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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 discover if your manufacturer can produce high quality parts, time and time again?

5 Questions to discover if you manufacturer can produce high quality parts time and time again?

The heavy gauge plastic thermoforming process can produce a very versatile range of highly detailed, durable, and tight tolerance parts with almost limitless design possibilities. The process is fast, cost effective, and ideally suited for a large list of markets and applications. However, like all manufacturing processes, plastic thermoforming requires technical expertise, detailed operating procedures, engineered tooling design and construction, and a comprehensive quality management system to ensure the consistent production of the most cost-effective solutions at the desired level of quality.

As such, not every plastic thermoforming processor is equally capable. Contract manufacturers with poor tooling, processing and quality controls can end up delaying your project or OEM product and increase costs.  Productive Plastics recommends asking the following questions to gauge if a custom plastic manufacturer will be able to consistently produce parts at your required level of quality and dimension tolerances.

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

ISO 9001:2008 certification provider's logoEnsuring 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 Plastics manufacturer, plastics manufacturing facilityto 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 ne 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 practices are focused on the removal of inefficient practices in manufacturing, management, and administration operations and part of the methodology is the regular evaluation of current processes with emphasis on continual improvement. Companies that are committed to following Lean Manufacturing techniques often have a very efficient manufacturing operation, state of the art equipment, and produce quality parts with a low rejection rate.

Plastic thermoforming temperature controlled aluminum tool

4. Does the thermoforming processor have dedicated engineering experts on staff (in-house) 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.

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

This collaboration innovation technique sets the stage for a smooth product development which is more likely to meet performance and delivery expectations.

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. However, finding a reliable custom manufacturer that can produce your parts consistently, efficiently, and to your specification is a paramount factor to the success of any product.

 

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

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

Upgrades at Productive Plastic Enhance Plastic Thermoforming Solutions for Your Project

Your Project's Success is our Goal with Plastic Thermoforming

Productive Plastics has been around for 62 years. In over six decades of heavy gauge plastic thermoforming, one of the many lessons we’ve learned is that helping a customer’s project achieve success means a commitment to the constant evolution of every facet of our business. It’s one of our core values.

This year we invested in numerous upgrades. We expanded our resources, expertise, technology, and machinery, all designed to move us further down our technology roadmap as we implement industry 4.0 solutions and capabilities. And we continue to bring you dynamic and comprehensive heavy gauge plastic thermoforming solutions of the highest quality.

Investments at Productive Plastics This Year:

  • More engineering expertise in-house
    • The engineering team grew by 75% this year to provide our customers with top tier technical support, aid in implementing emerging plastic thermoforming innovations, and expand the scope of our value-added services. Welcome to our newest members who joined the engineering team.
      • Bob Cardona – Engineering Manager
        • Engineering team leadership and coordinating implementation of new technologies
      • Don Stiger – Applications Engineer
        • Providing plastic thermoforming engineering support to customers for new projects and part conversions
      • Dan Govender – Applications Engineer
        • Providing plastic thermoforming engineering support to customers for new projects and part conversions
      • Skip Grant – Manufacturing Engineer
        • Overseeing advances in process improvements
      • Bryan Alicea – Engineering Intern
        • Supporting the engineering team and customer on thermoforming applications

Left to right: Bryan Alicea, Don Stiger, Skip Grant, Dan Govender, Bob Cardona

 

  • Additional Sales Support

    John Zerillo

    Yordano Alicea

    • Yordano Alicea has joined John Zerillo, Principal and VP of Sales, in the field as our newest Sales Account Manager. He adds yet another expert resource available to support customers through every step of the product development cycle.
  • New Technology, Machinery, and Process Upgrades on the Manufacturing Floor
    • 4′ x 6′ Advanced Single Station Pressure Forming Machine
      • Advanced controller and sensor system for increased process control
      • Advanced ovens for better consistency in forming
    • 4’ x 6’ Advanced Rotary Pressure Forming Machine
      • Rapid setup time capable
      • Processes plastic material more efficiently
      • Advanced controller and sensor system for increased process control
    • 6 Axis Robotic Arm Cell
      • Automates cell setup for faster operation
      • Removes human errors
  • Process Refinements to In-Facility Painting Operation – Productive Industrial Finishing
  • What are the Benefits for Your Project?
    • Higher Quality and Consistent Parts (tolerances, color, mating points, etc. – whether it’s 2 parts or 2,000)
    • Faster Lead Times
    • Stronger Value at Competitive Investment
    • Comprehensive Solutions
    • A More Flexible and Dynamic Supplier

This year was about laying the foundations for taking our manufacturing processes and value-added capabilities to the next level, to Industry 4.0 and beyond. New machinery, more automation, moving critical processes in-house, advances in technology, and expanded expertise were all added this year to increase our ability to contribute to your project’s success.

We invite you to contact us and schedule a time to tour our facility. We would like the opportunity to show you just how we can contribute to your project’s success and how we can provide much more than a high quality plastic part.

Please contact Productive Plastics for more information on the thermoforming process