In the manufacturing world, there’s one constant – change. Emerging markets lead to new product innovations. Applications evolve that require new project specifications. Parts become more complex in design but need to be produced and shipped faster. The list goes on.
To meet these changes, manufacturers and suppliers must often consider new and different ways to produce the parts they need for themselves or their customers.
For example, due to changes in application requirements or overall product design, part material that was once considered ‘tried and true’ may no longer be a viable option.
The good news is there are alternatives on the market that can deliver the same, if not better, reliability, quality, and performance. One example of such alternatives is thermoplastic parts.
What is a Thermoplastic?
A thermoplastic is a plastic polymer material that can be softened and melted by the application of heat. When cooled, it becomes solidified. The process of heating and shaping a thermoplastic material is called thermoforming.
Many of the materials used in thermoforming deliver high strength, flexibility, and shrink-resistance, making thermoforming suitable for a wide range of low and high-stress applications.
Multiple cycles of the heating and cooling process can be repeated, which makes thermoformed plastic a recyclable material.
Thermoplastics have been around for years, but many aren’t familiar with how a thermoformed plastic can be an alternative to more traditional materials such as fiberglass and metal.
Types of Thermoforming
There are two types of thermoforming processes – vacuum forming and pressure forming.
Vacuum forming is the most common thermoforming process. A sheet of plastic is heated until softened, then placed over a 3D mold. A vacuum is applied to evacuate the air between the sheet and the mold, which then presses the sheet directly against the mold, where it hardens. The sheet is now a thermoformed object, and it’s removed from the mold and the process begins again with a new sheet.
Pressure forming is similar to vacuum forming, but additional pressure is applied above the plastic sheet.
Both processes can form parts of all sizes, but pressure forming can allow for greater detail and texture – ideal for more complex shapes or when a highly aesthetic look is needed. And both processes are viable options for creating thermoformed plastic, which is a smart alternative to both fiberglass and metal parts.
Advantages of Thermoforming
For modern-day manufactured products, thermoformed plastic offers a number of advantages over traditional materials.
Aesthetics. Thermoplastics can be matched to any color, and the color isn’t just surface coated. The same color runs throughout the entire thermoformed part.
Thermoplastic can also be manufactured to have texture, high gloss, and UV protection. It can also be screen printed. These decorative qualities are applied during the manufacture of the extruded flat sheet prior to the thermoforming process. For fiberglass or metal parts, painting or coating is a secondary operation.
Flexibility. Thermoforming offers flexible design solutions that may not be feasible with other materials or manufacturing processes. Thermoformed parts can be laminated with multiple layers, making it a highly customizable process.
Reliability. Thermoforming is an automated process which delivers excellent part-to-part consistency and a high degree of reliability in both quality and performance.
Durability. Thermoplastic is crack resistant, scratch resistant, impact resistant, UV resistant, non-corrosive, and fire retardant.
Manageability. Because of its lightweight properties, thermoplastic parts are much easier to handle than heavy fiberglass or metal parts, especially larger size parts.
Shaped parts are also much easier to achieve in thermoformed plastic than in other materials, which typically require multiple processes to achieve certain shapes.
Sustainability. With more companies placing a priority on the use of sustainable manufacturing methods, many are choosing thermoplastic because of its eco-friendly properties.
Almost all thermoplastic products are recyclable, leaving behind no carbon footprint.
Fiberglass, in comparison, is not recyclable.
At SAY Plastics, we use nearly 100% recyclable material. We also recently invested in new plastic granulator equipment that expands our ability to reprocess materials. The equipment also allows us to use less packaging to move byproducts and reduce fuel consumption for byproduct transport.
Clean. Thermoforming is a very clean and automated process, with high repeatability and minimal manual labor involved.
Traditional manufacturing processes and materials can be more labor intensive than thermoforming. Fiberglass work is almost completely done by hand, making it extremely labor intensive. Fiberglass production is also very dirty with a high probability of inconsistencies in quality.
Safe. When compared to other materials, thermoplastic is also safer to handle as it doesn’t cause cuts or splinters like metal or fiberglass can. It can also act as a great dust, odor, of safety barrier.
For example, a thermoplastic van partition between the driver and the back area of the vehicle can serve as a great energy absorber in the event of an accident, providing reliable protection with less hard impact.
Cost/Time Efficient. Thermoforming can offer big savings in terms of tooling development time and cost. It’s a low-cost, quick-to-market solution for new projects.
It’s also a cost-saving conversion solution for all types of fiberglass and metal part applications.
Thermoforming is also a very economical option for all volume levels.
Thermoplastics are commonly used for material handling and surface protection. Examples of engineered material handling solutions include tray dividers, plastic pallets, top caps, and machined components.
Thermoformed surface protection solutions can provide reduced waste, cost savings, and other efficiencies when it comes to protection applications, from assembly and storage to shipping and handling.
Many of SAY Plastics’ surface protection products are used to transport Class A components through an assembly plant or to provide ISD (in-service damage) protection.
Today, most any market can benefit from using thermoplastics:
- Mass Transit
- Heavy Equipment
- Food & Beverage
- Healthcare & Medical
- Transportation & Logistics
How Can Thermoforming Support Your Next Project?
As an industry leader in the design and development of thermoformed plastic components, we’d love to connect with you on your next project and see how thermoforming could benefit your application.
Contact our team for a no-obligation consult and put our years of experience and our advanced technologies to work for you.