Plastic Thermoforming

Thermoforming is a collection of manufacturing methods under which a plastic sheet is heated to a high-enough temperature and then formed to the desirable shapes. The sheet is heated to pliable forming temperature in an oven, then it is stretched into or onto a mold, and then it cooled to a finished shape.
Three major Thermoforming methods are:

  • Drape Forming
  • Vacuum Forming
  • Pressure Forming

Plastic Thermoforming

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Drape Forming

Drape Forming relies on gravity to pull the sheet against the tool.
A major benefit of Drape Forming is the relatively low cost tooling and molds. Another benefit of Drape Forming is that the plastic is not typically stretched during the process so the plastic retains its full dimensional thickness from that of its original form in a flat sheet of material. In addition, the plastic sheet, if clear or textured, will retain its surface features post-processing.

Drape Forming

Vacuum Forming

Vacuum Forming, as the name implies, draws the heated sheet against the tool with the assistance of a vacuum, it is the most common Thermoforming method. In Vacuum Forming, heated plastic sheet is drawn down onto a male or female tool that has vent holes around the periphery and in areas requiring crisp detail. The application of a vacuum offers improved feature definition and greater wall thickness consistency. Vacuum Forming also allows the use of thicker sheet stock and reduces forming time, when compared to drape forming. Vacuum forming is ideal whenever you need a "shell" type plastic part with uniform wall thickness.

Vacuum Forming

Pressure Forming

Pressure Forming combines vacuum and pressure to simultaneously pull and push the plastic sheet to the contours of the tool.The highly versatile pressure forming process utilizes air pressure, from 20 to 150 psi, to force the heated sheet into a temperature controlled mold cavity. Vent holes are provided in the mold to exhaust the trapped air. The final part features sharp definition of intricate contours and tight radii. Textures and accurate details are built right into the tooling. Low-cost, highly aesthetic plastic parts of varying sizes are possible due to the application of air pressure, as well as more sophisticated process controls that better monitor tool and sheet temperatures while controlling material shrinkage during forming.

Pressure Forming