ABOUT THERMOFORMING PLASTIC
Thermoforming is the process of taking a sheet of plastic material and heating it up until its pliable, then forming it to a three-dimensional shape and trimming and finishing it into a usable product. The entire process can be simplified into the following steps from beginning to end.
The starting point is a design. Thermoformed products usually start out as a CAD model or drawing, but can certainly be brought to FLOE “on a paper napkin”. FLOE Thermoforming utilizes SolidWorks as our CAD platform and can convert most CAD files into our highly integrated CAD environment. When OEMs come to us with a CAD file, our engineers work to refine their CAD model into a shape that will work well with our thermoforming systems and plastics manufacturing processes.
Once the OEM’s design is ready, FLOE Thermoforming works with the OEM to select the right material for their project. FLOE Thermoforming has experience using a variety of materials, HMWPE plastic being the most widely used plastic material by FLOE for many of our captive designs. Every material has its own unique physical properties and benefits, as well as a selection of colored and textured materials.
Next a mold is created that the plastic sheet will be formed around. FLOE’s thermoforming processes best utilize aluminum molds; however, wood and other materials can be used for prototype and very low production volume molds. FLOE’s extremely large vacuum forming systems allow for multiple molds to be used at the same time. Using multiple molds or producing multiple parts in a single mold provides efficiency, reduces production times and lowers parts costs for our OEMs.
Once the material is selected and tooling built, the plastic sheet material and mold are loaded into the thermoforming machine where the part(s) can then be formed. The first step is to heat the plastic sheet to a pliable temperature, then shaping it to the mold using vacuum pressure or a combination of vacuum and physical pressure. After the material is formed to the mold, it is cooled and removed from the mold, retaining its final shape.
After the part has been thermoformed and removed from the mold, the part will be trimmed of its excess material. FLOE Thermoforming utilizes robotics and specialized trim fixtures and systems to quickly and accurately trim, drill, debur and finish our OEM’s parts.
Often times our OEMs would like FLOE Thermoforming to go beyond just trimming their parts. FLOE Thermoforming offers many secondary operations in-house, including but not limited to; rigidizing, stiffening, decaling, assembly and manufacturing of other materials and parts to be combined with the Thermoformed part. Additional services can include complete product manufacturing with other FLOE managed third party parts and final packaging and logistics that suit the OEM’s needs.
ABOUT VACUUM PRESSURE & HEAVY-GAUGE FORMING
Thermoforming plastics generally uses one or both of two processes; vacuum forming or pressure forming. FLOE Thermoforming systems are either vacuum forming or vacuum and pressure forming systems.
The following diagrams illustrate vacuum and pressure forming processes.
Vacuum forming pulls the plastic sheet material around the mold where a vacuum is applied inside the mold pulling the air from between the plastic sheet material and the mold. The plastic sheet material then forms around the mold. Vacuum forming allows for sharper details, undercuts, tighter tolerances and molded in textures.
Pressure forming in conjunction with vacuum forming, applies additional outside air pressure on the plastic sheet material to aid in forming. Pressure forming, in addition to vacuum forming, allows for more complex shapes, parts with vents and louvers, and parts with even tighter tolerances.
Heavy Gauge Custom Vacuum Forming
FLOE Thermoforming offers vacuum forming and pressure vacuum forming systems capable of forming materials up to .600 mils (6/10″). FLOE’s Thermoforming machines provide the fastest cycle times and best cost efficiency when forming extremely large form-factor heavy gauge parts. Our machine strategy revolves around providing the right value proposition to our OEMs and Thermoforming Partners that they never thought possible. FLOE Thermoforming allows for the conversion of steel, fiberglass, composites and other materials to lighter weight, more durable and cosmetically appealing plastic part technologies. Conversion part examples include: very large agricultural equipment parts currently made of steel and fiberglass, very large steel waste dumpsters, very large composite boat hulls… the list is endless. Just let us know what you have in mind or need and our team will be happy to offer FLOE Thermoforming solutions!
FLOE Thermoforming has expertise with a wide variety of materials where each material has its own unique capabilities and benefits. The following materials characteristics lend themselves to unique advantages for any given part.
ABS is a widely used thermoplastic material and is well understood in terms of impact strength, rigidity, abrasion resistance, chemical resistance, high temperature capabilities and is moisture resistance.
Acrylic materials offer excellent see-through clarity, weather-ability and impact strength.
Polycarbonate material is very versatile, tough and well-suited for physically demanding applications.
Polyethylene is a highly-versatile material with high impact capabilities, excellent rigidity, excellent flexibility, string memory, and outstanding chemical resistance. Common types of polyethylene used include high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and high molecular weight polyethylene (HMWPE).
PVC is fire-rated where the combination of PVC and ABS provides very high impact strength with excellent ductility and formability.
PVC is fire-rated where the combination of PVC and Acrylic provides very high impact strength and formability with a greater resistance to a broad range of corrosive chemicals and cleaning solutions.
TPO is best used in applications requiring low temperature toughness and dimensional stability and has excellent chemical resistance and UV stabilizers.
Republished from Plastics Technology Magazine. FLOE International got started making products for boaters. It still does. But now it also thermoforms extremely large parts, both for captive products and to support other thermoformers who need big-part capabilities. READ MORE