to your project’s success.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process
Please download our complimentary thermoforming design guide for more information on the thermoforming process

Thermoplastics in Transit Interiors – Weighing the Advantages

Mass Transportation’s (mass transit buses, railcars and aerospace) design and manufacturing processes have been trending towards requirements for greater fuel efficiency, providing a luxury riding experience, and the need for enhanced safety.  Using buses as an example, design teams and OEMs have replaced steel and aluminum components with thermoplastics and thermoplastic composite materials.  Upgrading to thermoplastic components on average offers 55% weight savings and meets the static loading requirements of the American Public Transportation Association.  Thermoplastics are growing in popularity, offering industry focused material options that are rigid, and durable, and a manufacturing process that enhances design capability, lead time, and look and feel.

Why Reduce Weight?

As more mass equals more fuel consumption, utilizing materials that reduce the overall weight of the passenger buses, railcars, and aircrafts leads to decreased energy consumption, less brake and tire wear, and lowered emissions. Cutting vehicle weight by 110 pounds reduces 5 g of carbon dioxide emissions per kilometer and increases fuel economy by two percent. (Source: “Vehicle Weight Reduction for Optimal Performance” – DuPont

Modern transportation vehicles are becoming lightweight and fuel-efficient because of the use of thermoplastics for many interior components. Door, wall, and ceiling panels, dashboard surrounds, window masks or shrouds, seatback shells, armrest shells, bulkhead components, luggage racks, and display housings are just a few of the interior components that can be manufactured with the heavy gauge thermoforming process. While the materials industry as a whole has focused on lightweight solutions, thermoplastics offer a complete answer through a combination of strength, rigidity, and low density. For example, thermoforming produces components that weigh 30% less than comparable components made from fiberglass and 250% less than aluminum components. Interior components made from thermoplastics may make up nearly half of the volume of an automobile. However, those same, now lightweight components, contribute less than 10 percent to the weight of the vehicle. (Source: “A Lighter Future with Thermoplastic Solutions”, Lightweighting World.)

Industry-Compliant Thermoplastics with Emphasis on the Environment

The benefits of thermoplastics go beyond light weighting.  Interiors for aircraft, coach and city buses, trucks, and passenger rail cars require the use of FST (Flame Smoke and Toxicity) compliant materials.  All coach and city buses in the United States must meet the U.S. Department of Transportation Docket 90 safety specification for flame spread and smoke emissions. Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 302 Fire Test requirements apply to interior trim parts used for trucks.  One example of a material now commonly used for interior aircraft components and interior rail applications is amorphous polyetherimide (PEI-Ultem) which complies with FST standards while providing strength and aesthetic appeal. Along with meeting compliance standards, PEI thermoplastics also resist damage caused by exposure to halogenated hydrocarbons, alcohols, and aqueous solutions.  In addition, PEI thermoplastics resist warpage when exposed to heat for long durations because of a heat distortion temperature (HDT) rating of 350o F (176o C).

The manufacturing process for fiberglass emits high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  In contrast, the use of very long fiber-reinforced polypropylene (PP VLF) thermoplastic compounds reduces levels of VOCs to compliance with the open air and enclosed application specifications set by international legislation and automotive OEMs. In addition, the PP VLF thermoplastics meet or surpass standards for odor and fogging.

Parts manufactured from fiberglass cannot be recycled.  However, parts made from PP VLF thermoplastics can be recycled, have a lower life-cycle energy footprint and a lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emission. Manufacturers of mass transportation components use PP VLF thermoplastics for instrument panels, overhead and center consoles, seating, and storage bins.

Aesthetic Appeal: On-Time and Within Budget

Thermoplastics can improve the aesthetic design features of interior components used for mass transportation vehicles at a fraction of the cost required to obtain the same level of complex designs with other manufacturing processes. Low or high gloss surface finishes, custom surface texturing, complex geometric part design, and coloration are all capable, cost feasible, and can be manufactured quickly with the thermoforming process.

In-mold design and decorating enables the manufacturing of these high-level design features, resulting in part construction with consistency, precision, and a negligible impact on part cycle time. While in-mold texturing and pre-textured plastic may require a slightly higher initial investment than a simple design, the process ensures consistent part-to-part aesthetic detailing and minimizes cost by eliminating additional labor or processing.  As a result, in-mold design can produce complex designs and custom surface finishes with a minimal impact on cost and lead time.

The use of thermoplastics in component production also provides the option of producing plastics with coloration that resist stains, graffiti, and chemicals and that do not chip or vary in tone or color.  Moreover, using integral colored plastic eliminates the added cost and lead time of post-production painting. Coloration allows manufacturers to achieve a desired color finish and precise color matching along with durability.  You can also have thermoplastic components that have specialty finishes, such as wood grain or metallic patterns and overlays, capturing design intent.

Aesthetic appeal also is achieved through geometry and a seamless appearance.  Manufacturers can take advantage of the thermoforming process to build complex geometric designs with precise part mating and give the appearance of nearly seamless multi-part assemblies.  With complex designs being accounted for within the part’s tooling, the high level of quality has a minimal impact on cost or lead time.

Productive Plastics is a heavy gauge thermoforming custom components manufacturer, with vast experience with thermoplastic manufacturing for transportation applications. Contact us for more information.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process
Please download our complimentary thermoforming design guide for more information on the thermoforming process

Plastic Thermoforming for Transportation Interiors

If you have traveled within North America on mass transportation in the last 3 to 4 decades, specifically on rail or bus, then you are familiar with the typical outdated interior layout and design of most transportation vehicles in the USA.

Many have off-white or beige-colored fiberglass wall paneling, seating, and window masking, likely chipped or cracked at many corners or high traffic areas. Some of these components may be constructed from scratched and dented sheet metal with exposed fasteners and attachment points. The design features are lacking aesthetic appeal or any integrated technology. Boxy, straight-lined components cover the interior with large gaps between mated parts. This is all standard fare for commuter mass transit, railcar, or passenger bus interiors and has been for the past 30 years or more.

Most of the transportation interiors in the USA with the exception for aerospace were designed and manufactured in the mid to later part of the last century. These interior components were mostly manufactured from fiberglass and sheet metal. The old parts are heavy, require frequent maintenance, and lack modern design aesthetics. In short, the time has arrived for major updates and upgrades in this market.

Over the past few years, upgrading the passenger experience has started as a byproduct of industry and environmental compliance standards demand ask for more efficient vehicles through lightweight. Rail, bus, and other mass transit manufacturers are now looking to take advantage of available new processes and innovations to develop the next generation of transportation interiors.

Thermoplastic materials and the plastic thermoforming process are uniquely suited to the emerging needs of the transportation interiors industry, offering extremely lightweight and durable materials that meet industry standards such as FST, Doc 90, and FMVSS 302. The thermoforming process enables a higher design flexibility for interior components at a favorable cost. The ability to do undercuts and texture tooling surfaces allow complex geometric parts, closely mated component assemblies, surface texturing, and a wide variety of paint free pre-colored material options available to designers and engineers. Such benefits are not achievable or cost prohibitive with many other manufacturing processes.

This blog and our email newsletters will take a deeper look into plastic thermoforming and its applications for the transportation interiors industry over the next few months.

Also, if you haven’t already done so, please download our Fiberglass to Plastic Thermoforming Comparison and Conversion Guide, Metal to Plastic Thermoforming Comparison and Conversion Guide, or Heavy Gauge Plastic Thermoforming Process and Design Guide for more comprehensive information on plastic thermoforming capabilities and solutions.

Download Fiberglass Guide Icon
Download Metal vs. Plastic Thermoforming - Comparision and Conversion Guide from Productive Plastics

Should You Upgrade Your Sheet Metal Parts and Enclosures to Plastic Thermoforming?

The heavy gauge thermoforming process offers key advantages as an upgraded replacement for many parts currently manufactured from metal. Weight reduction is a key advantage – plastic parts are lighter than metal. Further, custom plastic thermoforming can be used to produce complex geometric part shapes that are not possible with sheet metal at a feasible cost, allowing greater design freedom. This versatility gives manufacturers faster design and production cycles, while also providing the opportunity for innovation with structure and design. Additionally, thermoforming can eliminate the need for secondary part finishing. The industrial market demands lightweight and durable products and high levels of customization, with an eye towards environmental concerns about the use of recyclable materials. Custom heavy gauge thermoforming meets these demands better than sheet metal.

The Impact of Thermoplastics on Industries

Thermoforming can present a substantial upgrade over traditional sheet metal fabrication, metal stamping, metal spinning, and metal casting manufacturing processes and materials. Although sheet metal fabrication exists as a low-cost method for producing parts, the use of sheet metal sacrifices flexibility in design, capabilities, and application. Complex parts manufactured with sheet metal require secondary processes that can involve cutting, bending, welding, and bolting. Producing the same part with thermoforming can eliminate these secondary processes by easily incorporating complex 3D part designs, mating points, and various surface finishes and branding directly into the part’s tooling.

Medical Device with Plastic Thermoformed Enclosure
Large medical device with plastic thermoformed enclosure. Complex shape design and continuous design lines spanning over multiple parts.

The same differences become apparent when comparing metal stamping, metal spinning, and metal die-casting with thermoforming. Manufacturers use bending and stamping to produce low-cost parts that have a simple geometry. Any attempt to add complexity to a part requires additional assembly steps and cost. The unique process of metal spinning forms complex shapes from aluminum, steel, alloys, and other metals. Rotating a disc or tube of metal at high speeds produces axially symmetric parts and improves the tensile strength of the metal. Metal die-casting produces parts that have high heat resistance, high strength and stiffness, and low thermal expansion qualities.

In contrast, thermoforming provides higher rates of production with a level of detail and complexity that greatly exceeds the capabilities of metal processes. For example, the application of plastic thermoformed enclosures, housings, and covers for medical diagnostic equipment shortens the development and production cycles. Moreover, the use of thermoformed materials establishes lower cost tooling for applications that must comply with global safety standards.

Weight Considerations – Plastic Thermoforming vs. Metal

Plastic thermoforming allows manufacturers to use materials that have a lower density and thinner walls. Both qualities allow weight-conscious industries such as automotive and aerospace manufacturing to achieve significant weight reduction while retaining strength and durability. The use of thermoplastics improves fuel economy and reduces emissions with decreased weight and lowered friction losses in the powertrain. Reducing the weight of gears causes a reduction in inertia and an increase in automotive efficiency. The use of thermoplastics also reduces noise and vibration levels.

For electrical components, the capability to produce strong, lightweight parts also promotes the production of lightweight, wall-mounted or pole-mounted enclosures. Using thermoformed plastics for the electrical enclosures allows easier lifting than seen with aluminum or steel enclosures. When comparing the weights of thermoformed objects to metal objects, noticeable differences exist. With two same-sized objects constructed from polycarbonate and fiberglass, the polycarbonate object weighs approximately ½ pound less. An aluminum same-sized object will weigh twice the amount, an object made from steel will weigh more than six times as much.

The following chart depicts the differences in specific gravity density for different types of thermoplastic and metal materials. Specific gravity equals the ratio of density of the material to the density of water at 39°F. Because the thermoplastics shown in the chart have superior strength-to-weight ratios than the metals, the lighter thermoplastics have equivalent strength and stiffness.

Material Specific Gravity
High-impact ABS 1.03
Polycarbonate 1.19
Acetal copolymer 1.41
Aluminum 2.55 – 2.80
Cast Iron 7.03 – 7.13
Titanium 4.5
Cast Rolled Brass 8.4 – 8.7
Stainless Steel 7.7
Copper 8.89
Carbon Steel 7.8
Tool Steel 7.70 – 7.73
Tungsten Carbide 14.29

Durability Comparisons – Plastic Thermoforming vs. Metal Manufacturing

Polycarbonate has become a popular alternative for enclosures because of its strength and durability. The durability and impact resistance of polycarbonate allows the use of enclosures in all types of weather and environmental conditions in industries such as oil exploration, agricultural irrigation, wind turbines, and maritime. A polycarbonate enclosure has a tensile strength of 900 pounds per square inch and has a high impact resistance. In addition, polycarbonate enclosures resist damage caused by ultraviolet rays and have high NEMA ratings for dust and moisture protection.

Time and Cost Savings Achieved with Thermoplastics

Medical Device with plastic thermoformed enclosure
Medical device enclosure manufactured and assembled from multiple plastic thermoformed parts

While a stainless steel enclosure offers the same resistance, stainless steel costs three times more than polycarbonate. The cost comparison between thermoplastics and metals goes beyond direct monetary costs and includes indirect costs such as time. Again, using polycarbonate enclosures as an example, thermoplastics offer the advantage of easy modification. Machining a stainless-steel enclosure requires special tools and additional time.

The weight reduction seen with a polycarbonate enclosure also factors into time and cost savings. Rather than requiring two installers for the attachment of an outdoor stainless steel enclosure, the installation of a polycarbonate enclosure requires only one installer. In addition, the shipping costs for lighter weight polycarbonate enclosures are lower than the shipping costs for metal enclosures.

Direct cost savings with thermoplastics occur through repeatable manufacturing processes that produce less scrap. Given the durability of thermoplastic materials, tools and parts have a much longer service life. Manufacturing costs also decrease because of the design flexibility to consolidate parts and to produce complex mechanisms without secondary processes. Because of the numerous thermoplastic options, manufactures can carefully select materials that optimize manufacturing to production ratios and reduce lead times.

Summary

Thermoplastics have replaced the use of carbon steel, stainless steel, titanium, aluminum, magnesium, brass, and bronze in many industrial applications. Along with weight reduction, thermoplastics offer enhanced performance, greater design freedom, and decreased total system costs. Enhanced performance occurs through corrosion resistance, lower friction, increased fuel efficiency, and the capability to handle large loads at higher speeds in harsh environments.

Thermoplastics have become standard materials for parts such as medical diagnostics equipment components, enclosures, fender wells, rear bumpers, seating and interior trim components, window masks, wall paneling, decorative signs, and construction cab interiors.  Heavy gauge thermoforming eases the process of manufacturing those components by forming a two-dimensional rigid sheet of thermoplastic into a three-dimensional shape that fits industrial needs and standards.  Intricate designs with molded colors and textures occur at lower costs and with faster production cycles.

Productive Plastics is top contract manufacturer for heavy gauge thermoforming, including vacuum forming and pressure forming. Contact us or request our complimentary thermoforming design guide for more information.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process
Please download our complimentary thermoforming design guide for more information on the thermoforming process

5 Key Points in the Process of Upgrading Parts from Fiberglass to Plastic Thermoforming

Transitioning your product manufacturing process from fiberglass to plastic thermoforming can allow you to capitalize on some major upgrades, benefits, and cost savings for your project. (See some of the advantages of plastic thermoforming vs. fiberglass in a previous post).

However, the process of transitioning from one manufacturing material and process to another, and doing it correctly, may be more complex than simply handing over the existing design and tooling. Below are the basic steps and considerations for the transition process that Productive Plastics has found to help ensure you get the best results from the conversion.

  1. Choosing the right plastic thermoforming manufacturer and process
    1. Plastic thermoforming encompasses a number of sub processes such as vacuum and pressure forming. Consult with your thermoformer to aid in selecting the ideal process for your application. Visit our thermoforming process pages for more information on each process.
    2. Select a thermoforming contract manufacturer experienced in processing a wide variety of material options with a strong understanding of those material properties.
    3. Choose a manufacturer with experience in converting applications from fiberglass to plastic thermoforming to avoid common pitfalls that can delay or increase the cost of the transition.
    4. Strong consideration should be given to a manufacturer with in house design engineers. The onsite expertise will help to ensure a smooth technical transition from fiberglass to plastic thermoforming.
    5. Select a manufacturer that is up to date with best practice methodology such as ISO, Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, etc.
  2. Adapting your existing product design to the plastic thermoforming process
    1. Manufacturing techniques, process capabilities, and material properties differ from fiberglass to plastic thermoforming. This is a good thing. The differences are what motivated you to consider converting your product in the first place. These differences will, more than likely, necessitate modifications to your existing design and tooling to meet your product’s needs and to maximize the advantages available with the thermoforming process.
    2. A design engineer, with plastic thermoforming experience, can adapt your product’s design to harness the benefits of the thermoforming process. (Productive Plastics utilizes our experienced in-house design engineers to help our customers with process conversions).
      1. Tighter part tolerances
      2. Reduction in part wall thickness
      3. Complex or aesthetic design enhancements unachievable or not cost effective with fiberglass
      4. Textured surface finish
      5. Lighter weight than FRP
      6. Consistent surface gloss
  1. Material selection
    1. An important consideration when manufacturing a thermoformed plastic part is the selection of appropriate material. There are a multitude of different types of plastic materials, each with their own specific characteristics, properties, strengths, and weaknesses. Communicating your product’s requirements and industry material standards early in the conversion process will allow your thermoformer to assist in selecting the ideal material for the application. Learn more about thermoforming material considerations and options.
  2. Tooling
    1. Properly designed and constructed tooling sets the foundation for tight tolerances and a high quality part. This becomes increasingly more important for complex and multi-part designs. Having your existing tooling evaluated by your thermoforming contract manufacturer as early in the transition process as possible can have a large impact on the lead time of your first part run.
    2. Choose a thermoforming contract manufacturer experienced with tooling materials options and processes to assure the right tool choice for your application and product life.
  3. Prototype testing
    1. Prototype development should be considered with a testing plan that includes dimensional as well as properties evaluation. Engaging in early involvement, support, and collaboration with a thermoforming manufacturer, like Productive Plastics, can aid in creating a successful verification plan.

Productive Plastics is top contract manufacturer for heavy gauge thermoforming, including vacuum forming and pressure forming. Contact us or request our complimentary thermoforming design guide for more information.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process
Please download our complimentary thermoforming design guide for more information on the thermoforming process

Terminology Note

Productive Plastics and the plastics industry typically use the terms "vacuum forming" and "vacuum thermoforming" interchangeably. Misspellings include "vacuumforming" and "vacuumthermoforming".

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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