Thermoforming Process Engineering Plastics Materials

Plastics Engineering & Design | Engineering Materials

Thermoforming is a manufacturing process where a plastic sheet is heated to a pliable forming temperature, formed to a specific shape in a mold, and trimmed to create a usable product. The sheet, or "film" when referring to thinner gauges and certain material types, is heated in an oven to a high-enough temperature that it can be stretched into or onto a mold and cooled to a finished shape.

In its simplest form, a small tabletop or lab size machine can be used to heat small cut sections of plastic sheet and stretch it over a mold using vacuum. This method is often used for sample and prototype parts. In complex and high-volume applications, very large production machines are utilized to heat and form the plastic sheet and trim the formed parts from the sheet in a continuous high-speed process, and can produce many thousands of finished parts per hour depending on the machine and mold size and the size of the parts being formed.

Thermoforming differs from injection molding, blow molding, rotational molding and other forms of processing plastics. Thin-gauge thermoforming is primarily the manufacture of disposable cups, containers, lids, trays, blisters, clamshells, and other products for the food, medical, and general retail industries. Thick-gauge thermoforming includes parts as diverse as vehicle door and dash panels, refrigerator liners, utility vehicle beds, and plastic pallets.

In the most common method of high-volume, continuous thermoforming of thin-gauge products, plastic sheet is fed from a roll or from an extruder into a set of indexing chains that incorporate pins, or spikes, that pierce the sheet and transport it through an oven for heating to forming temperature. The heated sheet then indexes into a form station where a mating mold and pressure-box close on the sheet, with vacuum then applied to remove trapped air and to pull the material into or onto the mold along with pressurized air to form the plastic to the detailed shape of the mold. (Plug-assists are typically used in addition to vacuum in the case of taller, deeper-draw formed parts in order to provide the needed material distribution and thicknesses in the finished parts.) After a short form cycle, a burst of reverse air pressure is actuated from the vacuum side of the mold as the form tooling opens, commonly referred to as air-eject, to break the vacuum and assist the formed parts off of, or out of, the mold. A stripper plate may also be utilized on the mold as it opens for ejection of more detailed parts or those with negative-draft, undercut areas. The sheet containing the formed parts then indexes into a trim station on the same machine, where a die cuts the parts from the remaining sheet web, or indexes into a separate trim press where the formed parts are trimmed. The sheet web remaining after the formed parts are trimmed is typically wound onto a take-up reel or fed into an inline granulator for recycling.

Most thermoforming companies recycle their scrap and waste plastic, either by compressing in a baling machine or by feeding into a granulator (grinder) and producing ground flake, for sale to reprocessing companies or re-use in their own facility. Frequently, scrap and waste plastic from the thermoforming process is converted back into extruded sheet for forming again.

The following plastics materials that are commonly used in the Thermoforming process:


ABS is a terpolymer made by polymerizing styrene and acrylonitrile in the presence of polybutadiene. The nitrile groups from neighboring chains, being polar, attract each other and bind the chains together, making ABS stronger than pure polystyrene. The proportions can vary from 15 to 35% acrylonitrile, 5 to 30% butadiene and 40 to 60% styrene. The styrene gives the plastic a shiny, impervious surface. The polybutadiene, a rubbery substance, provides resilience even at low temperatures. For the majority of applications, ABS can be used between −20 and 80 °C (−4 and 176 °F) as its mechanical properties vary with temperature. The properties are created by rubber toughening, where fine particles of elastomer are distributed throughout the rigid matrix.


High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is resistant to many different solvents and has a wide variety of applications, including containers, chemical containment, sheds, tables, chairs and more.
HDPE is known for its large strength to density ratio. The density of high-density polyethylene can range from 0.93 to 0.97 g/cm3. Although the density of HDPE is only marginally higher than that of low-density polyethylene, HDPE has little branching, giving it stronger intermolecular forces and tensile strength than LDPE. The difference in strength exceeds the difference in density, giving HDPE a higher specific strength. It is also harder and more opaque and can withstand somewhat higher temperatures (120 °C/ 248 °F for short periods, 110 °C /230 °F continuously). High-density polyethylene, unlike polypropylene, cannot withstand normally required autoclaving conditions. The lack of branching is ensured by an appropriate choice of catalyst (e.g., Ziegler-Natta catalysts) and reaction conditions.


A HIP (High Impact Polystyrene) is tougher than polystyrene cheap and easily processed by thermoforming or other plastics forming manufacturing porcesses. It is used for quality goods such as toys, household appliances, cases, boxes,  and calculators, computer housings. One commercial name for HIPS is Bextrene


Glycolized polyethylene terephthalate (PETG) can be semi-rigid to rigid, depending on its thickness, and is very lightweight. It makes a good gas and fair moisture barrier, as well as a good barrier to alcohol (requires additional "Barrier" treatment) and solvents. It is strong and impact-resistant. It is naturally colorless with high transparency.


PCTFE has high tensile strength and good thermal characteristics. It is nonflammable and the heat resistance is up to 175°C. It has a low coefficient of thermal expansion. The glass transition temperature (Tg) is around 45°C.
PCTFE has the lowest limiting oxygen index (LOI). It has good chemical resistance. It also exhibits properties like zero-moisture absorption and non-wetting.
It does not absorb visible light. When subjected to high energy radiations, like PTFE, it undergoes degradation. It can be used as a transparent film.
The presence of a chlorine atom, having greater atomic radius than that of fluorine, hinders the close packing possible in PCTFE. This results in having a relatively lower melting point among fluoropolymers and it is around 210 - 215°C.
PCTFE is resistant to the attack by most chemicals and oxidizing agents; a property which is exhibited due to the presence of high fluorine content. However, it swells slightly in halocarbon compounds, ethers, esters and aromatic solvents. PCTFE is resistant to oxidation because it does not have any hydrogen atoms.
PCTFE exhibits a permanent dipole moment due to the molecular asymmetry of its repeating unit. This dipole moment is perpendicular to the carbon chain axis.


Polycarbonates are a particular group of thermoplastic polymers. They are easily worked, molded, and thermoformed; as such, these plastics are very widely used in the modern chemical industry. Their interesting features (temperature resistance, impact resistance and optical properties) position them between commodity plastics and engineering plastics. Polycarbonate is becoming more common in housewares as well as laboratories and in industry, especially in applications where any of its main features—high impact resistance, temperature resistance, optical properties—are required.
Polycarbonate is a durable material. Although it has high impact-resistance, it has low scratch-resistance and so a hard coating is applied to polycarbonate eyewear lenses and polycarbonate exterior automotive components. The characteristics of polycarbonate are quite like those of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA, acrylic), but polycarbonate is stronger and usable over a greater temperature range. Polycarbonate is highly transparent to visible light, with better light transmission than many kinds of glass.

Polycarbonate has a glass transition temperature of about 147 °C (297 °F), so it softens gradually above this point and flows above about 155 °C (311 °F). Tools must be held at high temperatures, generally above 80 °C (176 °F) to make strain- and stress-free products. Low molecular mass grades are easier to mold than higher grades, but their strength is lower as a result. The toughest grades have the highest molecular mass, but are much more difficult to process.

Unlike most thermoplastics, polycarbonate can undergo large plastic deformations without cracking or breaking. As a result, it can be processed and formed at room temperature using sheet metal techniques, such as bending on a brake. Even for sharp angle bends with a tight radius, heating may not be necessary. This makes it valuable in prototyping applications where transparent or electrically non-conductive parts are needed, which cannot be made from sheet metal. Note that PMMA/Plexiglas, which is similar in appearance to polycarbonate, is brittle and cannot be bent at room temperature.

Main transformation techniques for polycarbonate resins: Extrusion into tubes, rods and other profiles including multiwall extrusion with cylinders (calendars) into sheets (0.5–20 mm (0.020–0.787 in)) and films (below 1 mm (0.039 in)), which can be used directly or manufactured into other shapes using thermoforming or secondary fabrication techniques, such as bending, drilling, routing, laser cutting etc.


Acrylic sheet is completely transparent, flexible, and exhibits great resistance to breakage. Acrylic is excellent material to use in place of glass. It is lightweight, half the weight of glass, and it is virtually unaffected by nature. Acrylics transparency, gloss and dimensional shape are virtually unaffected by years of exposure to the elements, salt spray or corrosive atmospheres.

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