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Thermoforming Material Selection: 5 Ways Thermoplastic Materials Can Influence Product Appearance

The facade or exterior enclosure is often the first impression a customer or operator has of your product. This is also your first chance to impact how your product is perceived. While this is certainly not a new concept, it is a worthy reminder that look, style, and appearance are important. Selecting a thermoforming material with the right properties can provide shape, finish, and cosmetic capabilities that are unique to the thermoforming process and customizable to your company’s brand and product design needs.

Here are 5 ways thermoplastic material can influence the exterior look of your next project.

1. Geometry – Creating a product design with excellent and highly appealing part geometry may only be limited by creativity and inspiration. However, it is one thing to render an image of a flawlessly designed part or product, it can be quite another to manufacture such a design economically with the same elegant geometry, continuity of parts, and seamless assembly.

Producing this design physically will, to a certain degree, be subject to the manufacturing process selected, but will also be heavily dependent on the capabilities of the material selected. Thermoplastic materials require relatively lower heat and pressure to shape resulting in lower tooling and capital equipment costs than competing process materials.

For more information on how part geometry with thermoforming can shape your product and brand, check out this previous Productive Ideas blog post: Geometry and Mating Points.

2. Color – With many other materials, the only way to achieve a desired color finish, is to paint the material post production. Yes, this is also an option for most thermoplastic. However, many thermoplastic providers also produce integral colored plastic material (plastic with coloration). These materials can eliminate the extra time and cost associated with the additional process of painting your components as well as avoid the inherent maintenance issues with paint such as chipping. Many suppliers also have material products with integral patterns such as wood grain, carbon fiber, and metallic replications. See some integral color plastic and pattern examples here from one of our partnered suppliers. Silk screening and distortion printing overlays are also options with most thermoplastic material for more complex branding and surface designs. Molded-in color can provide product branding, safety awareness, color fast durability, color coordination and more.

The Perception of Color

While color match to a provided sample color chip is available for thermoforming materials there are many variables that come into play during application that may affect the perception of match. Reflection and absorption of light will be different on metals, composites, wood, plastic and other materials. Varying lighting conditions will change appearance of a color. Other physical characteristics of the objects such as surface finish, part geometry, and angle of view as well as the manufacturing process affect the color range of the sample and the finished product. This can result in a visual color difference to the observer and must be taken into consideration for design and color match considerations.

3. Gloss – High gloss finishes present a very high quality visual perception and are often desirable in markets such as medical device, recreation, food service and many other OEM markets. This look is easily achievable on most thermoplastic material by either the addition of a high gloss color film capped material or by applying a high gloss paint which is then buffed to the desired level of gloss. High gloss metal flake or pearlescent capped materials are also available as additional high gloss visual options.

4. Texture – The addition of surface texture on a thermoformed part can be accomplished via two methods.

In the first method, in-mold texturing, the texture is produced by casting, peening, or etching the texture designs directly into the tooling used in the part’s production. This method is more reliant on the design, mold construction, and forming process than it is on the thermoforming material. In mold texturing enables the manufacturer to form areas with and without texture in the component design for achieving a non-slip surface or contrasting finishes.

The second method utilizes pre-textured plastic sheet material to produce thermoformed parts with a textured finish. To avoid “texture wash”, this method is compatible for designs with relatively low depth of draw features

View additional features and benefits of textured surfaces using the thermoforming process.

5. Weatherability – Most materials have a tendency to eventually fade when exposed to prolonged UV radiation from sunlight. While thermoplastic is no exception, there are many formulations of plastic available that have either an inherent or designed high resistance to fading or discoloration from UV radiation.

Accelerated Weathering (Ref Q-Lab) is a standardized industry test used to evaluate the color fade of a material in relation to time and UV exposure. Reference the chart below for a comparison of the accelerated weathering performance of common thermoplastic materials.

Weatherability Performance of Thermoforming Materials

Thermoplastic Material Industry Abbreviation UV Resistance
Polyether-Block-Amide (PEBA) Excellent
Thermoplastic Polyimide (TPI)
Polyphenylene Sulfide (PPS)
Polyether-Ester Block Copolymer (TEEE)
Acrylic (PMMA)
Polyetheretherketone (PEEK)
Polyetherketone (PEK)
Perfluoroalkoxy (PFA)
Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE)
Polyvinylidene Fluoride (PVDF)
Liquid Crystal Polymer (LCP)
Polyetherketoneetherketoneketone (PEKEKK)
Polyetherketoneketone (PEKK)
Polypropylene (PP) Fair/Good
Nylon 6 (PA 6)
Nylon 6/10 (PA 6/10)
Nylon 11 (PA 11)
Nylon 6/12 (PA 6/12)
Amorphous Nylon (PA)
Nylon 12 (PA 12)
Impact-Modified Nylon 6/6 (PA 6/6)
Polycarbonate (PC)
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Polysulfone (PSU)
Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT)
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Polyethersulfone (PES)
Modified Polyphenylene Oxide (PPO)
Polycarbonate/Acrylic Alloy (PC/PMMA)
Polyetherimide (PEI)
Polycarbonate/ABS Alloy (PC/ABS)
Thermoplastic Vulcanizate (TPV)
Polymethylpentene (PMP)
Polyphthalamide (PPA)
Polysulfone/Polycarbonate Alloy (PSU/PC)
High Temperature Nylon (HTN)
Syndiotactic Polystyrene (SPS)
Polytrimethylene Terephthalate (PTT)
Nylon 6/6 (PA 6/6) Poor
Polystyrene (PS)
Styrene Acrylonitrile (SAN)
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Acetal (POM)
Ester-based Thermoplastic (TPUR)
Ether-based Thermoplastic (TPUR)
Rigid Thermoplastic Polyurethane (RTPU)
Styreflex™ Styrenic Block Copolymer Thermoplastic Elastomer (SBC)
Fluorinated Ethylene Propylene (FEP)

View the full list of plastic abbreviations and acronyms.

Productive Plastics is a 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

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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