What is Thermoforming
The Plastic Thermoforming Process
Plastic Thermoforming is a plastic manufacturing process that applies a force (vacuum or pressure) to stretch a sheet of heated thermoplastic material (thermo) over an engineered mold to create a 3-dimensional shape or part (forming). After forming, the shaped part can then be trimmed and finished to specification to meet an end-user's requirements. The process and thermoplastic materials are extremely versatile and can be utilized to manufacture parts for a very wide range of applications.
Why Use Plastic Thermoforming?
Plastic thermoforming has advantages over other plastic, metal, and FRP production methods. Here are some benefits that would make the plastic thermoforming process a good choice for your project:
Large Part Capability at Low Cost
Productive Plastics can thermoform parts up to 84" x 108" at a fraction of the tooling cost it would take to produce the same size part with other plastic manufacturing processes, such as injection molding.
Lightweight material benefits
Plastic thermoformed parts are up to 6 times lighter than steel, half the weight of aluminum, and 30 – 40% lighter than fiberglass counterparts.
Rugged and industry compliant material performance
One of the greatest advantages of thermoplastic is its versatility at the polymer level. Thermoplastic material formulations are available that meet even the strictest requirements in strength, durability, impact resistance, FST, and weather resistant of industries from aviation and mass transportation to medical device and industrial equipment.
High detail at low cost
Pressure thermoforming can produce plastic parts with a high level of detail, surface finishes, and textures that rival more expensive processes such as injection molding.
Multi-part assemblies and projects
Productive Plastics utilizes advanced tooling and plastic thermoforming to produce multiple part projects with precise tolerances and attachment points for virtually zero gap assemblies.
Moderate annual volumes (250-5000)
Compared to most other manufacturing processes, plastic thermoforming has a significantly lower total part cost at low to moderate part volumes of approximately 250-5000 parts a year.
Low tooling investment
The tooling investment for plastic thermoforming can be half the cost of injection molding for a small part and up to 1/5 of the tooling investment for a large part. This is attributed to the highly engineered pressure requirements and necessary number of mold faces needed for injection molding.
Rapid product development
Production samples delivered typically within 8-10 weeks.
Design aesthetics and branding capabilities
Plastic thermoforming can produce parts with in mold complex geometry such as radii, undercuts, louvers, surface texture, and other branding. Thermoplastic can also be painted, silk screened, and capped with other materials. Integrated material color and pattern options are also available and can also alleviate the need for post production painting.
Typical Applications for Plastic Thermoforming
The versatility and cost effectiveness of the plastic thermoforming process make it an ideal choice for a wide array of industry applications. Plastic thermoformed parts are commonly used to replace fabricated sheet metal components and also offer some unique advantages over parts constructed with FRP (fiber-reinforced plastics) and RTM (resin transfer molded) manufacturing processes. Whether your project is a new design or a process conversion from an existing one, thermoforming your components with Productive Plastics can be an ideal solution for countless applications and industries.
Virtually Interact With a Plastic Thermoformed Part
Car wash kiosk fascia - pressure formed and other manufacturing solutions applied at Productive Plastics
Use your mouse (left click and slide left/right) or touch screen to interact with and rotate the pressure formed part below. Don't forget to click on the red hot spots to learn more about the unique thermoforming features of this part.
Vacuum Forming & Pressure Forming
The plastic thermoforming process utilizes two manufacturing techniques to accomplish the stretching of the heated thermoplastic material onto the surface of a mold. These techniques or sub-processes are known as vacuum forming and pressure forming. While very similar, there are unique features and benefits for both that should be considered based on the requirements of your project's design . Productive Plastics can assist you in selecting the ideal process for your application.
Vacuum FormingVacuum thermoforming is a plastic thermoforming manufacturing technique within the broader term of the plastic thermoforming process. In vacuum forming a 2 dimensional thermoplastic sheet material is heated to a forming optimal temperature and then positioned over a custom mold or tool. Then, the air is 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. Once the now molded part cools and hardens, the part is removed and further processed to specification.
Pressure FormingPressure forming is a plastic thermoforming manufacturing technique within the broader term of the plastic thermoforming process. In pressure forming a 2 dimensional thermoplastic sheet material is heated to a forming optimal temperature and then positioned over a custom mold or tool. 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.
Heavy vs Thin Gauge Thermoforming Categories
Thermoforming can also be broken down into two categories, heavy gauge and thin gauge. The difference between the two is the dimensional thickness of the thermoplastic sheet material used. The manufacturing techniques, machinery required, and scope of applications that the two are best suited for are quite distinct from one another and most plastic thermoforming manufacturers specialize in only one or the other.
Thin gauge thermoforming (roll fed) – Processes roll fed material < .125” or < 3mm thick. (Note: Productive Plastics does NOT do thin gauge thermoforming)
Product Development Process Summary
1. Design for Thermoforming
2. Thermoplastic Material Selection
3. Tooling Design and Construction
5. Robotic or CNC Trimming
6. Attachments, Bonding, and Assembly
7. Finishing, Coating, and Branding
Materials Commonly Used in Vacuum Forming
Thermoplastic material options are available that meet even the strictest requirements for strength, durability, impact resistance, FST, and weather resistant of industries from aviation and mass transportation to medical device and industrial equipment. Productive Plastics has decades of experience working with the top thermoplastic material suppliers, such as Kydex, Boltaron, and Spartech and will work with your team to select the specific thermoplastic material that meets the needs of your unique application. Some of the common thermoplastic materials utilized in vacuum forming are:
Industry Standard Compliance: - UL 94 V-0, FAR 25.853 (a) and (d), FMVSS 302, and many more
ABS - Broad spectrum of resins used across a number of applications. Can be formulated to meet UL flammability standards.
PC/ABS - Alloy delivers UL approval in addition to high impact performance.
HDPE - Cost effective material for industrial applications requiring high impact strength.
TPO - High impact material delivering performance in cold and high heat applications.
HIPS - Low cost resin used in many POP applications requiring excellent forming characteristics.
PVC/Acrylic - Widely used resin in micro-processor based equipment housings. Meets most stringent UL standards for flammability and can be made in wide range of colors and textures.