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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Thermoforming

Category: Design

Thermoforming is a versatile process famous in the manufacturing industry for its cost-effectiveness and relative simplicity. It’s a catch-all term that refers to any process that uses a heated sheet of thin plastic in the development of a product or part. When considering this in manufacturing, it’s smart to review the advantages and disadvantages of thermoforming to determine if it’s the best possible option for a specific product.

Thermoforming is typically part of a manufacturing strategy and not an end-to-end solution. It may create components for an overall larger piece, or act as a cover for another product. It’s a versatile process that works in just about every industry, from auto parts manufacturing to medical research. Most creators will find themselves using this process at one point or another, so understanding its strengths and weaknesses is vital.

The Different Types of Thermoforming 

Thermoforming machine in a factory setting

Thermoforming is an inclusive process, and as a result, there are hundreds of different ways companies may approach it. Some that creators should become familiar with include:

  • Vacuum forming: A plastic sheet in a frame is heated until it’s extremely flexible. A vacuum pulls the air out as the sheet is forced into a mold. This process is fast and cost-effective, making it ideal for high-volume work.
  • Pressure forming: Pressure forming follows a series of steps similar to vacuum forming, but an additional piece of tooling presses the part into place as the vacuum pulls air away. This allows for a more detailed piece with more uniform plastic thickness.
  • Drape forming: In this, the heated plastic sheet is draped over or pressed down onto a mandrel or form. This is a less exacting process that’s ideal when costs are a significant concern, as it’s the lowest cost when it comes to tooling or fixtures. However, what creators save in money, they also lose in terms of accuracy.
  • Billow forming: This process is also called “free forming” because it uses no mold. Instead, air jets blast the heated plastic into a bubble. It is used in building domes or skylights.
  • Matched mold forming: In this, both a male and female mold come together to force a part to take on a specific shape. This process is highly detailed, though tooling costs are much higher due to the additional pieces needed.
  • Twin sheet forming: Two layers are heated and formed simultaneously and then attached to create a single piece. This process works best for creating double-walled and hollow items.

Thermoforming works with both thick-gauge and thin-gauge plastic sheets, giving it a variety of uses. It’s great for things like equipment covers and housing for electronics. It’s also highly suitable in medical device creation and the development of medical models. Mostly, if the product design requires thin-walled plastic components, thermoforming could be an appropriate tool.

Weighing the Advantages and Disadvantages of Thermoforming

Thermoforming is suitable for a wide range of products, but it’s not ideal for everything. Before going with this method, it’s wise to review both the advantages and disadvantages of thermoforming.

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Thermoforming can work for huge plastic projects, unlike most other plastic molding processes which are limited to smaller items
  • Nearly all types of plastic are suitable
  • This is a relatively simple piece of manufacturing technology to learn, meaning more skilled labor will be available for it
  • Higher quality products are created in a short period of time.
  • The process is restricted to thin-walled designs
  • The thickness of the part may be uneven in spots, causing weak points
  • It’s a bit more costly when compared to other plastic molding methods like injection molding
  • It may require more plastic than other methods of plastic molding
  • It is not a versatile material process, as it’s limited to plastic sheets

When compared to other types of plastic molding, thermoforming is far more versatile, allowing for a wide range of products across industries. It’s also widely available, as manufacturers may offer it in-house or outsource to a plastics fabricator to obtain what they need for a project.

Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of thermoforming leads most to considering it as a tool in product creation, as it’s versatile, cost-effective, and relatively fast when compared to other methods. It also allows for larger creations than other processes, so sometimes, it’s the only option. While it’s not a perfect solution to every manufacturing problem, it is one of the best methods for creators to consider in product development.

Pacific Research Laboratories will go over the advantages and disadvantages of thermoforming with you as a standard part of product creation. Learn about this and more by calling (206) 408-7603 or visit our contact page.