Thermoforming has become an integral part of modern manufacturing. Almost any industry that produces goods will use thermoforming in some fashion. Because of the variety of techniques (Vacuum Forming, Drape Forming and Pressure Forming) and wide breadth of strong, versatile materials, thermoforming manufacturers are able to serve many different industries, often with reduced costs. While thermoforming is used in almost every type of manufacturing, here are a few of the most common applications today:
Thermoforming plays a huge role in developing large, sturdy parts for both the interior and exterior of vehicles. Parts are lightweight and more fuel efficient than steel, and plastic’s high energy absorption capabilities mean increased overall safety for passengers in the event of a collision.
Flexibility in design also gives plastic parts a significant advantage compared to alternative materials. Being both less expensive to produce and less time consuming to assemble, thermoformed molded plastic parts allow car manufacturers to design parts that were not previously possible to make with steel or aluminum alloys. Designers can create parts that offer different advantages depending on the design goals for a specific vehicle, with features including weatherproofing, fire resistance, or high impact resistance.
A few of the most common thermoformed parts in vehicles today include dashboards, bumpers, interior trim, suspension and tires.
One of our favorite automotive projects was thermoforming the rear body panels for golf course maintenance vehicles. Because the customer wanted a low volume of moderately large parts, ThermoPro was able to provide a lower cost alternative than injection molded parts. Our customer used other thermoformers in the past, but none had been able to produce the part to their needs.
Our challenge was to create a part that was tight but minimized “chill marks” – an inconsistent section of a part caused when anything colder than the heated plastic comes into contact with the plastic, oftentimes a plug or the mold. ThermoPro was able to form the part successfully for the customer to use on their vehicles.
Your favorite weight machines at the gym would look a lot different without their thermoformed plastic panels. In addition to aesthetics and offering space to print graphics and instructions on the equipment, plastic panels encase all of the cables and plates for user safety.
Fitness equipment such as treadmills, cable weight machines, and sporting goods are just a few of the products produced with thermoformed plastic.
ThermoPro has produced exterior panels for cable exercise equipment. We used PETG plastic with color additives to create a smokey, semi-transparent panel, so users could see the inner workings of the machine while in use.
To form this part, we used a machined aluminum mold with three different sections – one for the back of the machine and two for the front. We would then change out pieces of the mold to create different parts in different quantities.
Aviation and Aerospace
The next time you step into a plane, you may notice all of the different ways thermoformed products will serve you during your flight. Choosing the right materials, both on the inside and outside of a plane, are crucial to maintaining safety and quality standards.
Plastics are lightweight compared to metals and molded fiberglass, which is important for reducing the overall weight of an aircraft. American Airlines estimated that reducing the weight in each plane by just one pound would save up to 53,000 liters of fuel a year. Additionally, the design flexibility and durability of thermoformed parts are uniquely suited to the needs of the aircraft and aerospace industry – an important job, as US airlines move millions of travelers every year.
Safety is also a very important factor to consider when designing parts for aviation. While no plastic is completely fireproof, flame retardants can be added to thermoplastic materials to prevent the spread of fires. PVC/Acrylic blends, like KYDEX, are designed for aircraft interiors and greatly reduce the risk of dangerous fires.
Commonly thermoformed aircraft components include seat backs and armrests, luggage racks, bulkhead components, paneling, tray tables, and lavatory components.
We produced several thermoformed aerospace products for different customers. Two of our most recent projects were armrest and seat casings for small airplanes, and a tough exterior case for an airplane’s emergency raft. To make products that meet regulations for aircrafts, we formed them using materials like polycarbonate and PVC/acrylic blends.
One challenge we overcame when producing these products is “webbing”, which occurs when a plastic reaches too high of a temperature. Our engineering team had to carefully maintain the temperature of the plastic during forming to prevent webbing, while still keeping the plastic hot enough to create tight forms acceptable to use on an aircraft.
Kiosks and Medical Devices
Almost every self-service kiosk you encounter is composed of custom thermoformed panels. These panels are created through the process of either vacuum or pressure forming, and offer high design flexibility based on the kiosk’s function. Customizations can include material type and colors, surface texture, shape, and level of durability.
Thermoplastic panels are also often less expensive to produce than metal components. Some common products made with thermoformed panels include ATMs, ticket machines, retail and point-of-purchase machines, and displays.
Similarly for medical devices, thermoforming is quickly becoming a critical integration in the global supply chain. COVID -19 created a demand for durable, safe and sterile products to help healthcare workers treat patients more effectively. Thermoformed parts gained favor over injection molded parts with lower production costs, versatility, and consistent part-to-part repeatability.
Thermoforming also has a larger size capability compared to injection molding. Hospital beds, ultrasound enclosures, and handwashing stations are made with thermoformed components.
One of our projects currently in production is medical kiosks to be used in big-box retailers. The kiosks are able to measure the user’s blood pressure, and will be capable of taking multiple different health related measurements in the future.
We also had the opportunity to produce in-store movie rental kiosks for Blockbuster Express. Panels were vacuum molded and then CNC routed to create space for the touch screen and electronics. The colorful graphics on the front of the kiosk were made with distortion forming – the images were printed on the plastic and took shape as the part was vacuum formed onto the mold. The plastic was printed on both the inside and outside of the kiosk, for a truly eye-catching look!
Thermoformed plastics are an essential part of the bathroom furnishing industry. Products like bathtub shells and shower wall panels are produced via vacuum forming. Parts can be specifically designed to fit existing spaces, and are an inexpensive option for home bathrooms.
ThermoPro had the opportunity to make prototypes for high-end shower systems with lights and sounds. The showers were made with acrylic-capped ABS plastic, and were vacuum formed with large wooden molds. After being taken across town to be sprayed with a rigidizing coating, the finish products were routed by hand. Our team met the tight deadline for the customer, who had his prototype ready to present at his next show!
Games and Recreation
While thermoforming is utilized in many important day-to-day industries, that doesn’t mean it’s all work and no fun! Thermoformed plastic panels are used in arcade games, slot machines and casinos. The use of different colors, surface finishes, and shapes create attractive displays that are often decorated with graphics, screens, and lights. Durable plastic also means machines can get hours of use every day and still provide a fun experience to every user.
At Thermopro, we produce a line of high-quality thermoformed promotional games. Our line of games includes prize wheels, plinko-style prize drops, prize putt golf, prize pinball, and our foldable Golf Target.