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➤ 101 Articles Index

The collection of articles

in this book is listed in
chronological order with a
summary of each one for
easy reference. The first
article appeared in the fall
of 1998 and they continued
in every Thermoforming
Quarterly until the third
quarter 2007.

17-3 Thermoformable Polymers

This article features a short description of the two basic categories of polymers
(thermoplastic and thermoset) and the two types of polymers (amorphous and crystalline).
An explanation of the “thermoforming window” or temperature range in which a polymer
can be formed is also discussed.

17-4 Polymer Properties

This is a more technical article covering material modulus, stress, strain and melt index in a
theoretical discussion of the characteristics of the material to be thermoformed.

18-1 Polymer Properties II

This is a continuation of the previous article but deals more with the thermal properties of
polymers and measurement of “heat capacity” or “specific heat.” It gets into more advanced
concepts of thermal conductivity and thermal diffusion. These 2 articles are for those who
need to understand the theory of polymers’ reaction to heat.

18-2 Basic Heat Transfer

A basic description of the three modes of heat transfers: conduction, convection and
radiation. Includes discussion of where these heat sources occur in thermoforming.

18-3 Mold Materials

In this article the reader will learn about the types of materials used in thermoform molds,
their qualities and when to use them.

18-4 Heaters
Types of heat sources are described with an explanation of how they transfer energy.

19-1 Oven Design

The role of the oven, the various oven designs and types available as well as the controls
used to regulate oven temperature.

19-2 The Forming Temperature

This is a key article on the subject of the right temperature to get optimum forming results.
Upper and lower sheet temperature limits and heating the inner thickness of the sheet is
[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 

TF101 Insides 07.indd 1 9/25/07 8:55:25 AM

19-3 Stretching the Sheet - Part I
This is the first of three parts dealing with sheet behavior during heating and forming. This
part focuses on sheet behavior while it is still in the oven.

19-4 Stretching the Sheet - Part II

This is the second of a series of three parts on stretching the sheet. This part deals with the
draw-down of the hot sheet into a mold and its relationship to the stress-strain behavior of
the plastic.

20-1 Stretching the Sheet - Part III

The final part of this three-part series deals with the pre-stretching of the sheet
pneumatically or mechanically (blowing a bubble or assisting with a plug).

20-2 Cooling the Formed Part

Cooling the formed part while on the mold is second only to heating the sheet in getting
quality parts. Maintaining mold temperature and additional cooling techniques are

20-3 Trimming - Part I: General Comments

This article is the first of three parts on trimming. Because trimming of thin- and heavy-
gauge parts covers a wide range of techniques and tools, they are dealt with in separate
articles. The first deals with some generalities related to how plastics can be trimmed and
what needs to be considered prior to deciding how to trim the part out of the formed sheet.

20-4 Trimming - Part II: Thin-Gauge

The second of three parts on trimming deals with processes used to trim thin-gauge parts
and the types of cutting tools used.

21-1 Trimming – Part III: Thick-Gauge

Finally, the trimming of thick-gauge parts from the formed sheet is the last in this series.
Various types of trim tools and techniques are discussed.

21-2 Collecting Thin-Gauge Parts

Thin-gauge parts must be stripped from the sheet by hand or by mechanical means. This
article describes the equipment and methods by which this is done.

21-3 What Part of “Regrind” Don’t You Understand?

This is an in-depth look at an intrinsic characteristic of all thermoforming: the material that
surrounds the formed and trimmed part that must be ground and reprocessed into sheet or
other products.

21-4 How to Interpret Technical Articles

The author of most of the 101 articles, Dr. Jim Throne, added this discussion about the need
to understand more complex, technical aspects of thermoforming. It is an advanced view of
why technical articles must contain the theoretical information to provide the credibility for
what have become accepted practices in our industry.

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22-1 In the Beginning
This article is an excellent summary of the very early forms of thermoforming and how they
progressed. Statistics related to our industry and the process and market categories generally
related to it are listed to give the reader a good overview.

22-2 Square One: Polymer Selection

Additional material characteristics of those discussed in earlier articles are needed to
produce quality thermoformed parts. This article plus the next two go into more detail with
respect to the various characteristics of polymers. Extrusion basics such as melt viscosity and
orientation are introduced in this article.

22-3 Square One: Polymer Selection-Orientation

This is a continuation of the previous article on the extrusion process with attention given
to orientation of the sheet, testing for orientation and the comparison of orientation and

22-4 Square One: Observe Your Sheet as it Heats

This final article of three discusses how we can observe the effects of orientation as the sheet
is being heated and cooled during extrusion and thermoforming.

23-1 Recrystallization – What Does That Mean?

This is a study of the crystalline and semi-crystalline materials such as PP, CPET and HDPE and
what happens to these materials as they are heated.

23-2 Alphabet Soup

This title is misleading in that this article and the two following explain the meaning of
the acronyms used in thermoforming. Tg, Tm and DSC refer to glass transition, melting
temperature and differential scanning calorimeter, respectively. It is quite advanced in terms
of chemical terminology but does relate to thermoformable polymers.

23-3 ABCs of Alphabet Soup

The second in a three-part series, this is a very technical article related to IR and FTIR or
infrared energy and Fourier transformation respectively, as they relate to heat in the
thermoforming process.

23-4 XYZs of Alphabet Soup

Continuing from the previous two articles, this explains the meaning of HDT, DTA and DTMA
(or, heat deflection temperature, differential thermal analysis and differential thermal
mechanical analysis, respectively).

24-1 Why Part Design is Important

This article covers the many do’s and don’ts of part design. It is of prime importance for
thermoformers to know the limitations of the process.

24-2 Comparing Concept to Reality

The limitations of thermoforming are dealt with in more detail. Also it discusses how to deal
with customers from the most knowledgeable to the technically naïve. Working with the
customer to determine the right material and design for his product as well as educating him
on the advantages and limitations are covered.

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 

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24-3 Understanding How a Sheet Stretches
Assuming we have just received an order for a new job, this article deals with the decision to
design the tooling as female or male. Also, the question of running the mold on top or on
the bottom is addressed.

24-4 The Ubiquitous Draw Ratio

“Draw ratio” is a term in thermoforming commonly used to describe the depth of a female
cavity to its width at the narrowest point or the height of a protrusion on a male part in
relation to another protrusion close to it. We learn about several methods of measuring
draw ratio here.

25-1 Draft Angles

Because material shrinks during the cooling process, draft angles are important in the part
design. Here we learn about the draft angles required in various situations.

25-2 Corners
Corners in a thermoformed part should be designed to avoid material thinning (in a female
part). This sometimes conflicts with the design requirements or volume calculations of a
container. This is discussed in general terms here.

25-3 The Cutting Edge

The edge of the part directly after trimming can be less than clean. This article deals with
what trimming methods produce the best results and how to finish the part after trimming
to produce a better edge.

25-4 The Rim

This article covers the design of the periphery of the part commonly referred to as the rim.
The rim rolling process, detents for lid locking and de-nesting features are discussed as are
the “dam” design, the hidden trim line and what happens to a textured sheet in the rim

26-1 Process – Cycle Time

Improvements in cycle time can have a big impact on your costs. This article deals with the
different segments of the forming process and how these segments can be shortened.

26-2 Down Gauging – It’s a Good Thing

This is a look at why we quote starting gauge and how we could sell differently by agreeing
with the customer on the wall thickness requirements of his part.

26-3 The Impossible Draw Ratio

Difficult draw ratios can be overcome by designing tooling with pre-draw boxes and plug
assists. This article details an example of a difficult part and suggests a tool design.

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 

TF101 Insides 07.indd 4 9/25/07 8:55:26 AM


Thermoformable Polymers
Although we generally consider the words
“plastics” and ”polymers” interchangeable,
the term “plastics” refers to the product
delivered as resin pellets or sheet. Nearly all
plastics contain “polymers,” the pure long-chain
hydrocarbons, but they also contain shopping
lists of additives such as thermal stabilizers,
antioxidants, color correcting dyes, sition occurs over several degrees of blended polymer is modified poly-
internal and external processing temperature, and again usually only phenylene oxide or mPPO, which
aids, as well as product-specific one temperature value is reported as is a near-equal blend of polystyrene
additives such as fire retardants, the “melt temperature.” Polymers and polyphenylene oxide. mPPO is
colorants, UV stabilizers and fillers. that have both glass transition and desired for its good impact resistance
However, because the term “plastic” melt temperatures are called “crys- and fire retardancy.
connotes cheapness and poor quality, talline polymers.” Polyethylene and The “thermoforming window” is
the industry is now calling all poly- polypropylene are examples of crys- the temperature range over which
meric materials “polymers.” talline polymers. the polymer is sufficiently subtle or
There are two general categories If only one polymer is used in a deformable for stretching and shaping
of polymers. When the polymer can given plastic recipe, the polymer is into the desired shape. Typically,
be heated and shaped many times called a “homopolymer.” Examples amorphous polymers have broader
without substantial change in its of homopolymers include general thermoforming windows than
characteristic, it is a “thermoplas- purpose polystyrene [GPPS or some- crystalline polymers. Polystyrene,
tic.” When the polymer cannot be times called “crystal polystyrene” for example, can be formed from
reshaped after being heated and because parts made of the unpig- around 260°F or about 50°F above
shaped the first time, it is a “ther- mented water-white polymer have its glass transition temperature to
moset.” Thermoforming is primarily the appearance of fine crystal], low- about 360°F or only a few degrees
concerned with thermoplastics. density polyethylene or LDPE and below the temperature where it is
Thermoformers use two general polyethylene terephthalate or PET. If injection moldable. Polypropylene
types of polymers. When a polymer one polymer is reacted with another, homopolymer, on the other hand, is
is heated from very low tempera- the polymer is called a “copolymer.” so fluid above its melting temperature
ture, it undergoes a transition from Impact polystyrene or HIPS is an of 330°F that its thermoforming
its glassy state to a rubbery state. example of polystyrene reacted with window may be no more than
Although this transition occurs a rubber such as butadiene. Many one degree or so. As a result, it is
over several degrees of temperature, copolymers are used in thermoform- frequently formed just below its
usually only one temperature value ing, including polypropylene-poly- melting temperature. Even then,
is reported as the “glass transition ethylene and PVC-PMMA. its thermoforming window
temperature.” Polymers that only If three polymers are reacted may be only two or three
have a glass transition temperature together, degrees. ■
are called “amorphous polymers.” the
Keywords: amorphous,
Polystyrene, ABS, PVC and polycar- polymer
crystalline, glass
bonate are examples of amorphous is called a
transition temperature,
polymers. 80% of all polymers ther- “terpolymer.” The
melting temperature,
moformed are amorphous polymers. classic terpolymer is
80% of all amorphous polymers are ABS, which is a reacted
copolymer, terpolymer,
styrenic, that is, polystyrene, impact product of Acrylonitrile,
blend, thermoforming
polystyrene, ABS, and other similar Butadiene and Styrene.
polymers. Occasionally, two poly-
Certain polymers exhibit a second mers are extrusion- or melt-
transition, from the rubbery state to a blended together to make
molten or melt state. Again, this tran- a plastic recipe. The classic

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Polymer Properties
Thermoforming involves stretching of rub-
bery solid plastic sheet. When force is applied
to any material, it stretches or elongates. The
amount that it stretches depends on the amount
of force per unit area, or “stress,” applied to the
sheet, the nature of the material and its tem-
perature. The amount that the material stretches
is elongation or “strain.” For most important, however. If the softening orientation and internal stresses in
metals, ceramics and many polymers range of the polymer is too narrow, sheet can be traced back to the vis-
below their glass transition tempera- that is, the polymer goes from being cosity of the polymer at the time of
tures, the amount of strain in the ma- very stiff to extremely soft over a extrusion.
terial is proportional to the amount very narrow temperature range, the Frequently thermoformers are told
of stress applied to the material. The thermoforming window will be very to use a polymer with a given “melt
proportionality is referred to as the narrow. This is the case with most index.” The melt index test was estab-
material “modulus.” The modulus grades of nylon 6, for example. And if lished years ago as a quick check of
of a given polymer depends on the the stress or force per unit area needed the flowability of polyethylene melt.
molecular make-up of the polymer, to stretch the polymer is always very Basically it is the amount of molten
the nature and level of the additives high, regardless of the polymer tem- plastic, in grams, at a prescribed
in the polymer and the temperature of perature, traditional vacuum forming temperature that can be squeezed
the polymer. For example, according and even normal pressure forming through a hole of a given diameter
to Modern Plastics Encyclopedia, the pressures may be insufficient to in ten minutes. Ten grams of a poly-
ASTM D638 range in modulus of PS stretch the polymeric sheet to the far- ethylene with a melt index of 10, say,
at room temperature [77°F or 25°C] is thest reaches of the mold. This is the will extrude through the hole in ten
330,000 to 475,000 psi. case for many classes of highly filled minutes, whereas only 1 gram of a
For many polymers, the stress- and fiber-reinforced polymers. polyethylene with a melt index of 1
strain curve is not linear, but is Again, thermoforming focuses on will extrude through the same hole
curved. The room temperature modu- the solid properties of a polymer, such in the same period of time. Thus, the
lus for LDPE, for example, is oven as stress-strain. Nevertheless the fluid polymer with the greater melt index
in Modern Plastics Encyclopedia as properties of the polymer are impor- value will flow more rapidly at the
25,000 to 41,000 psi. But at room tant as well. After all, the polymer same stress level and therefore, will
temperature, LDPE is far above its must be extruded into sheet. Fluid have a lower viscosity. For a given
glass transition temperature of -25°C. properties of polymers are related type of polymer, a lower viscosity
Therefore, reported modulus is the to the polymer liquid resistance to usually means a lower molecular
slope of the stress-strain curve at zero applied stress. The polymer liquid weight. Extruders prefer polymers
strain. Furthermore, as the polymer resistance is given as “rate of strain” with relatively high melt indexes.
is heated above its glass transition and “viscosity” is the slope of the Keep in mind, however, that melt
temperature, the stress-strain curve stress-rate of strain curve. As with index gives very little informa-
remains curved but flattens. The solid polymer stress-strain tion about temperature- and
modulus, being the slope of the curve curves, liquid shear rate-dependent nature
at zero strain, also decreases with polymer of the viscosity of a given
increasing temperature. In addition, stress-rate polymer. And extending
the elongation at break increases with of strain the concept of melt index
increasing temperature. curves are tem- beyond polyethylenes and
The decreasing modulus, the flat- perature dependent, polypropylenes is risky, at
tening of the stress-strain curve, and with polymer viscos- best. ■
the increasing elongation at break of ity decreasing with
Keywords: modulus,
a given polymer or polymer recipe increasing temperature.
viscosity, stress, strain,
with increasing temperature are all Very high viscosity, being
stress-strain curve,
important in thermoforming, because a measure of the polymer
stress-rate of strain
the sheet must be stretched into the liquid resistance to applied
curve, melt index
deepest recesses of a mold. Two other stress, can lead to
aspects of the stress-strain charac- sheet extrusion problems. So can
teristics of a given polymer are also very low viscosity. Unwanted

 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

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Polymer Properties II
In addition to stress-strain and stress-rate
of strain characteristics of polymers, thermo-
formers need to know about the thermal prop-
erties of polymers.
“Heat capacity” is a measure of the amount
of energy required to elevate the polymer tem-
perature. Heat capacity is sometimes called
“specific heat.” The field of study the temperature approaches the melt sition temperature, the slope of the
that focuses on energy uptake of ma- temperature of the polymer. temperature-dependent specific vol-
terials is called “Thermodynamics.” “Thermal conductivity” is the ume curve changes perceptively. In
In thermodynamics, one of the fun- measure of energy transmission the vicinity of the melt temperature,
damental measures of energy uptake through a material. The thermal the slope changes dramatically. Typi-
is “enthalpy.” Enthalpy increases conductivity values of organics, in cally, the density of an amorphous
with increasing temperature. When general, are substantially lower, by polymer at its forming temperature
a material goes through a charac- orders of magnitude, than, say, is about 10% to 15% less than that
teristic change such as melting, the metals. In other words, polymers at room temperature. The density
temperature-dependent enthalpic are thermal insulators. As an ex- of a crystalline polymer at its form-
curve changes dramatically. When ample, the thermal conductivity ing temperature may be as much
a material goes through a character- of aluminum, a common metal for as 25% less than that at room tem-
istic change such as glass-to-rubber thermoforming molds, is one-thou- perature. Obviously as the polymer
transition, the temperature-depen- sand times greater than the thermal cools from its forming temperature,
dent enthalpic curve changes subtly conductivity of, say, polystyrene. its density will increase, its volume
if at all. As expected, it takes far more During thermoforming, thermal will decrease, the final part dimen-
conductivity is a measure of energy sions will decrease and the part will
energy to heat a crystalline polymer
transmission through the polymer exhibit shrinkage. This point will be
from room temperature, say, to
sheet. Even though the thermal amplified in later articles.
above its melt temperature than to
conductivities of polymers are low,   “Thermal diffusivity” is a poly-
heat an amorphous polymer from
there are differences in values among mer property that is a combina-
room temperature to the same tem-
polymers. For instance, the thermal tion of other polymer properties.
perature. For example, it takes more conductivity of HDPE is about four Thermal diffusivity is divided by
than twice as much energy to heat times higher than polystyrene or its density and specific heat, and is
polyethylene, a crystalline polymer, ABS. Thermal conductivity and its the fundamental polymer property
to 360°F than it does to heat poly- companion property, thermal dif- in time-dependent heat transfer to
styrene to the same temperature. fusivity, discussed below, are quite materials. Because of the unique
And since the formed shape must be important when forming very thick bundling of temperature-
cooled, twice as much energy must sheets, because the rate of energy dependent characteris-
be removed to cool polyethylene transfer into the sheet gov- tics of the polymer
to a given temperature than to cool erns, to a large properties, thermal
polystyrene to the same tempera- extent, the diffusivity is nearly
ture. A single value of specific heat is formability of independent of tem-
frequently given for a specific poly- the sheet. Although perature for nearly
mer. These values are determined thermal conductivity all polymers.
by dividing the enthalpy difference typically decreases slightly ■
by the temperature difference. Such with increasing temperature, Keywords:
values are acceptable for amorphous for all intents, the value can be Heat capacity,
polymers but care must be taken considered constant. specific heat,
with a crystalline polymer, since the Polymer density decreases and enthalpy, thermal
its reciprocal, “specific volume,” conductivity,
slope of the temperature-dependent specific volume,
enthalpy curve, and hence the spe- increases with increasing tempera-
thermal diffusivity
cific heat, changes dramatically as ture. In the vicinity of the glass tran-

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TF101 Insides 07.indd 7 9/25/07 8:55:28 AM


Basic Heat Transfer

“heat transfer coeffi- than anywhere else in the process.
cient.” Convective heat Radiant energy intensity is usually
transfer is also impor- identified in terms of object tem-
tant during the cooling perature or wavelength. Traditional
of the plastic part on thermoforming heaters operate
the mold surface, since between about 100°F and 1500°F,
the coolant running and have peak wavelengths of 2.5
through the mold pip- to 9 microns. This range is referred
ing is a fluid. Typically, to as “far intrared.”
the cooling efficiency First, it is important to realize
Thermoforming involves first of liquids is greater, by that all three modes of heat transfer
adding energy to plastic sheet to an order of magnitude, than that – conduction, convection and radia-
elevate its temperature to a form- for air. For example, cooling water tion – are important in the heating
ing temperature, then forming the is about one hundred times more of thermoformable polymer sheets.
sheet against a mold, then cooling effective in cooling than fan-blown The primary mode of energy trans-
the formed sheet to a temperature air. fer varies depending primarily but
where the part retains the shape of “Radiation” is energy inter- not exclusively on the thickness
the mold. There are three modes of change between two solid objects of the polymer sheet. Very thick
heat transfer which are important having different temperatures. sheets, 13 mm or 0.5 inch in thick-
during the heating and cooling of Unlike conduction, which requires ness or thicker, can be heated rather
the plastic. direct contact between solid objects, efficiently in “pizza oven” heaters,
“Conduction” is energy trans- and convention, which requires where hot air is convected or blown
mission through solid objects. In direct contact between fluids and around the sheet that is supported
thermoforming, energy is conduct- solid objects, radiation is electro- on all sides to allow for uniform cir-
ed from the surface of the polymer magnetic energy transfer, requir- culation. Even though the air might
sheet to its interior during heating, ing no contact. However, radiation be heated by being blown across
and from its interior to its surface energy transfer requires that the hot panels, the primary modes of
during cooling. As noted in an ear- two objects “see” each other. In heat transfer are convection to the
lier article, the thermal conductivity thermoforming, radiation energy sheet surface and conduction of the
or more properly, thermal diffusiv- transfer occurs in the oven between energy into the volume of the sheet.
ity of the polymer is the fundamen- the heater surfaces and the sheet At the other extreme, thin sheet,
tal property in determining the rate surface. It also occurs between heat- 0.75 mm or 0.030 inch in thickness,
of energy transfer through the solid er surfaces and oven walls, clamp can be heated extremely rapidly
or rubbery polymer. The higher the frames, and the outside world if with very intensive radiant heat,
thermal diffusivity of the polymer, the oven is open. Radiation energy since conduction through thin sheet
the more rapidly energy is trans- transfer also occurs when the is very rapid.
ferred and the more uniform is the sheet is removed from the All commercial energy
temperature through the polymer. oven, since sources used in thermo-
“Convection” is energy trans- the sheet forming today produce
mission between solid objects and is hotter heat both by convection
fluids. In thermoforming, air is than its sur- [hot air moving across the
the fluid surrounding the sheet in roundings. How- heater surface] and radia-
the oven and typically in contact ever, the amount of tion heater surface temper-
with the free surface of the formed energy transfer is a atures greater than sheet
part on the mold surface. Convec- function of the fourth surface temperatures].
tive energy transmission depends power of the tempera- ■
strongly on the flow rate of the ture of the solid object and
Keywords: conduction,
fluid. The greater the flow rate, the so radiant energy transmis-
convection, radiation, far
greater the rate of energy transfer. sion in the thermoforming infrared
The proportionality is called the oven is far more significant

 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 8 9/25/07 8:55:29 AM


Mold Materials
Most commercial thermoforming manner as water lines are drilled in
molds are made from aluminum. injection molds.
Aluminum is used because it is light, In certain instances, other metals
it is easily worked, is relatively inex- are used for molds. For composites, There
pensive and has a very high thermal for example, temperature and pres- are even
conductivity. It is also used because sure requirements may preclude the more
the forming forces against the finished use of aluminum. Steel, particularly materials
mold are low when compared with, chrome-plated steel, and stainless available for
say, injection molding. steel are good alternatives. Steel has straight vacuum
Larger commercial molds are usu- about one-third the thermal conduc- formed prototype
ally cast from the melt. In addition tivity of aluminum and about twice parts. Wood is an
to the common atmospheric casting, the modulus. Stainless steel has about obvious choice,
molds can be made by vacuum casting one-fifth the thermal conductivity of
with ash and hard
and pressure casting. Smaller molds aluminum and about 50% greater
maple offering the
are frequently machined from plate. modulus.
best balance of properties such as
Computer-controlled machining Because thermoforming pressures
compression strength, shaping and
stations have made manufacture of are relatively low, usually not exceed-
sanding quality and resistance to
many-cavity molds quite competitive ing 100 psi, many other materials
splitting, checking, and warping.
with other means of manufacture. can be used for molds. Although
Hydrocal is a dense industrial plaster
For the most part, thermoforming electroformed nickel is much more
that makes a high quality mold. Plas-
molds are single-surfaced. That is, one expensive than other metals, it is used
ter mold fabrication is quick, with the
surface of the plastic sheet is forced when extremely high detail is needed
primary drawbacks being the messy
against the mold surface, while the or when a very intricate pattern must
nature of plastic casting, including
other surface is “free” or untouched be replicated. Very large parts, such as
plastic dust, weight [compared with
by another mold surface. In certain exterior door panels, have been made
wood], and brittleness.
instances, such as foam and com- on electroformed nickel tools. Usually
More recently, medium density
posite forming, the sheet is so stiff at nickel is electroformed onto a pattern,
fiberboard or MDF has found ex-
the forming temperature that it must water lines are placed against the
tensive use, primarily for shallow
be pressed between two “matched nickel shell, then the nickel is backed
draw and male molds, since it can
mold” surfaces in order to accurately with a cheaper white metal.
be quickly worked with traditional
form the part. Sprayed metal is also used for
woodworking tools and has no grain
In large, cast molds, water lines are prototyping and limited produc-
and no propensity to warp, split or
typically attached to the reverse sides tion. Molten white metal such as
check. It is relatively expensive and
by soldering or secondary casting. In zinc is atomized and atmospheri-
restricted in thickness. Syntactic
smaller, machined molds, cooling is cally sprayed against a pattern in
epoxy or polyester foam was
frequently done through flood plates a fashion similar to paint spraying
originally developed as a plug assist
attached to the rear of the molds. or polyester spraying. A reasonably
material but is now computer-driven
When water lines are needed, for thick layer of metal can be sprayed in
machined into smaller molds. It can
deeply drawn parts, they are gun- a reasonably short time. Water lines
be expensive, particularly if a substan-
bore drilled in, in much the same are placed against the metal shell and
tial amount of the initial billet must be
sprayed in place. This is
machined away to make the mold.
then backed wither with

metal-filled epoxy or pot
metal. Many sprayed Keywords: cast aluminum,
metal applications have machined aluminum, computer-
been taken over by com- driven machining, chrome-plated
puter-driven machining, steel, stainless steel, electroformed
and so typical sprayed nickel, hydrocal, medium density
metal molds today fiberboard, syntactic foam, sprayed
are small and highly metal

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 

TF101 Insides 07.indd 9 9/25/07 8:55:30 AM


to age quickly, have poor temperature control, cannot be
easily zoned, but are extremely rugged and relatively inex-
pensive. Quartz and halogen heaters are basically nichrome
or tungsten wires in quartz glass tubes. These heaters are
known for their very short heat-up times, excellent tem-
perature control, and very high temperature capability, but
they are very fragile, the glass is easily etched, and they
are very expensive. Panel heaters include coated metal
plates that reradiate heat from nichrome wires embed-
ded in ceramic, quartz glass and quartz cloth plates that
transmit heat from similarly embedded nichrome wires.
Panel heaters have moderately long heat-up times, good
There are three primary energy sources for heating plas- temperature control, and excellent longevity, but they
tic sheet in thermoforming. Electric heat is used more than are difficult to zone effectively. Ceramic bricks that have
gas heat or hot fluid heat. Some common heating sources embedded heating wires are reasonably rugged, have
include hot air, hot water or steam, sun lamps, nichrome moderate heat-up times, excellent temperature control and
spiral wire or toaster wire, steel rod heaters, steel or ni- moderate longevity, but they are fragile and it is difficult
chrome tape, tungsten and halogen tube heaters, quartz to determine burn-out.
tube heaters with nichrome or tungsten wire or tape, steel
plates with embedded resistance wire, ceramic plates with Combustion Heating
embedded resistance wire, ceramic bricks with embedded The “2000 Years of Thermoforming” cartoon on the 1996
resistance wire, ceramic bricks with embedded resistance SPE Thermoforming Division tee-shirt depicted a caveman
wire, steel plates that reradiate combustion energy from gas stomping on a sheet of plastic suspended over a roaring
flame, indirect gas combustion on catalytic beds and direct fire. Direct gas heating using natural gas or propane rather
gas combustion energy. Keep in mind that all hot surfaces than wood is a viable way of heating plastic. However the
transfer energy by conduction, convection and radiation. energy output from direct combustion is very high and
sheet scorching or ignition is always a concern. Indirect
Hot Fluid Heating catalytic heaters provide a more uniform energy source,
Recirculating hot air or forced convection ovens are used although energy output is admittedly less than that for
when heating times are not critical or when sheet is very electric heaters, and, until recently, temperature control
thick, usually greater than 0.500 inches. There are several was “on-off.” Installation cost is higher than that for elec-
oven designs in use. Air is blown across metal coils and then tric heaters, but energy costs are as low as 20% of that for
across the sheet in indirect electric ovens. Electric panels, equivalent output electric heaters. Catalyst longevity was
usually in the top of the oven, are combined with fan-cir- problematical early on, but fourth generation catalysts ap-
culated air in direct electric ovens. Architectural products pear to have minimized loss in efficiency and formation of
such as commercial or industrial skylights, soaking tubs hot spots. High pressure indirect gas combustors known
and whirlpools are frequently made using these methods as ported surface burners are currently being tested as an
of heating. Direct gas-fired heaters similar to those used alternative to the high-energy electric heaters.
in rotational molding ovens, are used to heat plastics such
as polyethylene that are not easily oxidized or chemically Selection of the “Correct” Heater
attacked by combustion products. There is no “correct” heater. Heater
selection depends on many intrinsic and
Direct Contact Heating extrinsic factors including retrofit-
Direct contact heating is used extensively for very thin ting, sheet geometric char-
sheet or thermally sensitive polymers. For a very short acteristics including
time, the sheet is brought in contact with a heated PTFE- thickness, polymer
coated metal plate. It is then quickly formed against the thermal sensitivity,
mold. Direct contact heating is a common heating method day-to-day running costs,
in form, fill and seal (FFS) machines, where the sheet may maintenance costs, initial in-
be heated sequentially on both sides, by running it against stallation cost, versatility of the
heated rolls. Oriented Pet such as Mylar™, oriented poly- heater, and the inherent design
styrene (OPS), nylon 6, 66 and 11, some calendered PVC, of the thermoforming machine
and cast polyimide such as Kapton™ are heated using and its surroundings. ■
direct contact heating.
Keywords: Electric heat, gas heat,
Electric Heaters fluid heat, direct contact heat,
Electric heaters can be categorized as round heaters, such nichrome, tungsten, quartz, halogen,
as wire, rod or quartz heaters, and flat heaters such as panel catalytic heater
heaters. Metal rod heaters have long heat-up times, tend
10 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 10 9/25/07 8:55:30 AM


Oven Design
“B movie” science-fiction-like wall of
hundreds of adjustable dials. Now,
THERMOFORMING most small heaters are “clustered”
into a more manageable number of
101 controllable “zones” which are then
adjustable through a digital or even
touch-screen monitor at the process
near the sheet edges. This helps control station. PID controllers are
minimize heater inefficiency along a must for heaters that require rapid
sheet edges. Usually the heaters are changes in power level. These con-
fixed in position relative to the sheet trollers minimize power overshoot.
plane. However, machines have been This minimizes sheet overheating
built in which the lower heaters travel and extends the lifetime of the heater
downward as the heating sheet sags. element

V arious types of heaters were de-

scribed in an earlier tutorial. In
this lesson, the effect of the heat pro-
   Most electric ovens operate on
480V/3Ø. Heaters are usually rated in
   Burning or decomposing plastic
is always a concern in thermoform-
ing. Ovens are usually designed
“watt density,” with W/in2 being the
duced by these heaters is considered. standard U.S. dimension. Rod, panel, with both passive and active means
The focus is on non-contact heating. and ceramic heater watt densities are of minimizing damage due to a
up to about 40 W/in2. Quartz heaters dropped sheet. At the very least, the
The Role of The Oven are available to 60 W/in2. Gas-fired bottom heater is protected with easily
heaters operate at gas pressures of removed, inexpensive chicken-wire
   The oven serves several purposes. screen suspended above it. In certain
It holds the sheet while it is being about 5 to 10 ozs., although new
ported burners require up to 5 lb/in2 instances, quartz plates are placed
heated. For the most part, it isolates the above the bottom heater. When pris-
heating sheet from the environment gas pressure. All catalytic gas heaters
also require electric preheaters, which tine, quartz is transparent in infrared
outside the oven. It provides a rigid energy and so does not affect the
structure for the heaters. It provides can operate at 240V1Ø but are more
efficient at 480V/3Ø. Catalytic gas heater efficiency. Since the quartz
a way for the sheet to enter the oven does not heat, the dropped sheet is
and a way for it to exit the oven. And heaters have equivalent watt densi-
ties of up to about 30 W/in2. Ported quickly frozen by the cold plate, this
it provides fixed spacing between facilitating sheet removal and mini-
the sheet and the heaters. Most burners and free-surface burners have
equivalent watt densities of about 500 mizing damage to the lower heater.
importantly, the oven must protect Sag monitors, really photoelectric
both the sheet and the heaters from W/in2.
   Just as there is no ideal heater, sensors, detect excessive sag and can
thermal or mechanical damage, if sound a klaxon, shut down the heat-
something goes wrong. there is no ideal oven design. An
optimum oven design sufficiently iso- ers, drop baffles in place, or activate
   The simplest oven consists of a oven pull-back or fly-open controls.
single heater bank suspended over a lates the sheet from the outside oven
environment to minimize drafts and In some oven designs, high-volume
clamped sheet, with no provision for blowers, activated either by sag moni-
isolating the sheet from the outside energy loss. But the design should
allow for relatively easy means of tors or infrared sensors, blow room
environment. This heating method is temperature air over the overheated
sometimes used, even though the heat transferring the sheet into and out of
the oven. And it should allow for any sheet, either before it drops onto
transmission from the heater to the the heater or while it resides on the
sheet is quite poor. Heater efficiency sheet movement during heating, such
as sag, by spacing bottom heaters chicken-wire screen. In other designs,
is improved by shrouding the heater the oven cabin is flooded with carbon
in sheet metal and covering that with away from the final sheet shape.
dioxide whenever fire is detected.
several inches of fiberglass. At the Mechanically, ovens can be equipped
other extreme, ovens are available Controls with baffles or doors that isolate the
that actively clamp, top and bottom,    Oven controls range from simple heaters from the sheet, or the ovens
against the sheet, completely isolating on-off electrical switches to tem- may be clam-shell opened or hori-
it from the environment. These ovens perature-sensed proportional and zontally retracted to remove the heat
are very energy efficient and can be proportional-integral-derivative or source from the sheet. ■
quite expensive. PID controllers. Oven heaters can be
   Regardless of the type of heater ganged and operated from a single Keywords: Oven design, power
used, the heaters are usually held in controller or individually connected requirements, watt density, fire
planes above and below the sheet to separate controls. Early ceramic control, heater control, on-off
plane. One thermoforming machinery heaters were sometimes individu- control, proportional control, PID
manufacturer uses curved rod heaters, ally connected to individual ten-turn control
with the heaters curved downward potentiometers or pots, yielding a  

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 11

TF101 Insides 07.indd 11 9/25/07 8:55:31 AM


The Forming Temperature

I s the sheet ready to be formed?”
This is the most difficult question
in all of thermoforming. Part of the
Upper and Lower
Forming Temperatures
Normal Forming
difficulty lies in the broad spectrum of   Most references list upper and   Many references also list normal
polymers and part designs. And part lower forming temperatures for forming temperatures for many ge-
lies in the difficulty in determining generic polymers. Polystyrene, for neric plastic types. This temperature,
what measurable physical property example, has a lower forming tem- too, is a guide to good forming, for it
in the polymer best characterizes the perature of 260°F and an upper form- represents a reasonable starting tem-
polymer formability. As discussed ing temperature of 360°F. Compare perature target. For example, poly-
in an earlier lesson, thermoforming this with polystyrene glass transition styrene has a 300°F normal forming
is best described as a rubbery sheet temperature of 210°F and its normal temperature. Keep in mind, though,
stretching process. As a result, the injection molding temperature of that only the surface of the sheet is
elastic character of the polymer, re- 425°F. Is it really true that PS has a measured with infrared thermom-
flected in its temperature-dependent 100°F thermoforming window? No. In eters. The centerline temperatures of
tensile strength and modulus, should normal practice, the thermoforming very thick sheets may be substantially
give a strong clue. Methods of mea- window for PS being stretched into below surface temperatures. For very
suring and interpreting the elastic a specific mold shape may be 10°F or thin sheets, infrared thermometers
character are discussed in another less. The practical forming window that measure at 3.5 microns must be
lesson. used to prevent
also measur-
ing heater tem-
The Calibrated peratures on the
Eyeball THERMOFORMING other sides of
  But first, what about other 101 the sheets. More
about tempera-
methods of determining ture measuring
formability? As noted in an in a later article.
earlier lesson, sheet sag is a
manifestation of lowering
tensile strength. And sag is How to Establish An
used by the experienced op-
erator to gauge when a sheet Initial Temperature
is hot enough to be formed. Protocol
All things equal, the sheet should for PP may be one or two degrees, at
sag the same amount at the same best. Some polymers, such as many   First, sheet temperature, not heater
temperature, time in and time out. nylons, have no practical forming temperature, is the key to successful
Sheet “thumping” or the manual windows. forming. Then, an initially uniform
manipulation of the sheet during the   So, why list these temperatures? surface temperature across the sheet
later heating stages is also a gauge. The lower forming temperature rep- should be obtained, through adjust-
A screwdriver or key thrust into the resents the very lowest temperature ment of individual heaters. The
corner of the sheet will also yield a at which the plastic can be bent or normal forming temperature for the
“calibrated eyeball” assessment of twisted from its flat sheet shape. plastic should be the initial sheet sur-
formability. Other indicators are the Mechanical forming and certain very face temperature target. And finally,
change in gloss of the sheet surface thin-gauge shallow-draw package individual heaters should be adjusted
and the nature of the “smoke”1 being forming can take place at or slightly to achieve pattern or zonal heating,
evolved from the sheet. Of course, above this temperature. The upper where certain locations on the sheet
the trained observer must then cor- forming temperature represents the are deliberately made hotter or colder
relate these experiential judgments very highest temperature at which than the rest of the sheet. ■
with the extrinsic nature of the part the plastic remains a sheet. Above this
that is being formed. In other words, temperature, the sheet will probably Keywords: forming temperature,
deeply drawn parts probably require drip into the heater, smoke vigorously, normal forming temperature, upper
hotter sheet, which is then trans- ignite, and/or turn to charcoal. Don’t forming temperature, lower forming
lated by the operator into greater go there! temperature, sheet temperature
sag or more loss in gloss, and so on. protocol

In truth, the “smoke” is probably not polymer decomposition products being evolved but volatile additives such as internal or external
lubricants or processing aids.

12 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 12 9/25/07 8:55:32 AM


Stretching The Sheet - I

This is a three-part tutorial in sheet behav- but the very earliest sag, the sheet is as their emissivities), air temperature
ior during heating and forming. This part being stretched in tension. Therefore, and movement around the sheet while
focuses on sheet behavior while it is still in the hot tensile strength of the polymer it is heating, and the sheet dimensions
the oven. The second part considers pre- is very important in determining the relative to the heater dimensions.
stretching. And the third part considers extent of sag. However, the viscous More subtle factors include the color,
draw-down into or onto the mold. character of the polymer is now con- texture, and transparency of the sheet.
sidered to be a contributing factor to Shiny or polished sheet is thought to
Sheet Behavior In The the rate at which the sheet sags. reflect more energy than roughened
  Although sag is an anticipated as- or matte sheet. The technical aspects
Oven pect of sheet heating, it is difficult to of this effect may focus on the spec-
It is common for a sheet to exhibit deal with. Sag can cause nonuniform tral rather than diffuse nature of the
periodic shape changes, including thinning in the sheet prior to form- reflection of incoming rays of energy.
waffling or swimming, tautness and ing. As the sheet sags, it becomes Dark sheets are thought to heat more
sag as it is being heated to its form- “salad bowl”-like. As a result, the rapidly than white sheets. This may
ing temperature. In many cases, the local heating efficiencies, top and bot- be due to the absorbing characteristics
sheet is relieving stresses1 that were tom, are altered, although the effect of the pigments near the sheet surface.
imparted during the cooling portion is apparently not as dramatic as one Sheet transparency refers to transpar-
of the extrusion process. As might ency in the
be expected, shape changes that far infrared
occur early in the heating region. Thin
process are the result of con- polyethyl-
ditions imposed late in the
extrusion process. Shape
is nearly
changes occurring late in
the heating process are the
101 transparent
to IR energy
result of changes imposed and so heats
in the roll stack portion quite slowly.
of the extrusion process. Thin PTFE
Orientation or stresses sheet on the
that are frozen in during other hand
the extrusion of the sheet is nearly
are typically relieved opaque in the
relatively late in the heating process might expect2. The sagged sheet may IR region and so heats quite rapidly.
when the sheet is becoming quite soft. rub against the lower oven wall as it   Newer heating technologies use
Annealing of this residual orienta- exits, although ovens are designed short IR wavelength energy. Accord-
tion causes the sheet to contract. The with drop sides to accommodate the ing to ported gas burner and halogen
effect is seen as a tightening of the sag. And certain polymers simply tear heater manufacturers, the high heater
sheet between the clamps. Excessive away during sagging. Technically, temperature generates short wave-
orientation can cause the sheet to pull substantial strides are being made in length energy that is absorbed in the
free of the clamps. mathematically modeling sag using volume of the sheet rather than just
finite element analysis and linear vis- at the surface, as is the case for far
coelastic models for the polymer. infrared radiative heaters. This pro-
The Nature of Sag vides for more uniform heat, lower
In addition to relaxation of imposed sheet surface temperature, and more
Heating Rate rapid heating rates. This technology
stresses, the heating sheet is also
experiencing a rapid reduction in Many things influence the rate at appears most effective for thick sheets
physical properties, such as modulus which a sheet heats to its forming tem- with relatively low pigmentation
and tensile strength. As the sheet ap- perature. Certainly the dominant fac- levels. ■
proaches its transition temperature, tors include heater temperature, the
the polymer is no longer strong thermal properties of the sheet and Keywords: sag, finite element
enough to support its own weight. its thickness. Other factors include analysis, viscoelasticity, tensile
The sheet begins to sag or droop the efficiency of heat transfer between strength, extrusion process, heating
under its own weight. As expected, the heaters and the sheet, the energy rate, infrared region
the extent of the sag increases with absorption characteristics of both the
increasing sheet temperature. For all sheet and the heaters (better known

Residual stress, orientation and shrinkage are addressed in a future tutorial.
A. Buckel, “Comparison of American and European Heavy-Gauge Thermoforming Machines”, TFQ 18:3, 1999, p. 13.

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 13

TF101 Insides 07.indd 13 9/25/07 8:55:32 AM


Stretching The Sheet - II

This is a three-part tutorial in sheet be-   In other words, the wall of the cup temperatures, this stretching limit
havior during heating and forming. The gets progressively thinner toward the begins to drop abruptly, indicating
first part focused on sheet behavior while bottom of the cup. And as expected, as that the polymer molecular structure
it is still in the oven. This part considers the plastic draws into the last portion is too weak to support load.
draw-down into or onto the mold. The last of the cup mold, the corner, it becomes   Initially, the sheet sags into the mold
part considers pre-stretching. even thinner. without the application of vacuum2.
The stress being applied to the sheet
Simple Draw-Down is just its own weight per unit area. As
Stress-Strain Related To Draw-
vacuum is applied or the stress on the
  As noted earlier, thermoforming is Down sheet increases, the sheet elongates.
technically deformation of a rubbery   In an earlier tutorial, it was stated This is recognized as “thinning.” So
mostly-elastic membrane. In simple that: long as the applied stress increases,
terms, we are stretching the plastic as the sheet will
if it is a rubber sheet. The stretching stretch and thin
mechanism is quite easy to as it is deposited
explain. Imagine a sim- against the cup
ple drinking cup female
mold. The hot plastic THERMOFORMING mold wall.
  There are many
first contacts the rim of
the cup, then sags uni-
101 reasons why a
sheet may not
formly into the cup. fully stretch into
Vacuum is applied to the farthest cor-
the cup cavity and the ner of the mold.
sheet begins to stretch The sheet may
into the cavity1, form- quickly cool as it is being stretched.
ing a dome. Then a As a result, the amount of stress or
portion of the plastic equivalently, the applied force, may
contacts the cup edge. For all intents, When force is applied to any material, it not be enough to stretch the sheet
the friction between the hot sheet and stretches or elongates. The amount that it beyond a certain point. The initial
the mold surface holds that portion stretches depends on the amount of force sheet temperature may be too low,
against the mold throughout the rest per unit area, or “stress,” applied to the and the sheet resistance may be too
of the draw-down. As vacuum con- sheet, the nature of the material and its high to allow the sheet to fill the cav-
tinues, an additional portion of the temperature. The amount that the mate- ity. Certain plastics “strain harden,”
plastic contacts an additional portion rial stretches is elongation or “strain.” that is, beyond a certain strain level,
of the cup wall. This plastic is also im- the force needed to stretch the plastic
  We can now relate the material
mobilized against or “stuck on” the further may quickly increase. If the
behavior to applied load, or stress-
mold wall. Since some of the original force is not enough, the plastic stops
strain, to the draw-down of a plastic
plastic is already on the mold wall, stretching. Crosslinked polyethyl-
sheet into the cup mold. The shape
this additional plastic must come ene is an example of such a plastic.
and magnitude of the stress-strain
from the dome that is still free of the For filled and short-fiber reinforced
curve of any polymer depends on
mold surface. And since some of the plastics, the force required to stretch
the nature of the polymer and its
original plastic is already on the mold the sheet even a modest amount may
temperature. Typically, in the form-
wall, it is only logical that the ad- be so high that forming may require
ing temperature region, the polymer
ditional plastic must be thinner than pressures higher than those used in
stretching initially increases slowly
the original plastic. As draw-down simple vacuum forming. Pressure
with increasing stress, then increases
or stretching continues, more and forming will be considered in a sub-
more rapidly as the applied stress
more plastic is drawn from the hot sequent tutorial. ■
increases. Typically, at low tem-
plastic dome that is free of the mold peratures, the polymer stretches a
surface and is deposited on the mold Keywords: stress, strain, differential
relatively small amount before rup-
wall. And it is apparent that both the pressure, elongation, elongation at
turing. As the polymer temperature
thickness of the plastic in the dome break, thinning, strain hardening
increases, the polymer “elongation
and that of the plastic just deposited at break” or its ability to stretch fur-
on the mold wall must decrease as ther and further without breaking,
draw-down continues. increases dramatically. At very high

The pressure difference between atmospheric pressure on one side of the sheet and vacuum on the other is referred to as “differential
The shape of the sheet is similar to the shape taken by a freely hanging chain or rope held by both ends.

14 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 14 9/25/07 8:55:33 AM


Stretching The Sheet - III

This is a three-part tutorial in sheet blown into a bubble with air pressure thin- and thick-gauge thermoform-
behavior during heating and forming. or drawn into a dome with vacuum, ing. In general, two things happen
The first part focused on sheet behavior the forces acting to pre-stretch the when the solid object contacts the
while it is still in the oven. The second sheet are differential forces, due en- sheet. The first is that the sheet is
part considered draw-down into a mold tirely to the unbalanced air pressure impaled on or sticks to that portion of
and its relationship to the stress-strain across the sheet. Vacuum pre-stretch- the plug that contacts the sheet. As a
behavior of the plastic. This part considers result, that portion doesn’t stretch and
ing is used in both thin- and thick-
gauge thermoforming. it cools by transferring its energy to
the cooler plug. This can lead to objec-
Why Pre-Stretch? As experienced thermoformers know, tionable “plug markoff” on the part.
As we saw in Stretching The Sheet- there needs to be a careful balance And then stretching takes place in
II, the sheet gets progressively thin- between the stretching characteristics the sheet free of the mold surface and
ner as it is stretched deeper into the of the plastic, the sheet temperature, between the edge of the plug and the
mold. For large draw-ratio parts, such edge of the mold.
as drink cups and refrigerator This can lead to
liners, the sheet may be an objectionable
thinned so much at the ridge or “witness
bottom of the part that THERMOFORMING line” at the edge
of the plug. Un-
the part may fail there.
Redistribution of sheet 101 like pneumatic
from thicker regions to pre-stretching,
thinner regions must be plug stretching
done to provide useful, is primarily in
functional parts in both one direction,
thin-gauge and thick- between the edge of the plug and the
gage thermoforming. edge of the mold.
This redistribution is
called “pre-stretching.” There are the extent of differential pressure, As with pneumatic pre-stretching, in
two general ways to do this – stretch- the rate of pre-stretching, the extent plug assist pre-stretching, there needs
ing the sheet with air pressure and of pre-stretching, and the timing be- to be a balance between polymer
stretching the sheet with mechanical tween inflation and mold immersion. stretching properties, sheet tempera-
means. These are considered here. For example, ABS and PMMA can be ture, rate of stretching, and extent of
greatly pre-stretched, even into hemi- stretching. As with pneumatic pre-
spheres. PS and PC are more difficult stretching, polymers such as ABS and
Pneumatic Pre-Stretching to pre-stretch extensively. RPVC and PMMA are easily pre-stretched with
This is a technical way of saying that PET are quite resistant to extensive plugs and PVC and PET are more dif-
the sheet is pre-stretched using dif- pre-stretching. Further, RPVC will ficult to pre-stretch with plugs.
ferential air pressure. One way is to pull apart and PET will locally draw if
clamp the sheet over a “blow box” pre-stretched too quickly. The sheet is Plugs are more versatile than air for
and blow low-pressure air into the nearly uniformly stretched across its redistributing plastic across a mold
box. Air pressure of 3 to perhaps 10 surface in pneumatic pre-stretching. surface, particularly as the part be-
psi is usually sufficient to “inflate” the Stretching in mostly one direction oc- comes more complex. But plug design
sheet into a dome. The mold is then curs only where the sheet is clamped and shape remain mostly trial-and-
raised into the inflated sheet. Pneu- to the frame. error. ■
matic pre-stretching is used mostly in
thick-gauge thermoforming. Another Mechanical Pre-Stretching Keywords: pre-stretching, blow box,
way is to clamp the sheet over a “draw draw box, plug assist
box” and apply a vacuum to the draw Mechanical pre-stretching relies on a
box. Again, a soft vacuum of 5 to 15 solid object called a plug or a pusher.
inch Hg is usually sufficient to “draw” This device is mechanically or pneu-
the sheet into a dome. The mold is matically driven into the heated sheet
then immersed in the drawn sheet. before it touches the mold cavity.
Regardless of whether the sheet is Plugs are used extensively in both

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 15

TF101 Insides 07.indd 15 9/25/07 8:55:34 AM


Cooling the Formed Part

S o far, we have heated the sheet
and stretched it. The sheet is now
against the cooler mold surface. This
parts produced at the end of the run.
With “hand samples” or “show-and-
tell” parts, this is rarely a problem.
such as stainless steel, will conduct
heat slower than higher thermal
conductivity mold materials, such as
part considers how the sheet cools.   Production molds are almost al- aluminum. The farther the coolant
ways actively cooled. For most com- channel is from the mold surface, the
Sheet Characteristics on the mercially thermoformed polymers, slower the part will cool. The greater
water is the cooling medium. The the coolant flow rate, the more rap-
Mold cooling water is circulated through idly the part will cool. And water is a
  As discussed earlier, the sheet water channels drilled into or added more effective cooling medium than
stretches differentially against the to the back of the mold. The cooling oil, and steam is much more effective
mold surface. That is, the sheet that water is either recirculated through than water.
touches the mold first yields the thick- a chiller and back into the mold or is
est portion of the formed part. The exhausted to the drains. As we will Energy From the Sheet to
sheet that touches the mold last is usu- see later in our discussions on process
ally the thinnest portion of the formed control, incoming and outgoing water
the Air
part. Further, the sheet that touches temperature should be monitored to   For all but matched die forming,
the mold first is cooled longer than maintain uniform mold temperature the free part surface, or the part
the sheet that touches the mold last. surface away
The difference in thickness, cooling from the mold
rate, and cooling time across surface, is ex-
the part surface may lead to posed to ambi-
different thermal stresses THERMOFORMING ent mold condi-
in the final part. And these
different thermal stresses, 101 tions. For thin-
gauge parts
together with the different that are pres-
degrees of stretching in sure formed,
the part during forming, the free surface
can lead to part problems environment is
such as warping, uneven static or quiescent air. Air has notori-
shrinkage, and part distor- ously poor heat removal characteris-
tion. These problems are not restricted across the entire mold. By the way, tics, so the free surface cools primarily
to general part size or initial sheet there are certain thin-gauge applica- by conduction through the side of the
thickness or nature of the polymer, tions where chilled or refrigerated sheet that is in contact with the mold
but can occur in thin-gauge and water is used as the cooling medium. surface. For heavy-gauge parts, fans
heavy-gauge parts. And certain high-temperature appli- are usually used to remove heat from
cations where either steam or heated the free surface. The more rapidly
Energy From the Sheet to oil is used. the air is circulated against the free
the Mold   The energy is removed from the surface, the more rapidly the part
thermoformed sheet through the sur- will cool. In certain applications,
  We discussed mold materials in face in contact with the mold surface humidified air or air containing wa-
an earlier tutorial. Here we discuss by conduction. That energy is then ter microdroplets is used to further
how the mold removes heat from the conducted through the mold metal enhance the rate of cooling from the
sheet. First, not all molds are actively to the cooling channel, where it is re- free surface. The technical reason for
cooled. Prototype tooling usually has moved from the mold by convection. trying to quickly cool the free surface
no cooling channels. As a result, the Conduction depends on the thermal is that, if both sides of the sheet are
heat extracted from the sheet by the conductivity and the thickness of the cooled equally, the sheet cools four
cooler mold simply goes to heat the mold material. Convection depends times faster than if only one side is
mold. As more and more parts are on the rate of flow and the chemi- cooled. ■
produced, the mold simply continues cal nature of the coolant through
to heat, albeit at a slower and slower the cooling channel. The greater the Keywords: coolant channel, active
rate, since some heat is always lost distance between the plastic sur- cooling, conduction, convection, free
to the room. This means that parts face and the cooling channel is, the surface
produced at the beginning of the run longer it takes to cool the plastic. Low
will have different levels of stress than thermal conductivity mold materials,

16 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 16 9/25/07 8:55:34 AM


Trimming - i - general comments1

S o far, we’ve defined the polymer
characteristics, then we’ve heated
it, stretched it, and cooled it on the
two pieces. Now consider trimming
of heavy-gauge sheet. Routing and
drilling are the common methods of
Is Trimming Speed a
mold surface. It is now necessary to trimming. As we will see later, this is   In thin-gauge trimming, the rate at
remove the formed part from the sheet done by pressing a rotating toothed which the steel rule die is pressed into
around it. The polymer material that bit against the sheet, forcing the teeth the plastic is guided somewhat by the
is not a portion of the formed part(s) to fracture or break the sheet into nature of the plastic. Brittle materi-
is known in the industry as trim, web, two pieces by splitting out smaller als can be “snap-cut,” that is, cut at
or skeleton. It is not known as scrap, pieces. a high rate. Tough plastics do better
since this material is destined to be when the steel
reground and reprocessed into sheet rule die speed
or used in non-thermo- is slowed. How-
forming applications. This ever, in general,
discussion is part of three THERMOFORMING trimming speed
parts on trimming1. is a minor fac-
101 tor in thin-gauge
What Exactly is thermoforming.
  Ve r y f r e -
Trimming? quently, trim-
  Trimming is usually ming speed is
the mechanical separa- an important economic factor when
tion of the formed part trimming heavy-gauge parts. From a
from the unformed sheet. Mechanical processing view, one should always
separation is a kind way of saying that
Do All Polymers Trim in the strive for parity between the forming
we break or fracture or sever the part Same Fashion? time and the trimming time. That is,
from the web. Technically, we begin ideally it should take no longer to trim
  No. There are several polymer
with a single structure containing a part than to form it. The greater the
material considerations that must
both part(s) and non-part(s) and end length of the cutter path relative to the
be considered when trimming parts
up with at least one part here and one surface area of the part and the thicker
from sheet. Typically brittle plastics
non-part there. the part, the more the per-part trim-
such as acrylic and polystyrene break
  As we noted in the heating and ming cost will be and the farther from
easily. As a result, trimming tends to
stretching articles, we can treat the parity the trimming/forming ratio
be easy and trimming forces tend to
technical aspects of the process with- will be. In practical terms, this means
be low. However, the breaking pro-
out primary regard for gauge thick- that either there will be more trim-
cess can yield jagged edges and local
ness. That is, breaking is breaking, ming presses than forming presses, or
microcracking. And substantial trim
whether the sheet is 10 mils thick or the forming presses will be sitting idle
dust which can be quite tenacious.
half-inch thick. It is the gauge of the for a portion of the trimming time.
On the other hand, tougher polymers,
sheet that dictates the way in which From a technical point, the objective
such as ABS, rigid vinyl, NorylR and
we break the sheet. is to maximize the rate at which the
polycarbonate can require substan-
  To reinforce this, consider trim- volume of plastic in the cutter kerf
tial trimming forces. The fracture
ming of thin-gauge sheet. Steel-rule is removed. Trim speed that is too
surface is usually less jagged than
die cutting is the common method low may cause the cutter head to
brittle plastics. Surprisingly, very
of trimming. As we see below, this overheat, which in turn, may cause
soft polymers, such as polyolefins,
is done by forcing a sharpened steel plastic fragments to momentarily
flexible vinyls and thermoplastic elas-
blade perpendicularly into the sheet, stick, which in turn, may cause cutter
tomers, are frequently more difficult
fracturing or breaking the sheet into head chatter. ■
to trim than tough polymers. Soft
polymers “flow,” can stick to cutting Keywords: Fracture, steel rule die,
tools and drill bits, and the cut edge router, cutter speed
Ed. Note. This issue contains two other
articles on trimming. The Moskala-Barr
is frequently quite irregular. When
technical article focuses on steel rule die cutting any polymer, sheet thickness
cutting of thin-gauge PET, PETG, and and the modulus of the plastic at the
OPS. The Van Niser Industry Practice trimming temperature usually dictate
article focuses on router cutting of heavy- the type and the cutting speed of the
gauge plastics. trimming device.

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 17

TF101 Insides 07.indd 17 9/25/07 8:55:35 AM


Trimming - iI - THIN-GAUGE1
What is Used to Trim forced against the trim die line. If the the web. With micrometer gapping on
press employs matched metal dies, new presses, millions of cuts without
Thin Sheet? the cutting die edge squeezes the replacing the dies are possible. Steel
  The steel rule die is the most com- sheet against a steel backing plate rule dies and forged dies are used in
mon method of trimming thin-gauge until it is cut through. The steel back- in-mold trimming.
sheet. The steel rule die is basically a ing plate is usually spring-loaded
special-grade steel strip that has been so that the cutting die edge is not Successful Thin-Gauge
sharpened on one edge. The strip is striking an immovable surface. If
bent to the contours of the trim line on the press employs a punch-and-die Trimming
the part. It is then mounted in a base   Typical thin-
plate. This assembly is then attached gauge trimming
to the trim platen. The spe- problems are an-
cific details about the steel gel hair or very
rule die, the base plate THERMOFORMING fine fibers, fuzz,
and the assembly depend
strongly on the trimming 101 dust, and edge
equipment. For high pro- These are usu-
duction, punch-and-die ally related to
or matched metal die a mismatch be-
assemblies are used. For tween the nature
these assemblies, sharp- of the cutting edge of the trim die and
ened machined or forged the cutting characteristics of the poly-
hardened steel dies are used. arrangement, the punching die edge mer. Cutting edge sharpness is always
essentially pinches the plastic against critical, but so is the edge bevel. And
an immovable die. As the plastic is cut
Thin-Gauge Trim through, the punch passes inside the
the rigidity and planarity of the trim
die is also important, particularly for
Techniques immovable die. deep and very long, linear cuts. As
  The simplest thin-gauge trimming   There are horizontal trim presses, we discussed in the first part, soft,
machine consists of a horizontal mo- where the plastic sheet is fed verti- gummy plastics tend to “flow” away
tor-driven roller and a rigid table. The cally into the horizontally reciprocat- from the cutting edge, whereas brittle
gap between the roller and the table ing platens, and vertical trim presses, plastics tend to form dust and edge
is manually adjustable. The sheet where the plastic is fed horizontally cracks. Certain polymers, such as PET
containing the formed parts is placed into vertically reciprocating platens. and PETG, benefit by being cut hotter,
in a fixture and a base plate, usually For parts where holes and slots are but that is not always possible.
of plywood, containing the steel rule needed, multiple trim presses are   Registration problems can be severe
die, is placed atop the plastic and used. The first press cuts the slots or if the plastic has significant shrink-
fixture. The entire assembly is then holes and the second press trims the age and orientation after leaving
hand-fed through the roller. The nip part from the web. the forming press. PP and CPET are
pressure forces the steel rule die into   There are many other trim tech- classic examples. Even with multiple
the plastic and the parts are cut free. niques that fall between the hand-op- molded-in registration posts, sub-
This technique is ideal for prototype erated trim press and the automated stantial set-up time may be needed
operation. in-line multiple trim press. For ex- to correctly position the in-line trim
  At the other end of the spectrum, ample, in-mold or in-situ trimming dies. Small processing changes, such
trimming presses are employed. The has become popular, following its as sheet temperature, forming time,
sheet containing the formed parts is acceptance in Europe more than a and mold temperature, may lead to
fed continuously between recipro- decade ago. Here, the trim die is part mis-registration. ■
cating platens. A steel cutting die is of the mold. As the sheet is stationed
over the mold cavity, the trim die Keywords: steel rule die, forged
Ed. Note: In the first part of this three-part
moves against it, pinning it to the die, machined die, trim press, trim
series, we defined trimming as the means mold cavity. In this fashion it acts problems
of separating the formed plastic part from as a hold-down fixture, cavity isola-
the web, skeleton, or unformed sheet tor, or grid. Once the part has been
surrounding it. In this part, we consider formed, the trim die continues into
methods of trimming thin-gauge parts. the plastic, separating the part from

18 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 18 9/25/07 8:55:36 AM


Trimming - iII - THICK-GAUGE1

A s defined earlier, heavy-gauge or
thick-gauge forming refers to
parts formed from sheet having thick-
devices, the products to be trimmed
are frequently robotically moved
between the knives. In certain heavy-
vices frequently require tool changes
to accomplish all trimming functions.
These changes are automatically pro-
nesses greater than about 3 mm, 120 gauge forming operations, the trim grammed into the computers.
mils or 1/8-inch. Typically, heavy- device may be incorporated as part of
gauge parts are formed from cut the mold assembly, much like that in
sheet, with the part and the unformed
Tooling for Trimming2
thin-gauge in-mold trimming.
sheet around it being removed from   The nature of the polymer frequent-
the machine clamp frame to an off- ly dictates the type of tool to be used
line trimming station. The method of
Mechanical Trimming for trimming. For example, care must
trimming depends on several factors   The advent of the computer-pro- be taken to prevent microcracking
including the number of parts that are grammed robotic trimming station when drilling or saw-cutting brittle
to be trimmed, the accuracy and finish has revolutionized heavy-gauge polymers such as acrylics and sty-
of the trimmed edge, the planarity of trimming technology in the past de- renics. And when soft, easily flowed
the trim line, and the extent of second- cades. The computer imparts speed, polymers such as polyethylene are
ary cutting required. accuracy and reliability to the trim- trimmed, the cutter must move a hot
ming process. Compared with hand sticky chip quickly away from the
routing, robotic trimming initially cut area to prevent it from rewelding
Hand Trimming requires much greater technical skills itself. In addition, it is important to
  Trimming using a handheld router to create the operational trim path, but keep in mind the relationship be-
was at one time the primary way very little additional labor thereafter. tween linear speed of travel, usually
of separating the product from the However, it must be kept in mind that in inches/min, and cutter speed, usu-
unformed sheet. Although largely robotic trimmers are very expensive, ally in revolutions/minute. Excess in
supplanted by numerically controlled particularly when compared with either of these variables can lead to
routers, hand trimming still has its handheld trimming devices. As a re- poor quality cut surfaces. But going
place in prototyping or when a few sult, robotic trimming yields financial too slow can also lead to problems in
parts are needed. Guides and track- rewards usually when many identical poor efficiency and burned plastic. In
ing grooves improve the accuracy of parts are needed. short, it is always wise to work with
the trim line.   There are several variations on the companies that specialize in cutters
computer-numerically-controlled or specifically designed to cleanly cut a
Planar Trimming CNC router. Multiaxis stations in- given type of plastic.
clude two- and three-axis machining
  For many parts, from refrigerator stations, five-axis routing stations,
liners to garden ponds to skylights and even linear motor-driven six-axis General Comments About
to tote boxes, the trim line is planar robots. All these devices require that Trimming
or linear. As a result, trimming is the cutter path be preprogrammed   It was noted at the beginning of
usually accomplished with fixed, in a language special to the device or this three-part series that trimming
horizontally mounted rotary saws, class of devices. And care is required involves mechanical fracture of plas-
vertically mounted band saws, and during setup to ensure that the device tic. Further, trimming has become
even guillotines. For saw cutting, the is indeed following the desired cutter an integral, if not formidable, part of
part is usually manually moved into path. Disaster can occur if the machine the thermoforming process. It should
the saw. For guillotines, which are incorrectly interprets the code. now be noted that there is a dearth of
basically sheet cutting or shearing
technical information but a substan-
tial plethora of widely held beliefs
Drilling and Slotting - on trimming methodologies. Perhaps
Ed. Note: In the first part of this three-part
series, we defined trimming as the means of Secondary Cutting an industry focus will aid trimming
separating the formed plastic part from the web,
skeleton, or unformed sheet surrounding it. In
  In addition to separating the part technology in a manner similar to that
the second part, we considered methods of from its trim, very frequently, holes on heating technology. ■
trimming thin-gauge parts, including nip rolling, must be cut in the part. Handheld
matched die cutting and punch and die cutting.
Some concepts of successful thin-gauge trim-
drills, routers, and hole saws have Keywords: Router, multiaxis,
ming were included. In this section, we consider performed these functions for de- trimming, secondary cutting
the more popular ways of trimming thick- or cades. And frequently they still do.
heavy-gauge parts.
And now CNC devices are used. As
Many Industry Practice articles on cutters are
found in back issues of TFQ.
with hand operations, the CNC de-

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 19

TF101 Insides 07.indd 19 9/25/07 8:55:36 AM



T hin-gauge forming operations
generate many, many parts per
hour. And these parts need to be
Tabbed Parts Removed in
Parts Removed From
Canopy Trim Presses
rapidly and accurately collected or   If the parts have been “tabbed” and   In canopy presses, the trimming
collated. It is here that the mechani- remain with the web, a second station, step is usually followed immediately
cal engineer or technologist shines. usually called a stacker, is needed to by the separation step. The pusher
It is difficult in this short tutorial to push the part away from the web. forces the trimmed part from the web
discuss all the collection methods While both “up-stackers,” mean- onto a horizontal or slightly inclined
currently in vogue. Instead a simple ing that the parts are pushed into collection table. Each subsequent part
cataloguing is in order. collectors from below, and “down- pushes the previous parts across the
stackers,” meaning that the parts are table. Counting and collecting are
pushed into collectors from above, are easier with canopy trimming op-
Parts Separated from the used, up-stackers are easier to manu- erations than with most of the other
Web on the Mold techniques. In fact,
these tasks are of-
ten done manually.
  Trim-in-place was dis- The key to qual-
cussed in the trimming
tutorial. Basically, the
THERMOFORMING ity trimming with
canopy presses is
part is held against the 101 the positive push
mold surface during of the part into the
forming by the trim- collection devices.
ming knife. When the
part is fully formed and
rigidified, the trimming The Effect of Part
knife severs the part Geometry on Trimming
from the web. The severing can be ally unload and so are more popular.
of two types – complete, so that the The key to rapid and accurate stack-
part is free from the web, or partial, ing is the strength of the tab. If the tab   For deeply drawn cylindrical parts
with several tabs holding the part to is too strong, the pusher can damage with substantial draft, such as cups,
the web. the part before the part separates in-press up-stackers or the rotating
  If the part is completely separated from the web. If the tab is not strong mold dumping techniques with ancil-
from the web, it must somehow be enough, the part may be hanging free lary cup orienters offer advantages
removed from the mold cavity before of the web and the pusher can damage over other methods. For shallow draft
the part this way. parts such as plates, down-stacking
the next forming step can initiate. One
  Stackers and the ancillary collection has an advantage. Rectangular and
technique involves a robotic “picker”
sleeves or channels work best if the odd-shaped parts can be easily col-
that shuttles into the mold cavity. The lected on near-horizontal tables from
parts have ample draft so that they
picker typically may have fingers with canopy trim presses. Lidded contain-
nest easily in the collection devices.
vacuum tips that secure the formed ers, where the lid is of shallow draw
parts to the fingers. Another design and the container has a deep draw,
uses a mold that rotates to dump the Parts Removed From are always difficult to collect and
parts into bins below the sheet plane. Flat-Bed In-Line Trim collate. Horizontal tables seem to be
Air blow-back is sometimes used in favored. The robotic shuttle offers
conjunction with the rotating mold Presses good versatility for trim sets with
to ensure that the parts are blown free   Parts that are trimmed when lying several different shapes and depths
of the individual mold cavities. Al- in the horizontal plane need to be of draw. In many instances, with
though rocker or “to-and-fro” molds collected either in the “up” direction complex trim sets, hand sorting and
have been used, three- and four-sided or “down” direction. Since these stacking from a catch bin may be the
rotary molds seem to offer the fastest trim presses tend to be massive forg- only solution.
dump time. The key to quality part ing-type presses, collection can be ■

collection lies in successful emptying difficult. Keywords: Tabbing, rotating mold,

of all mold cavities, each time, every up-stack, down-stack, collection
time. table

20 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 20 9/25/07 8:55:37 AM


What part of “regrind” don’t you understand?1

T hermoforming is burdened by
two serious economic albatrosses.
First, thermoforming is considered a
such as cups. Keep in mind that the
thin-gauge former must also hold
the sheet and must also provide
polymer]. If molded parts are rejected
for contamination, they must never be
tossed into the regrind stream. Doing
secondary process. That is, it is a pro- mold metal around the cavities. The so will ensure an accumulation of con-
cess that takes place after the primary plastic in these regions becomes trim. tamination and hence an ever-increas-
process of extrusion, used to produce In most thin-gauge operations, the ing fraction of rejected parts.
the sheet that represents our incoming mold cavity layout is rectangular. In   Most reprocessing operations are
material. And second, thermoform- technical vernacular, this is called a steady state. That is, the regrind is
ing never, ever uses the entire sheet square pitch. This allows the maximum mixed with virgin polymer at the
that we purchase from the extrusion number of cavities on a rectangular extruder in a constant ratio, say, 50%,
house. In fact, it is strongly believed mold frame, such as 6 across by 8 for this example. Consider the impli-
that thermoforming cannot exist as deep. Surprisingly, the square pitch cations of steady-state reprocessing.
a major, growing process without does not yield the minimum amount A virgin polymer molecule has a 50%
extensive methods of recycling its of trim. An equilateral triangular pitch chance of becoming regrind. And a
non-product, called web, skeleton, yields the minimum amount of trim. 25% chance of becoming regrind a
edge trim or selvage (but never, ever But a triangular pitch requires a paral- second time, 12% a third time, 6% a
scrap!). This tutorial looks at that part lelepiped mold frame. And asking for fourth time, 3% a fifth time. In fact,
of the sheet that never, ever produces that mold frame will cause your local it has a small but finite chance of go-
money for the thermoformer. And in mold maker, your setup man, and the ing around for years. Consider what
fact, costs the thermoformer dearly. guy doing make-ready on the trim happens to the molecule if it loses
The subject is regrind, that is, taking press to question your sanity. So thin- 10% of its strength, say, each time. It
the non-product, chopping it or chip- gauge thermoformers live with trim or maintains only about half its strength
ping it, and feeding it to the hopper skeleton or web, up to 65% or more. on the fifth pass. In fact, for this ex-
of the extruder, along with a proper   So what is the big problem with ample, the entire polymer sheet at
amount of virgin polymer. reprocessing trim? Very little if a few steady-state processing, as delivered
  Let’s bound the problem first. For cardinal rules are followed. First, the to your thermoforming machine, has
the most part, heavy-gauge thermo- amount of trim needs to be deter- only 80% of the strength of the virgin
formers use cut sheet. The mold cav- mined. Relatively accurately. Then polymer. Similar analyses are available
ity is smaller than the mold frame, so the allowable amount of reground for color change, fire retardancy, even
a portion of the sheet resides on the trim in the incoming sheet needs to be fiber length. Physical property loss
mold frame and not in the mold cavity. determined. This time, very accurately. is an important consideration when
Then the edges of the sheet must be Obviously if the maximum allowable designing plastic parts that contain
held in a clamping fixture. This portion amount of regrind is determined to be regrind.
of the sheet also does not participate in 20%, say, and the thermoformer gener-   Certain polymers can be reprocessed
the final part. Because the heavy-gauge ates 30%, say, something must be done many times without apparent property
thermoformer can get sheet cut to size, with the rest. The extruder and former loss. This is true for most polyethyl-
his/her trim is usually around 20% must agree on the amount of regrind enes. Polypropylene on the other hand
of the original sheet for single mold to be used, to plus-or-minus 5%, say. loses some important additives such
cavities. But, if the mold contains more And this agreement must remain in as odor suppressants, antioxidants,
than one cavity, the plastic between the place, regardless of the ebb and flow and crystallizing enhancers. Funky
cavities adds to the trim fraction. Usu- of regrind availability. smell and increased haze may follow.
ally the trim sections are large enough   And second, the thermoformers PVC exhibits color deterioration and
to be reground and reprocessed into biggest concern when dealing with the increased flow resistance. Flexible
sheet. But if the formed part requires regrind stream is contamination. Con- PVC may lose plasticizers, leading to
machining, routing, or drilling, the tamination from the original extrusion loss of flexibility and decreased texture
polymer that is cut away may simply process, including black specks and retention. PET is extremely moisture
be dust or shavings. This trim is not gel, from the thermoforming process, sensitive and even when carefully
normally reprocessed. The trim for including oil and grease, from the dried will lose molecular weight. This
a complex part with many slots and regrind process, including cross-con- can lead to haze generation and loss
cutout holes may be as much as 40% tamination from other polymers, and in impact strength. ABS and HIPS
of the original sheet. from the handling process in general. will yellow after many recycles. Most
  The trim in thin-gauge forming is Production facilities, shipping, ware- polymer suppliers have run extensive
usually greater than that for heavy- housing, all generate detritus. And recycle tests on their thermoformable
gauge forming. This is particularly most polymers are easily statically polymers. It is your obligation to
true for axisymmetric or round parts charged, thereby attracting airborne exploit the results of these tests. ■
“stuff.” And moisture is readily ab-
Keywords: regrind, contamination,
sorbed [meaning the water resides on
Readers please note that there is an Industrial steady-state, scrap
the surface] or absorbed [meaning that
Practice article on regrind, by Bill McConnell,
also in this issue. water is drawn completely into the

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 21

TF101 Insides 07.indd 21 9/25/07 8:55:38 AM


How To Interpret Technical Articles

W e have now completed our first
pass through thermoforming. There
is obviously much more to cover. Design
For you business types, this is akin to the
Executive Summary of a report. By reading
this, you’ll quickly determine if the paper
of parts, for one. But perhaps it’s time to fits in your general area. If it doesn’t, go
pause to contemplate what all this verbiage on to something else. If it does, you’ll need
is all about. So, in this tutorial, we pause to to read further. With any proper paper, an
examine perhaps the thorniest issues con- Introduction section follows. In this section, this point, you must sit back and ponder
fronting even the smartest thermoformer. the authors usually identify the problems the work. Did the author, in fact, solve
First, why on earth do we need these they are solving. They also identify other the posed problem? Are the materials and
abstruse technical articles, anyway? And technical works that are relevant to the methods appropriate for the solution? Is
second, is there really something important problems. These references are important the work complete or just an outline? Do
among all the graphs and equations? to people who are doing similar research. the results make sense? And finally, do you
Once the problems have been posed, the agree with the author’s conclusions?
authors present the methods and materials   Perhaps the most difficult thing for all
Why Do We Need Technical of us lies in deciding how significant the
used in attempting to solve the problem.
Articles? Polymers and additives are usually de- work is to our work. If the materials are
  And perhaps more importantly, why scribed in detail. Procedures are also de- not easily available, if the methods employ
are they featured so prominently in the tailed, with specific pieces of equipment or exotic or expensive equipment, if the math
Quarterly? And who on earth decides computer programs carefully documented. is beyond our capabilities, we may decide
which technical articles to feature? The Again, this is important to others working not to try to extrapolate the work to our
answer to the last question first. The SPE in this field, since others need to know if, in problems. Or we may decide to contract
Annual Technical Conference or ANTEC order to repeat the experiments, the materi- the work to the author’s laboratory.
is the primary supply of technical efforts als must be compounded or the equipment   Probably a more difficult aspect of this
in our industry. Each year in early May, needs to be constructed or the computer is determining whether, in fact, the work
half-a-dozen learned works are presented programs are not commercially available. can be extrapolated. If the work is done for
at ANTEC. These papers are usually The next section usually features the step- XXX polymer, for instance, can we apply
generated from academic or advanced by-step procedures needed to solve the the results to YYY polymer? If the work
industrial research programs. As we all problems. Good researchers know that this was done on ABC machine, is it applicable
know, there are only a handful of universi- section must be methodical so that knowl- to work done on XYZ machine? For com-
ties worldwide financed sufficiently to do edgeable readers will believe their results. puter modeling, for example, can we find
research in thermoforming. Who decides In short, you cannot say, “We put the sheet all the necessary physical properties for
which articles to feature? Since I have been in the oven for a while” or “We mixed some our polymer? And so on.
reviewing the ANTEC papers for dozens ABS with some HIPS and just extruded it.”
of years, I think I have a good idea what Credibility is the key to acceptance. And Finally …
work should be of interest to thermoform-   On occasion, the researchers need to   After reading and trying to digest many
ers in general. Why put them in TFQ? In mathematically generate or analyze their technical treatises, you will become sensi-
reality, there is no other forum that brings results. Here’s where nearly everyone’s tive to probably the most important feature
together technical and practical aspects eyes glaze over. Math really isn‘t the of all. Is there something in the author’s
of thermoforming. We all need to realize thermoformers’ forte now, is it? But again, work that triggers new questions or offers
that visionaries are working on solutions think, “Credibility is the key to acceptance.” insights to old problems? Things that the
to the myriad technical problems that we A good researcher knows that his audience author never saw or pointed out. In other
face daily. And that their results can find may insist on mathematically reproducing words, is there a new invention hidden in
an appropriate repository. Researchers the final result. Unfortunately, there never the work? Or another way of solving an
love to be appreciated. It’s second only to is enough room to fully detail the math. So entirely different problem? Or a hidden
having their work financially supported. If we only get the highlights. clue showing why a specific problem has
I had my druthers, I would publish all the   And now we get to the Results. The never been solved?
ANTEC technical articles. As it is, I try to results are normally presented as tables   For those of you who thrive on this as-
pick out those that seem to focus on mean- or graphs. Then in a section usually called pect of our industry, I offer the following
ingful problems in our industry. Discussion, they are interpreted by the challenge. Carefully reread either A.C.
author. The reader should always keep Mack, Quality Management in An In-Line
You Mean There Really Are an open mind at this point, since the most Thermoforming Operation, TFQ 19:1, pp.
important parts of the results are, in fact, 5-10, or M.J. Stephenson, A Snapshot of the
Important Results Buried the tables and graphs. It is not uncommon Quality and Variability of Continuous Cut
in All Those Equations and for another researcher to use these results Sheet Thermoforming Operations, TFQ 17:4,
Graphs? to form entirely different opinions. And in pp. 9-17, together with C.-H. Wang and
  Yep. The biggest challenge for each fact, you, as an astute reader, should also H.F. Neid, Solution of Inverse Thermoforming
of us is to find out those results. In this be able to form your own opinions. Problems Using Finite Element Simulation,
tutorial, I’ll try to give you a synopsis of TFQ 21:1, pp. 5-10.
a typical technical paper1, and one way of And …?   Do you now understand a little of the
understanding it. The paper usually begins   So there you have it. The skeleton and process control problems we all face? You
with the Abstract or summary of the work. meat of a technical article. If you have still don’t? Really? ■
decided that this paper is of interest in Keywords: ANTEC, technical articles,
For this discussion, I’ll focus on the typical your work, you will have tried to follow
ANTEC paper format. Most other technical technical interpretation
papers follow a similar format.
the author’s work with some diligence. At

22 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 22 9/25/07 8:55:39 AM


In The Beginning
Introduction drape forming over male molds and Mid-range 0.060-0.120-in., 60-120
free-blow forming were the common mils, or 1.5-3.00 mm in
  The thermoforming cognoscenti
ways of forming heavy-gauge sheet. thickness
among you know that this series has
Vacuum forming into female molds Heavy-gauge Greater than 0.120-in.,
focused on some of the general con-
was the common way of forming thin- 120 mils, or 3.00 mm in
cepts in thermoforming. We began
gauge sheet. thickness
with brief descriptions of polymers,
then discussed heat transfer, mold Plate Greater than 0.500-in.,
materials, heaters, oven design, form- How Big is 500 mils, or 13 mm in
ing temperatures, sheet stretching and thickness
cooling, trimming, and ended with
regrind. A complete list of topics ap-   In 1960, U.S. thermoforming pro-   Keep in mind that “foil” may be
pears at the end of this article. duced about 100 million pounds of used for any thin-gauge sheet in
  In truth, the series was to have product. In 2000, that number was ap- Europe. Another way of categoriza-
ended in the last issue. But, after re- proaching 5,000 million pounds. This tion is:
viewing the 18 “lessons,” it became Roll-fed Sheet provided to the
apparent that there were thermoformer in a roll
some monstrous holes,
the most obvious of THERMOFORMING Cut sheet Sheet provided to the
thermoformer on a pal-
which was the lack of 101 let
substantial discussion
on product design. So,   This category is useful for determin-
consider the next few ing the type of machine to be used to
articles to be “hole form the products. Another:
pluggers.” is a sustained growth
Packaging Usually considered as
rate of 6% per year over
thin-gauge sheet prod-
forty years. Thermoforming amounts
Just What is to about 5% to 6% of the total U.S.
Thermoforming? plastics consumption. Conservatively Industrial or Usually considered as
structural heavy- gauge sheet
  Thermoforming is the manufacture there are about 500 U.S. heavy-gauge
of useful articles of commerce by thermoformers and 125 U.S. thin-
heating, shaping, cooling, and gauge thermoformers. And another:
trimming thermoplastic sheet. Disposable Usually considered as
Is All Thermoforming the thin-gauge sheet prod-
Where Did It Come From? Same?
  Although historians consider the Permanent Usually considered
  No. Thermoforming is usually
forming of tortoise shell, tree bark, as heavy-gauge sheet
(loosely) categorized in several ways. products
and horn to be the earliest forms of
  Probably the most apparent way
thermoforming, purposeful manufac- And finally one more:
ture of products from semi-manmade is in terms of sheet thickness. Simply
thermoplastic sheet began in the put, thin sheet is provided to the Vacuum Draw-down by evacu-
mid-1800s, with the commercializa- thermoformer as a continuous roll. forming ating the space between
tion of polymerized cellulose nitrate. Thick sheet cannot be rolled and is the sheet and the mold
The production of thermoformed supplied as palletized cut sheet. Thin Pressure Application of air
household items such as hairbrush sheet forming is frequently called thin- forming pressure in excess of one
backs, mirror cases, baby rattles, and gauge forming. Thick sheet forming atmosphere
piano keys was a reasonably large is called heavy-gauge or thick-gauge   Be careful of using one of these ways
business by the turn of the twentieth forming.
century. With the invention of Bakelite, as shorthand in formal communication.
  Here is one way of categorization: Always define the terms you use to
a completely synthetic thermosetting
polymer in 1909, the emphasis on Foil (very Less than 0.010 in., 10 avoid misinterpretation. For example,
product development moved quickly thin sheet) mils, or 250 microns in even though low-density polystyrene
to compression molding. The commer- thickness foam can range in thickness up to 0.250-
cialization of new thermoplastics such Thin-gauge Less than 0.060-in., 60 inch (250 mils, 6.4 mm), it is delivered
as polystyrene, polymethyl methacry- mils, or 1.5 mm in thick- to the thermoformer in rolls. ■
late (acrylic), and cellulose acetate in ness Keywords: history, categorization,
the 1930s spurred the development of
thin-gauge, heavy-gauge, market size
thermoforming, as did WWII. Then,

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 23

TF101 Insides 07.indd 23 9/25/07 8:55:39 AM


Square One – Polymer Selection1

B ill McConnell is fond of saying   Somewhere along the cooling path, from high-temperature oxygen in the
that polymer problems account for the sheet is trimmed to the purchase air in the early portions of the extru-
more than three-quarters of process- order-specified width. Depending on sion process.
ing troubles. In short, there would be the material specifications, the trim   Selecting a polymer with low melt
no thermoforming without thermo- may be ground and returned imme- viscosity and elasticity will also in-
diately to the extruder hopper. crease throughput without necessar-
formable polymers and without ther-
  Further cooling can be achieved, ily increasing temperature and shear
moformable polymers in sheet form.
rate. However, we know in thermo-
Earlier, we discussed the general char- either in ambient air or in a cooling
forming that lower melt viscosity usu-
acteristics of polymers. In the next set tunnel. If heavy-gauge sheet is being
ally means greater sag in the sheet as it
of lessons, we consider additional char- extruded, the sheet is either saw-cut or
is being heated. And low melt elastic-
acteristics that are needed to produce guillotined into appropriate lengths, ity can mean difficulty in plug-assist
quality thermoformed products. stretching into deep
Extrusion   Another factor of
Basics THERMOFORMING great importance to
thermoformers is ori-
  Thermoforming 101 entation in the sheet.
is considered a sec- Polymer molecules are
ondary process, stretched during extru-
since it begins with sion through the die. If
sheet. Extrusion is the polymer is cooled
the primary pro- and stacked and before the molecules are allowed to
cess. The most com- palletized. If thin- fully recover, the sheet will have ori-
mon form for an extruder is a single gauge sheet is being extruded, the entation in the extrusion direction or
auger-like screw turning in a horizon- sheet is fed to a takeup roll. the MD or “machine direction.” If the
tal heated, steel barrel. Polymer, in the extruded sheet is squeezed between
the first two chill rolls such that the
form of powder or pellets, is fed into
Polymer Characteristics polymer is forced outward toward
the extruder through a hopper. The sol-
id polymer is conveyed down the bar-
in Extrusion the roll edges, the sheet will have
orientation in the cross-machine or
rel length where it is heated and melted   Extrusion is a high-shear, high-tem- TD direction. It is usually the case in
or plasticated. The plasticated melt is perature process. In general, extrusion very wide sheet that both MD and TD
pressure-metered through the end of plants wish to maximize throughput. orientations will vary in degree from
the barrel into a shaping or slot die. The That is, they try to minimize the cost the center of the sheet to its edges.
molten extruded sheet is then laid onto needed to produce a pound or kilo-   MD and TD orientations are really
a rotating, cooled cylindrical steel roll. gram of sheet. For a given polymer, “frozen-in strain.” When the sheet is
In some instances, the molten extruded throughput is increased by increasing reheated in the thermoforming oven,
sheet is “nipped” or squeezed between temperature and shear rate. this strain is relieved. If the frozen-in
this roll and another “kiss” or “gauge   Thermally sensitive polymers such strain is great, the sheet will distort
control” roll. It is then conveyed from as rigid PVC and polyethylene tere- and may pull from the clamp frame
this cooled roll to another cooled roll, phthalate or PET may suffer thermal or pin chain.
where it is further cooled. These three damage during extrusion. Certain   To achieve the lowest levels of MD
rolls are usually called the “chill roll polymers such as olefinics may form and TD orientations, the sheet should
stack.” The roll stack acts to size and gel particles during extrusion. Gels be extruded slowly and at moderately
or “fish-eyes” are usually partially low temperatures. Of course, these
cool the extruded sheet.
crosslinked particles. Some polymers conditions are not conducive to pro-
Thermoforming 101 is designed to be a tutorial that contain rubber such as impact duce the highest throughput possible.
on the basic building blocks of the thermoforming polystyrene and ABS may generate And so compromises are needed. ■
industry. The first series of lessons concluded in black specks. Many extrusion-grade
TFQ 21:3, 2002. This is the second in the second Key words: extrusion, plasticated,
series of lessons that have as their objective to fill
polymers are provided with anti- MD orientation, TD orientation
in the gaps from the first series of lessons. oxidant packages to minimize damage

24 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 24 9/25/07 8:55:40 AM


Square One – Polymer Selection-Orientation1,2

I n the last TF101, we discussed some
of the aspects of extrusion that are of
importance to the thermoformer. We
tended chain” state. When the polymer
is reheated in the thermoforming oven,
the crystallites reform into the sphere-
the plastic is pressed against the cool
mold, we freeze this orientation. Simply
put, our plastic part is now oriented. The
began by summarizing the extrusion like state. This causes the sheet to distort level of orientation is a function of the
process, then focused on polymer char- and shrink, with the results ranging extent of stretching needed to push the
acteristics that influence the extrusion from uneven part wall thickness to sheet part into the various corners of the part3.
process. In this lesson, we continue our pulling from the clamping grips. Importantly here is that the nature of the
investigation of the extrusion process. orientation of a polymer is affected by the
rate of cooling of the plastic against the
Testing for Orientation mold surface. This is particularly true
Orientation   Although many tests have been de- for slowly crystallizing polymers such
  Orientation is by definition, frozen-in vised to determine orientation in sheet, as polyethylene terephthalate and poly-
stretching or elongation of the polymer propylene. The levels of orientation can
molecules. If the sheet is extruded, this be reduced by reducing the cooling rate
stretching occurs during the polymer THERMOFORMING even for amorphous polymers such as
journey from the extrusion die to the 101 polystyrene and ABS. This is sometimes
windup or cutoff area of the extrusion called “annealing.”
process. Unless carefully controlled,
extrusion can induce substantial ori- Orientation v. Shrinkage
entation in both the machine direction
(MD) and cross-machine direction (TD). the so-called Chrysler test is   As a thermoformed part is cooled in
Orientation is usually less in calendered still preferred by both practitioners and the mold, it appears to “shrink” away
sheet and there is rarely any orientation researchers, alike. There are many varia- from female portions and onto male
in cast sheet. Although there is no gen- tions of this test. In one version, 1-in. x portions of the mold. This dimensional
eral rule, polymers that have extensive 10-in. strips are cut from a test sheet. It change is codified according to whether
side branches or bulky side branches is always recommended that several sec- the polymer is amorphous or crystalline.
along the polymer backbone tend to be tions be cut with some having the length Amorphous polymers always show low-
more susceptible to frozen-in elonga- in the machine direction and others in er dimensional changes than crystalline
tion than polymers that have little side the cross direction. For wide thin-gauge ones. However, we must distinguish be-
chains. Polymers that are quite rubbery sheet, it is also recommended that strips tween dimensional change that is due to
or elastic tend to be less susceptible to be cut at the edges and the middle of the relaxation of orientation and dimensional
frozen-in orientation than polymers that sheet, to determine local orientation. change that is inherent in density increase
have little elasticity. These strips are then placed in an oven due to cooling. Technically, “shrink-
  If the polymer crystallizes, the desired at about the normal thermoforming age” is temperature-dependent volume
crystalline state shows ball-like crystal- temperature for the polymer. After an change. When polystyrene, for example,
lites called spherulites. Polymers that appropriate length of time, dictated by is slowly cooled from 300°F to room
crystallize quickly, like high-density the thickness of the sheet, the strips are temperature, its density changes from
polyethylene, tend to have higher levels again measured. The greater the differ- 0.99 spgr4 to 1.05 spgr. In other words, it
of spherulites and thus lower levels of ence in the “before” and “after” lengths, shrinks 6% volumetrically. On the other
orientation than polymers that crystal- the greater the orientation. In some ex- hand, the density of PP changes from
lize slowly, like polypropylene. In a treme instances, strips may actually curl, 0.77 spgr at 330°F to 0.92 spgr at room
word, the slowly crystallizing polymer indicating extensive orientation. temperature. This is a 19% volumetric
is frozen into an oriented pattern before   In certain instances, for transparent change. Cooling the part too quickly will
it can fully crystallize into the spherulitic polymers such as polystyrene, acrylic, prevent the polymer from reaching its fi-
state. The crystallites are then in an “ex- polyethylene terephthalate, and in nal density. Reheating the part sometime
some polyvinyl chlorides, orientation later will allow the plastic to continue its
Thermoforming 101 is designed to be a tutorial can be observed by passing the sheet densifying. This may result in warpage
on the basic building blocks of the thermoforming and distortion.
industry. The first series of lessons concluded in
between polarized film. Orientation
TFQ 21:3, 2002. This is the third in the second will appear as rainbow patterns across   So, to get the true “mold shrinkage,”
series of lessons that have as their objective to fill the sheet. The narrower the color bands as commonly used, we need to add the
in the gaps from the first series of lessons. become, the greater will be the local effect of relaxation of orientation, as mea-
Readers should note that C. Rauwendaal’s orientation. sured by the Chrysler test or some other
book, Polymer Extrusion, is reviewed in this test, to the natural polymer dimensional
Orientation in change values. ■
In a future lesson on part design, we will deal
with orientation and shrinkage and their influence Thermoforming   Keywords: orientation, Chrysler
on part performance. test, shrinkage, spherulite
Spgr is specific gravity, in grams per cubic cen-
  When we stretch a plastic in the form-
timeter. Multiply by 62.4 to get lbs. per cu. ft. ing press, we orient the molecules. When

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 25

TF101 Insides 07.indd 25 9/25/07 8:55:41 AM


Square One – Observe Your Sheet As It Heats1

I n the last TF101, we discussed the
difference between orientation and
shrinkage. Here we continue a portion
width. The molten plastic is cooling
and some of the extrusion stresses are
relaxing. Where might this occur in
Heat Retention
  In extrusion, the sheet is never al-
lowed to cool to room temperature
of this discussion by considering how the thermoforming process? The sheet before being cut and stacked on pallets
we can observe the effects of orienta- termperature is hottest just as it exits or wound onto rolls. As a result, the
tion or frozen-in stretching as the sheet the oven. So sheet sag may be related rolls or pallets retain heat for extended
is being heated. to the sheet conditions between the periods of time. This retained energy
extruder die and the roll stack. can often provide some mild annealing
Mirror-Image or help relieve some of the locked-in
  Consider this thought experiment. As the Sheet Cools stress. Regardless of extent to which
Stretch a rubber band and cool it in liq- this happens, the concern is that the
uid nitrogen while it is stretched. The on the Rolls thermal history of the sheet on the bot-
  The underside of the sheet is cooled tom of the pallet is different than one
rubber band orientation is now frozen
by direct contact with the middle roll in the middle. And that one is differ-
in. Now place the rubber band on a
of the roll stack. The top surface is ent than the one on the top. The same
table and watch as it slowly reheats.
only cooled with room air. The uneven analysis holds for rolled goods. The
Ultimately all the frozen-in stretch is
relieved and the rubber band returns extent of this stress relief is observed
to its original length. in the initial tightening of a sheet in
  A long time ago, we said that ther-
THERMOFORMING the very early heating times. Certainly
moforming was basically an elastic 101 if this tightening varies throughout
process. The plastic is heated until the production run, the temperature
it is pliable. It is then stretched and control of the sheet suffers.
“frozen” against a cool mold. If the
formed part is reheated to the form-
cooling can freeze in Smoking
ing temperature, most or nearly all of   Plastics are filled with many small
stresses on only one side of the sheet.
it slowly returns to a flat sheet. molecule additives – internal and ex-
Where might these stresses be relieved
  Now if we accept this premise, then ternal lubricants, antiblocking agents,
in the thermoforming process? Since
we should be able to observe any ori- UV absorbers, organic dyes and colo-
the sheet is now colder than it was a
entation that has been frozen in during rants, and so on. Some of these migrate
few moments ago, we would expect
the extrusion process. And in fact, we to the sheet surface and some are vola-
that this would occur before the sheet
can, as we shall see. tile. In extrusion, the sheet may off-gas
exhibited substantial sag. And it would
  To do this mirror-image thing, we or smoke as it leaves the extruder and
be manifested as a tightening of the
begin at the extruder die exit and fol- as it forms over the middle chill roll.
low the thermal history of the sheet, sheet as the stresses relieved.
In thermoforming, at some place in the
step by step, until it arrives at the ther- oven after the initial sheet tightening,
moformer. At each step, we consider As the Sheet Temperature the sheet may smoke.
where in the thermoforming process Approaches a Transition
the sheet sees that temperature.
Temperature Moisture
  Amorphous polymers, such as poly-   Regardless of how well thin-gauge
Just Beyond the carbonate and polystyrene, go from rolls are wound or heavy-gauge sheet
Extruder Die being rubbery to glassy at their glass is palletized, air diffuses between the
  The sheet is extruded from the transition temperatures. Crystalline sheet plies in storage. And with air
die and is laid onto the middle roll polymers, such as polyethylene and comes moisture. For some polymers
of the roll stack. The top roll may polypropylene, go from being nearly such as polycarbonate and polyethyl-
press against the sheet to calibrate its fluid to rigid at their melting tempera- ene terephthalate (PET), the moisture
thickness. The molten plastic may be tures2. In the extrusion process, this is absorbed into the sheet. For others,
squeezed in the cross-machine direc- occurs on the rolls for thin to moder- such as polyethylene, the moisture is
tion to achieve a specific final sheet ately thick sheet. Transitions usually simply adsorbed on the surface of the
entail density increases. If the sheet is sheet. In thermoforming, where does
confined, internal stresses occur. These this moisture exit? In the very early
Thermoforming 101 is designed to be a tutorial are frozen in by the transition. What stages of heating, we might actually
on the basic building blocks of the thermoforming would we expect to see as we reheat see the sheet steaming. Keep in mind
industry. The first series of lessons concluded in the sheet in thermoforming” Certainly that steaming is not smoking. These
TFQ 21:3, 2002. This is the fourth in the second during reheating, the polymer density effects occur at different times in the
series of lessons that have as their objective to fill heating process. ■
in the gaps from the first series of lessons.
decreases. Because the stresses are not
locked in uniformly through the sheet
Really at their recrystallization temperatures. Keywords: Rippling, tightening,
Perhaps we will consider this concept in a later thickness, we see the sheet ripple or
“swim.” off-gas, stress relief, moisture

26 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 26 9/25/07 8:55:42 AM

Prepared by Thermoforming Division Materials Committee
Mono or coextruded
Type of sheet company phone web site
ABS Allen Extruders (888) 833-1305 allenx.com
Alltrista Industrial Plastics (812) 479-5960 plasticssolutions.com
Bunzl/Southern (804) 346-2400 bunzlextrusion.com
Empire Plastics (740) 498-5900 empireplastics.com
Futurex Industries (800) 541-2353 futurexind.com
Gage Industries (800) 443-4243 gageindustries.com
Premier Material Concepts (419) 429-0042
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Quality Plastic Sheet (574) 293-2752
Select Plastics (877) 501-2530
Senoplast USA (636) 922-3874 senoplastusa.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
Acrylic Aristech Acrylics (859) 283-1501 thedreamhome.com
Atofina Chemical (215) 419-7000 atofinachemicals.com
Bunzl/Southern (803) 796-0600 bunzlextrusion.com
Cyro (973) 442-6000 cyro.com
Empire Plastics (740) 498-5900 empireplastics.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
Ineos (901) 381-2000 ineosacrylics.com
Kleerdex (803) 642-6864 kydex.com
Pawling (800) 431-0101 pawling.com/extrusion
Plaskolite (614) 294-3281 plaskolite.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
Barex Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
Klockner Pentaplast (540) 832-3600 klockner.com
Mullinex (219) 747-3149
EDS HMS Compounds (817) 468-3099 hmscompounds.com
Noryl Allen Extruders (800) 833-1305 allenx.com
Bunzl/Southern (804) 346-2400 bunzlextrusions.com
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Spartech Plastics (800) 721-4242 spartech.com
Westlake Plastics (610) 459-1000 westlakeplastics.com
Polycarbonate Bunker Plastics (972) 245-9656 bunkerplastics.com
Film Specialists
Fox Lite (937) 864-1966 foxlite.com
GE Plastics (800) 451-3147 genstructuredproducts.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
Rowland Technologies (203) 269-1437 rowlandtechnologies.com
Sheffield Plastics (413) 229-8711 sheffieldplastics.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
Tekra (262) 784-5533 tekra.com
Westlake Plastics (610) 459-1000 westlakeplastics.com
Polyester Alcoa Kama (800) 628-7598 kamacorp.com
Allen Extruders (800) 833 1305 allenx.com
Alphatec (920) 748-7421 alphatecextrusion.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
Klockner Pentaplast (540) 832-3600 klockner.com
Pacur (920) 236-2888 pacur.com
PETCO/Lavergne (514) 354-5757 lavergne@lavergne.ca
Plaskolite (614) 294-3281 plaskolite.com
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Sheffield Plastics (413) 229-8711 sheffieldplasticsinc.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
VPI (920) 458-4664 vpicorp.com
Polyethylene Alcoa Kama (800) 628-7598 kamacorp.com
Allied Extruders (718) 729 5500 alliedextruders.com

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 27

TF101 Insides 07.indd 27 9/25/07 8:55:42 AM

Mono or coextruded
Type of sheet company phone web site
Polyethylene (cont’d.) B & F Plastics (800) 562-8365 bfplastics.com
Bunzl/Southern (804) 346-2400 bunzlextrusion.com
Conplex (904) 824-0422 conplex.com
Futurex Industries (800) 541-2353 futurexind.com
Gage Industries (800) 443-4243 gageindustries.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
HPG (732) 271-1300 hpg-intl.com
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Quality Plastic Sheet (574) 293-2752
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
VPI (920) 458-4664 vpicorp.com
Polypropylene Alcoa Kama (800) 628-7598 kamacorp.com
B & F Plastics (800) 562-8365 bfplastics.com
Conplex (904) 824-0422 conplex.com
Ex-Tech Plastics (815) 678-2131 extechplastics.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
HPG (732) 271-1300 hpg-intl.com
Interplast Group (973) 994-8000
Pacur (920) 236-2888 pacur.com
Premier Material Concepts (419) 429-0042
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
VPI (920) 458-4664 vpicorp.com
Witt Plastics (937) 548-7272 wittplastics.com
Polystyrene Alcoa Kama (800) 628-7598 kamacorp.com
Allen Extruders (888) 833-1305 allenx.com
Alltrista Industrial Plastics (812) 479-5960 plasticssolutions.com
Bunzl/Southern (804) 346-2400 bunzlextrusion.com
Farber (516) 378-4860
Flock Tex (800) 556-7286
Futurex Industries (800) 541-2353 futurexind.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
Impact Plastics (860) 828-6396
Joe’s Plastic (562) 949-3619
New Hampshire Plastics (800) 258-3036 nhplastx@usa.pipeline.com
Plaskolite (614) 294-3281 plaskolite.com
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
VPI (920) 458-4664 vpicorp.com
PVC B & F Plastics (800) 562-8365 bfplastics.com
Empire Plastics (740) 498-5900 empireplastics.com
Ex-Tech Plastics (815) 678-2131 extechplastics.com
Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com
Kleerdex Company (803) 642-6864 kydex.com
Klockner Pentaplast (540) 832-3600 klockner.com
Nan Ya (409) 532-5494
Naugahyde Div. of Uniroyal (574) 733-5983
Poly One (540) 667-6666
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
VPI (920) 458-4664 vpicorp.com
TirePlast B & F Plastics (800) 562-8365 bfplastics.com
TPO Alltrista Industrial Plastics (812) 479-5960 plasticssolutions.com
B & F Plastics (800) 562-8365 bfplastics.com
Primex Plastics (800) 222-5116 primexplastics.com
Spartech Plastics (314) 721-4242 spartech.com
Premier Material Concepts (419) 429-0042
WoodPlast B & F Plastics (800) 562-8365 bfplastics.com
XT Goex (608) 754-3303 goex.com

28 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 28 9/25/07 8:55:43 AM


Recrystallization – What Does That Mean?1

I n the last TF101, I mentioned recrys-
tallization. In this tutorial, I will
explain what it is and why it is impor-
why the blow molder can extrude a
tube of polyethylene, then capture it
in a clamshell mold to make a bottle.
against the mold. Pressures of 50 to 100
psi have been used to do just this.
  So, what is the problem with solid
tant in thermoforming. Thermoformers also rely on the hot state forming of PP? Really, nothing.
melt strength of it in sheet form. We It just requires higher forming pres-
Amorphous and Crystalline Plastics
heat the sheet above its melt tempera- sures than what would be used for, say,
- A Brief Review
ture just prior to forming it, as a melt. PS. Oh, and the product is not water
  In a very early lesson, we learned Polyethylenes are 50-80% crystalline white but instead, about as translucent
that there are two general classes and the sleek shape of the molecule as the original sheet. This is because
of plastics used in thermoforming. allows very rapid crystallinity once we don’t melt out the crystallites and
Plastics such as polystyrene, ABS, the formed part is cooled below its the crystallites are of sufficient size to
polycarbonate and even rigid PVC are melt temperature. As a result, HDPE is interfere with visible light (0.4 to 0.7
considered amorphous. That is, they microns).
are glassy-brittle at room temperature.
When they are heated to a general THERMOFORMING Melt Forming of PP
temperature range called the glass   Copolymerization of polyethylene
transition temperature, they become in PP and now, short- and long-chain
rubbery. If we continue to heat them, branching of PP has greatly improved
they become less and less rubbery PP hot strength. This lets us to ther-
and more and more fluid-like. When moform PP in the melt state, or the
we cool these polymers to their glass state where all the crystallites are fully
the most successful semicrystalline
transition temperature, they imme- melted. Copolymer PP or coPP usually
polymer thermoformed.
diately become glassy-brittle again. melts around 310-320°F (155-160°C).
Amorphous polymers represent the Solid State Forming of PP   But melt forming PP is not like
majority of plastics thermoformed   Until recently, polypropylene recipes melt forming polyethylene. We run
today. did not have sufficient hot strength to into a very difficult problem. PP
  But as we learned in that early remain sheets in the thermoforming recrystallizes at a much slower rate
lesson, thermoformers are bent on ovens. As a result, PP was thermoformed than polyethylene. Even when coPP
forming crystalline - or more correctly, in the solid state. What this means is the is cooling at 9°F/minute (5°C/min-
semicrystalline - polymers such as PP sheet was (and is) heated to just ute)3, it recrystallizes around 210°F
polyethylene, polypropylene and PET. (100°C), or about 100°F (60°C) below
below its melting temperature range,
For many years, polyethylene was the its melt temperature. Small amounts
which is about 330°F (165°C) for
only semi-crystalline plastic that was of recrystallization rate enhancers such
homopolymer polypropylene
widely thermoformed. PET is usually as sorbitols can increase the recrystal-
(homoPP). PP becomes rubbery in a
formed in the amorphous state (as lization temperature by about 20°F
very narrow temperature range just
APET). Special processes are needed to
below the melting temperature. (10°C). While this may shorten the
produce crystalline PET structures.
  There are two reasons for this hold time on the mold, we still need
Melt Forming PE rubberiness. First, the crystallinity of to hold coPP on the mold longer than
  High-density PE has exceptional PP is about 50%, meaning that about we might think.
hot melt strength above its melt tem- half the PP is not locked in crystallites,   And more importantly, we need to
perature of about 275°F (135°C). That’s but is instead in an amorphous state. be concerned about recrystallization
The glass transition temperature of that might continue long after we
homoPP is about 15°F ( -10°C). So remove the formed coPP part from
Thermoforming 101 is designed to be a when homoPP sheet is at a forming the mold surface. When the formed
tutorial on the basic building blocks of the part isn’t constrained, different areas
thermoforming industry. The first series of temperature of about 320°F (160°C),
lessons concluded in TFQ 21:3, 2002. This say, the amorphous portion of the of the part can crystallize at different
is another in the second series of lessons sheet is 305°F (170°C) above its Tg2. rates and to different crystallinity lev-
that have as their objective to fill in the gaps Secondly, imperfect crystallites els. Distortion, warping, cupping, and
from the first series of lessons. tend to melt below the stated melt general mayhem can occur long after
Compare this with PS at its thermoforming temperature. This means that more the part is formed. ■
temperature of 350°F (175°C), or 140°F
polymer is added to the amorphous
(75°C) above its Tg of 210°F (100°C).   Keywords: Recrystallization, solid
side of the equation, making the sheet
In practice, we would never cool PP this state forming, melt forming, hot melt
slowly. The test equipment used to mea- even more rubbery.
  With sufficient pressure then, we can strength
sure melting and recrystallizing tempera-
tures operates at about this cooling rate. squeeze, push and otherwise press PP

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 29

TF101 Insides 07.indd 29 9/25/07 8:55:44 AM


Alphabet Soup?
I t seems that plastics people never
tire of their alphabet soup – ABS,
PTFE, PVC, PUR, and on and on. The
  Conversely, if we cool water from
room temperature to 32°F (0°C), it
freezes. At the freezing point, the THERMOFORMING
soup continues when we consider temperature remains constant even 101
evaluating the characteristics of plas- though substantial energy is removed
tics. In this short series, we consider a from the water. heat capacity. As we saw above, the
few of the letters in this soup.   Physical changes that take up amount of energy absorbed by water
energy with little or no temperature is 1 cal/gm°C or 1 Btu/lb°F. So its heat
Tg, Tm and DSC change, such as boiling or melting, are capacity is 1.0. It takes 100 cal/gm°C or
called endothermic changes. Physi- 180 Btu/lb°F to heat water from 32°F
  We’ve already discussed the first cal changes that give off energy with
two. Tg is glass transition tempera- to 212°F. We find that polystyrene has
little or no temperature change, such about 55% of the heat capacity of water
ture, or the temperature above which as freezing or crystallizing, are called
polymers become rubbery rather than and that for PVC has about 37% of that
exothermic changes.
glassy. Tg’s for polystyrene and acrylic of water. PP has about 85% of the heat
  We can build a device that compen-
are around 210°F (100°C). Tg for capacity of water and that for LDPE
sates for these temperature differen-
rigid PVC is around 185°F (85°C) but is about the same as that of water.
tials. The device uses a well-charac-
can be as low as -25°F (-30°C) when Remember, now that these values are
terized substance as its reference. The
highly plasticized. The glass transi- between transitions.
substance to be tested is then heated
tion temperature for nylon 6 is only   DSC is important when trying to
at the same rate as the reference sub-
122°F (50°C). The Tg for polyethylene determine the extent of crystallization
stance. This is done by carefully con-
is around -125°F (-90°C) and that for of a polymer. Consider the case for a
trolling the energy ratio between the
homopolymer PP is 15°F (-10°C). reference substance and the test sub- 100% crystalline polymer that requires
  You’ll recall that Tm is the melting stance. Since the device is measuring 100 cal/g to melt. If that polymer is
temperature for crystalline polymers calories or units of energy, it is called a cooled from the melt and DSC deter-
such as polyethylene, polypropylene calorimeter. Since the device measures mines that only 50 cal/g was liberated
and nylon. The melting temperature the temperature difference between during recrystallization, it is safe to say
for HDPE is around 275°F (135°C). The two substances as they heat, it is a that the polymer at room temperature
melting temperature for homopoly- scanning device. And since the device is only 50% crystalline.
mers PP is 330°F (165°C), and that for is looking at the difference between   In the last lesson, we learned that
nylon 6 is 430°F (220°C). the two substances, it is a differential coPP melts around 155°C but recrys-
  One popular method for measuring device. It we put this all together we tallizes at around 100°C. How did we
Tg and Tm is with DSC. So, what is see that the device is a differential know that? From DSC, of course.
DSC? Differential scanning calorime- scanning calorimeter, or DSC!   The DSC can teach us another as-
try. Consider heating a substance from pect to polymer characterization. As
room temperature, say, to a specific What Can We Learn From we increase the cooling rate for some
processing temperature. Let’s use wa- crystalline polymers, we retard the
DSC? temperature at which recrystalliza-
ter as an example. It takes exactly one
calorie of energy to heat one gram of   First, we must realize that the DSC tion begins. And we reduce the final
water one degree Centigrade. In Brit- can be used either in a heating mode or level of crystallinity. How do we know
ish units, it takes one British Thermal in a cooling mode. Samples are usually this? Consider PET. It has a melting
Unit of energy to heat one pound of heated beginning at room temperature temperature of 510°F (265°C). If we
water one degree Fahrenheit. This rule and they are usually heated at a fixed cool PET very slowly, we find that it
works until water reaches its boiling temperature rate such as 10°C/minute. recrystallizes at around 250°C to about
point of 212°F (100°C). At the boiling The temperature range and energy 40-45%. If we cool PET very rapidly,
point, the temperature remains con- requirements of transitions are the we find that there is no recrystalliza-
stant even though substantial energy primary information gathered from tion region. PET remains amorphous
is inputted to the water. If we were heating DSCs. The most common at room temperature and beyond. DSC
to compare the energy uptake of a transitions are the glass transition is therefore a tool for determining how
substance that did not boil with that temperature and the melting tempera- rapidly a plastic crystallizes. ■
of water, we would see that the tem- ture, if any.
Keywords: glass transition, melting,
perature of the non-boiling substance   Between transitions, the DSC pro-
recrystallization, calorimeter,
would continue to climb while that of vides relative energy uptake by the
endothermic, exothermic
water would remain constant until all test substance. This is directly related
the water had evaporated. to that for water, as specific heat or

30 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 30 9/25/07 8:55:44 AM


ABCs of Alphabet Soup?

I n our last lesson, we learned about
Tg, Tm, and DSC. These are impor-
tant letters in our alphabet soup. In this
scanner, and pass a monochromatic3
infrared beam through it. I measure the
decrease in energy transmitted through
lesson, we look at some new letters. the plastic film at that wavelength. I
change the wavelength of the infrared
IR and FTIR heater temperature to 600°F (~315°C), beam and again measure the transmit-
  IR means infrared and FTIR means the peak wavelength is 4.92 m, and ted energy. If I scan the film with an
Fourier-transform infrared. We usu- the maximum amount of energy emit- infrared beam of wavelength range of
ally heat our plastic sheet with radiant ted is 6.78 units. If you raise the heater 2 m, say, to 20 m, I will have covered
heaters. These heaters emit infrared temperature to, say, 900°F (~480°C), the the majority of the wavelength range
energy or IR. Infrared energy is part peak wavelength is 3.83 m, and the of our heaters.
of the electromagnetic spectrum of en- maximum amount of energy emitted   Now, I double the film thickness and
ergy. The spectrum is usually defined is 17.3 units. repeat the scan. This tells me how deep
in terms of the length of the emitting   A couple of reference points, please! the infrared energy penetrates into my
rays. And the length is usually given Certainly! The sun radiates at 12,000°F film. I continue doubling the film thick-
in microns. The length is identified (~6500°C), its peak wavelength is 0.43 ness until none of the infrared energy
by the symbol m. Radio waves are m, and the maximum amount of en- is transmitted through the film.
long-length waves, in the range of 107 ergy it emits is nearly 120,000 units2!   The IR scanner is mostly used in an
to 1010 m. They reside near one end of What about us! Because radiation is
the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma analytical polymer laboratory, where
electromagnetic energy interchange, polymer chemists determine the gen-
rays are short-length waves, in the we radiate back to the sun at 98.6°F
range of 10-4 to 10-7 m. They reside eral composition of the polymer and
(37°C). Our peak wavelength is 9.35 its additive packages. The various
near the other end of the electromag- m, and we emit about 0.52 units.
netic spectrum. peaks that are generated at specific
We’re pretty feeble radiators! wavelengths are directly related to the
  In contrast, visible light has the   Okay, what about the sheet we’re
wavelength range of 0.4 to 0.7 m. It molecular confirmation of the polymer.
trying to heat? Well, as the sheet For example, the carbon-hydrogen
is about in the middle of the electro- heats, the amount of energy it radiates
magnetic spectrum. Energy of shorter bond is stretched at a frequency of
increases. Suppose the heater tempera- about 3.5 m. As a result, all polymers
wavelengths, between 0.4 m and ture is 600°F. If the sheet reaches 400°F,
about 10-2 m, is ultraviolet energy. En- containing C-H bonds absorb 100% of
it radiates a maximum of 2.94/6.78 the 3.5 m infrared energy. PP does.
ergy of longer wavelengths, between = 43% of the energy it gets from the
0.7 m and about 103 m, is called PE does. PTFE doesn’t because it has
heater back to the heater! Really! Isn’t no C-H bonds.
infrared energy. The infrared energy infrared energy fun?
wavelength range is usually separated   What about the “FT” portion of
  Okay, what is FTIR? Keep in mind
into near infrared energy, having wave- FTIR? The polymer chemist obtains
that heaters emit and sheet absorbs
lengths between 0.7 m and about 2.5 infrared scans of various recipes in or-
far infrared energy. However, plas-
m, and far infrared energy, having der to compare the ingredients. These
wavelengths between about 2.5 m tics do not absorb energy uniformly.
scans are then mathematically encoded
and 103 m. The amount of energy absorbed at
so that the polymer chemist (or his
  Our thermoforming radiant heaters any given wavelength depends on
computer software) can arithmetically
typically operate in the wavelength the type of plastic being heated. Very
subtract the infrared spectrum of the
range of about 3.5 m to about 20 m or few plastics uniformly absorb radiant
polymer, say, from the spectrum of the
so. Or in the far infrared energy wave- energy only on their surfaces. When
recipe. What’s left must be the additive
length range. As you might expect, as the radiant energy is not entirely ab-
package. By subtracting the infrared
the temperature of the radiating body sorbed in the surface layer, some of it
is transmitted into the plastic. If the spectrum from a known additive pack-
increases, the peak wavelength shifts age, for example, the polymer chemist
to short and shorter wavelengths. And sheet is thick enough, all the radiant
energy that impinges the sheet surface can determine the composition of any
as the radiating body temperature in- unknown in the recipe. The mathemati-
creases, the amount of energy emitted is absorbed in the polymer. Plastics
such as polyethylene are notoriously cal encoding is called Fourier Transfor-
increases as well. mation or “FT.” And we’ve just put the
  For example, if your heater tempera- poor at absorbing energy on the sheet
surfaces. Others, such as PVC, absorb “FT” back into FTIR.
ture is 400°F (~200°C), the peak wave-   Do we care what the recipe of our
length is 6.06 m, and the maximum a substantial portion of the incoming
energy on the sheet surface. plastic is? Not really. We just need to
amount of energy emitted at this wave-
  But how can we tell whether a sheet know how much infrared energy our
length is 2.94 units1. If you raise the
of plastic is absorbing most of its en- plastic absorbs. So we just “piggy-
ergy on its surface or inside the sheet? back” on the polymer chemist’s FTIR
The units are kW/m2 - m. device. ■
Think Clearwater Beach, Florida at 1400 That’s where FTIR comes in. For the
hours on July Fourth! moment, ignore the “FT” part of the Keywords: Infrared, far infrared,
Monochromatic: Of or composed of radia- alphabet soup. I take a thin film of my electromagnetic energy, wavelength,
tion of only one wavelength. plastic, place it in an infrared or IR Fourier Transform

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 31

TF101 Insides 07.indd 31 9/25/07 8:55:45 AM


XYZs of Alphabet Soup?

T his is the third in a series on plas-
tics alphabet soup. So far, we’ve
tackled Tg and Tm. And we spent time
thermal conductivity or if the oil bath
is not vigorously stirred.
  Here is another way the data can
with DSC and IR and FTIR. Are there mislead. Consider HDT values for 101
more acronyms1 that we should know polycarbonate and nylon 6 for two
about? Sure. Lots. In this discourse, we loads:
look at four more – HDT, DTA, DMA, eral, a solid plastic test bar is subjected
and DTMA. Plastic HDT @ HDT @ to torsional or flexural oscillation.
66 psi 264 psi   Usually, if the device is operated at
What is HDT?
Polycarbonate 290°F 275°F a fixed temperature and the frequency
  HDT stands for heat deflection tem- Nylon 6 370°F 150°F of oscillation is varied, the test is
perature2. It is an ASTM test (D648) and called DMA. If the device is operated
an ISO test (75-1, 75-2)3. The test fo-   What is the real HDT value for at a fixed oscillation frequency and
cuses on the three-point deflection of a nylon 6? the temperature is varied, the test is
plastic bar of very specific dimensions4.   And one more reason to avoid HDT called DTMA. There is an imperfect
The bar is placed in an oil bath. A dead values. Consider glass-reinforced poly- correlation between these two testing
weight is placed in the center5. The oil carbonate and nylon 6 HDT values:
bath is heated at a very specific rate6.
  What is DMA/DTMA used for?
As the plastic increases in temperature, Plastic Unrein- Reinforced
If the plastic is elastic, its resistance
it softens. HDT is the temperature at forced @ HDT @
matches that of the oscillating device.
which it sags a fixed amount7. This 264 psi 264 psi
test, without ASTM or ISO numbers, If the plastic is fluid or viscous, its
Polycarbonate 275°F 295°F
is more than 60 years old. resistance is out-of-phase with that of
Nylon 150°F 420°F
  HDT is often used to sort or rank the oscillating device. As the tempera-
plastics. And it is often used for ture or frequency is changed, device
  Again, what is the HDT of nylon 6?
quality control. In thermoforming, it detects shifts from elastic to viscous
Nuff, said!
provides a crude, early estimate of or viscous to elastic character in the
the lower temperature for forming. polymer. As a result, the data will yield
Unfortunately, it is not a very good Are These the Same? the glass transition temperature of the
test. For example, it has no value for polymer. More importantly, however,
plastics that are relatively soft at room   First, DTA. DTA stands for differen- the test will show plastic resistance to
temperature, such as some plasticized tial thermal analysis. Remember our applied load over a temperature range
PVCs and TPOs. The test yields a discussion on DSC, differential scan- up to its melting temperature. This is
single data point that should not be ning calorimetry? Well, DTA uses the important for thermoformers, since
used to predict long-term behavior. same equipment and the same analysis we are stretching the plastic while it
The test is often tricked by residual as that for DSC. The difference is that is primarily in its rubbery solid state.
stress in the test specimen. And it is the data are interpreted differently for For example, we can quickly assess
tricked if the polymer has very low DTA. For example, DTA yields specific the forming temperature range of the
heat, or the amount of heat absorbed plastic. And within a given polymer
Acronym: a word formed from the initial by the plastic as a function of tempera-
letters of a multi-word name. family, we can determine which poly-
HDT was originally called heat distortion ture. Time-dependent changes such mer recipe yields the broadest forming
temperature. as rate of crystallization are obtained window. DMA/DTMA will probably
Another acronym used for the ASTM test by running the DSC/DTA at different be the subject for a TF 101 lesson.
is DTUL, meaning deflection temperature
under load. heating (or cooling) rates.   DMA/DTMA data obviate single-
5 inches long by 1/2-inch thick by a width   DMA is the acronym for differential point values such as those obtained
not to exceed 1/2-inch. ISO specifications mechanical analysis and DTMA is the with HDT/DTUL devices. ■
are similar but in metric units.
acronym for differential thermal me-
The weight is equivalent to either 66 or Keywords: mechanical analysis,
264 lb/in2 fiber stress. ISO specifications chanical analysis. The earliest device is
are similar but in metric units. described in ASTM D 2236. A review of heat deflection, heat distortion,
2 +/- 0.2°C/min. various mechanical testing techniques oscillation frequency
0.010 inches. ISO specifications are
similar but in metric units. is described in ASTM D 4065. In gen-

32 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 32 9/25/07 8:55:46 AM


Why is Part Design Important?

T h ro u g h o u t t h i s s e r i e s o f
tutorials, we have assiduously1
avoided the issue of part design. And
  And finally, the coup de grace 2
– Competitive processes are more
competitive! This one is probably
for good reasons. First and foremost, 101 the most difficult design limita-
technologists – of which I am one tion, simply because companies
– are normally not good designers. using competitive processes are
• The polymer needs to be drawn
We tend to get hung up on the nuts- now recognizing the capabilities of
to near its extensional limit
and-bolts of problem solving rather thermoforming and now are either
than the esthetics of the thing we’re • The polymer cannot be reground
or reprocessed economically altering their technologies to com-
making. And second, there really pete more effectively or are deciding
isn’t a good way of categorizing part • The design requires high-per-
to enter the thermoforming field.
design, particularly when there are formance plastics
so many applications and variants • The design requires highly filled
on the process. or reinforced plastics What Not To Do
  Having cited these caveats, per-   In most cases, we know the limita-
  Some depend on the match be-
haps it is time to review at least tions of our equipment and ourselves.
tween the part requirements and
some of the generic aspects about So we quote on parts we know we
your forming abilities:
thermoformed part design. We try to can mold. In some cases, however,
do this in the next series of lessons. • The design requires complex the thrill of “taking a chance” is too
And we begin by considering some forming techniques that you much to pass by. That’s when the
of the limitations to the thermoform- don’t have thin-gauge part must be molded
ing process. • It is more exotic than your cur- diagonally with the mold ends ex-
rent skills tending beyond the platen. Or when
Can You Make the Part • The design accuracy is greater we try to “pressure form” in a press
the Customer Wants at the than your current abilities without a proper clamping system,
Price He’ll Pay (and Still • You cannot trim to the required hoping that the press won’t open un-
Make a Profit)? accuracy til the part has completely form. Or
• Your workers do not have the when the depth of draw of the part
  There are some fundamental rea- skills to repeatedly form quality is so great that we need to heat the
sons for not quoting on a job, even parts sheet until it sags to the point where
though it appears “doable” and the it drags across the tooling. Or when
• You do not have in-house ability
potential profit is substantial. Some … Well, you get the idea.
to test product serviceability
of these are obvious, to wit:
• You cannot prototype to deter-
• The parts are too large for the mine part acceptability So, What Lessons Will
available equipment We Learn?
• The parts are too small for the   And still others depend on the
available equipment characteristics of the design, such   In this series-within-a-series, we’ll
• Too few parts are needed as: take a look at some simple issues
• Too many parts are needed such as female or negative molding
• The forces required to achieve
and male or positive forming. We’ll
  Others depend on the nature of the the final shape are too high for
consider design aspects such as cor-
plastic needed for the job. Consider the available equipment
ners and chamfers, vent hole loca-
these limitations: • The design requires excessive
tions, and lip and edge formation.
• The polymer cannot be ex- web or trim
And surface texture, draft angles,
truded into sheet • Part tolerances, draft angles are
and more. It should be fun. And
• The polymer cannot be drawn unachievable in thermoform-
maybe we’ll all learn something on
to the requisite depth ing
the way. ■
• Part design requires uniform
Assiduously: Unceasingly; persistently.
wall thickness Keywords: Design, formability,
Coup de grace: A decisive, finishing • Part design requires stepped dimensional tolerance, draft angle
stroke. wall thicknesses

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 33

TF101 Insides 07.indd 33 9/25/07 8:55:47 AM


Comparing Concept to Reality1

W e began our discussion of part
design by reviewing why we
might not want to quote on a job.
plastic products to either mate
with or package his non-plas-
tic products. THERMOFORMING
If we are serious about fabricating 101
• The Totally Naïve Customer.
the customer ’s concept, we need
Has a great idea worked out
to understand the methodology in
on the back of a Burger King • Extensive trimming, recycling
reducing a concept to reality.
napkin, has no funding, no needed
customer, and no idea how to • Mostly neat plastics (few
Naiveté v. Experience reduce his idea to reality. reinforced and highly filled
  Before we consider developing a plastics)
  We all agree that it is very difficult • Wide forming windows de-
hard cost for a given project, we need to treat each of these in the same
to ascertain the technical level the sired (needed)
fashion. In other words, a checklist of
customer brings to the design. Most things necessary to reconcile prior to
of us have dealt with customers of at The Material Issue
quotation might be too technical for
least one of the following levels: the naïve customer and an insult to   We, along with the astute custom-
• Expert Customer. Fully cog- the experienced one. Nevertheless, er, need to discuss material choices in
nizant of the advantages and we should all keep in mind before some detail. It is not enough for the
limitations of thermoforming every take-off and landing, the pilot customer to specify “general purpose
and copilot are required to complete polystyrene.” He/she needs to work
in general, conversant of the
an extensive checklist, regardless with us to develop a list of property
plastics characteristics, and
requirements. In other words, what
having a complete under- of their years of experience and the
are the elements of the environment
standing in the myriad ways number of times they had flown the
in which the product must perform?
of fabricating his design, in specific airplane. So let’s take a look Some examples are:
particular. at a typical design checklist.
• Environmental temperatures
• Experienced Customer. Has (high and low)
designed certain parts in ther-
General Advantages
• Corrosive/erosive conditions
moforming in the past but and Limitations of • Static/dynamic loading condi-
is not up-to-date, vis-a vis2, Thermoforming tions
newer processing techniques,   We all know the advantages and • Impact conditions
mold materials, polymers, and limitations of our skills. But the • Surface quality
so on. customer may not. So tell him/her. • Product lifetime
Some advantages: • Assembly restrictions (if any)
• A Non-Thermoforming Techni-
cal Customer. Has extensive • Lower tooling costs   And we must all be aware that
experience in blow molding, • Quicker design-to-prototype some of these conditions are com-
rotational molding, or in- time pound. For example, the product
jection molding, but has no • Quicker prototype-to-produc- may need to withstand dynamic
knowledge of the differences tion time loading at high temperature in a
between these techniques and • Relatively wide selection of corrosive environment. And the
polymers, grades customer must understand that
• Large surface area per unit not all grades of plastics that meet
• A Technically Naïve Customer. thickness the desired criteria are available in
Knows little about plastics and • Economic production of a few sheet form.
nothing about thermoforming. pieces (heavy gauge) or many,   Before we can discuss design con-
Has always purchased his many pieces (thin gauge) cepts with our customer, we need to
review them ourselves. We’ll con-
Some limitations: tinue this litany after our review. ■
This is the second in a series that
focuses on part design
• Non-uniform wall thickness Keywords: advantages,
• Single-surface molds limitations, material choice,
vis-à-vis, French for face-to-face, with the
usual meaning being “as compared with” • Hollow parts difficult experienced customer, naïve
or “in relation to.” • Sheet cost customer

34 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 34 9/25/07 8:55:48 AM


Understanding How a Sheet Stretches1

W e began our discussion of part
design by reviewing why we
might not want to quote on a job. But
the sheet, the sheet stretches between
the clamp and the bottom of the mold.
If the sheet doesn’t touch the sides of
gauge thermoforming, forming up has
advantages with female molds. Grav-
ity helps when releasing parts from
let’s suppose that we did quote on the the mold until the mold is completely multi-cavity tooling. And the parts are
job. And we got it. Now what? immersed in the sheet, the sheet thick- properly oriented for in-line trimming.
ness is usually quite uniform. If the Having said that, keep in mind that it
Forming into a Mold v. sheet progressively touches the sides of is easier to mechanically prestretch the
the mold as the mold is being pushed sheet into female cavities if the molds
Forming onto a Mold into the sheet, the wall of the resulting are below the sheet.
  In the not-so-politically-correct jar- part will be thickest at the bottom and   Although the mold weight may
gon of the day, if we form into a mold thinnest at the rim. prevent mounting the mold over the
cavity, the mold is called a “female sheet in heavy-gauge forming, there
cavity.” A better PC2 phrase is “nega- are some advantages here too. For ex-
tive mold.” If we form onto a mold, ample, when a male mold is mounted
the mold is called a “male mold.” The over the sheet plane, sheet sag acts to
THERMOFORMING prestretch the sheet prior to the mold
proper PC phrase is “positive mold.” 101
Is there a difference in forming “into” immersion. The sheet is formed down
v. forming “onto”? Of course. Let’s for most heavy-gauge forming into
consider for the moment, forming a female molds. Again, sheet sag acts to
  Does it make a difference whether prestretch the sheet prior to forming.
very simple truncated cone. If we use
we form into a cavity or over a mold? And certainly, it is easier to activate
a mold cavity, the sheet first drapes
If part performance is important, and maintain mechanical plugs if they
into the open cavity, then stretches
probably not, if the part draw ratio3 is reside above the sheet rather than
into the cavity with the sheet progres-
very low [think picnic plate or aircraft below.
sively laying on the mold surface.
engine cover]. As the draw ratio in-
Keep in mind that the sheet that con-
creases, however, the thinnest sections
tacts the mold surface usually doesn’t
of the part begin to control the perfor- Mating Parts
stretch any further. As a result, the
mance of the part. Several other factors   It should be apparent that the part
sheet that is free of the mold becomes
can influence our decision, such as: side against the mold maintains a more
thinner and thinner as it is stretched
• Is it easier to prestretch the sheet accurate dimension than the other
to the bottom of the mold. The wall of
when forming into a cavity or over side. The mold side is chosen when-
the resulting part is thickest at the rim
a mold? ever the part is to mate with another
and thinnest at the bottom. The thin-
• Is it easier to machine a cavity or dimensioned part. For example, for
nest region of the part is in the corner
a male mold? an integral-lid container to be liquid
where the wall meets the bottom. We
• Is the rim thickness important, as tight, the outside of one half must mate
can show arithmetically that if the
in the case of thin-gauge contain- with the inside of the other. This may
wall makes a 60-degree angle with
ers? require that one half is formed into a
the horizontal rim, the wall thickness
• And does the customer need the female mold while the other is formed
decreases linearly from the rim to the
inside or the outside of the part to on a male tool.
corner. If the wall makes a 90-degree
be the positive surface4?
angle [think soup can], the wall thick-
  Usually – but not always – mechani-
ness decreases exponentially.
cal plugs are more effective in stretch-
An Observation
  Now consider using a truncated
ing sheet into a cavity, female molds   When quoting on a job, it is always
cone male mold. The sheet first touch-
are easier to fabricate than male molds, advisable to keep in mind the capabil-
es the mold at the bottom of the part
and rim thickness is better controlled ity of your equipment to form the part
being formed. As the mold pushes into
with female molds. We’ll revisit some in the most efficacious5 and least costly
of these factors later. manner. If you can’t form up, don’t
This is the third in a series that focuses quote on a job that is best produced
on part design. Forming “Up” v. Forming in this fashion. The more tortuous
PC. Politically correct. the path to perfect parts, the greater
“Down” the degree of difficulty. And surely
We discuss draw ratio in the next les-
son.   What does this mean? If the mold the greater the chance for quality is-
By “positive surface,” we mean that sur- is placed above the sheet, the mold is sues. ■
face that the customer considers to be the immersed in the sheet and the part is
more important one. Usually the surface formed up onto or into the tool. If the Keywords: positive mold, male mold,
against the mold is considered the positive mold is placed below the sheet, the negative mold, female mold, draw
surface, but not always. sheet sags into or onto the mold and ratio, forming up, forming down, sag
Efficacious: Producing or capable of pro- the part is formed down onto or into
ducing a desired effect. the tool. Why is this an issue? In thin-

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 35

TF101 Insides 07.indd 35 9/25/07 8:55:49 AM


The Ubiquitous1 Draw Ratio

P robably the first thing a
novice hears in thermo-
forming after he/she learns to
on the part surface to the origi-
nal length of the line. Again, in
equation form: THERMOFORMING
spell “thermoforming,” is the 101
RL = LinePart/LineSheet
phrase, “Draw Ratio.” So, this
lesson focuses on the concept of For the same example, the length
draw ratio. of the line on the cylinder is
(1+1+1) = 3. The original length
Is There More Than One of the line is 1. Therefore, the average reduced thickness. So,
linear draw ratio, RL, is 3. The what does this tell us about
linear draw ratio is akin to the uniformity of the part wall
  Unfortunately, yes. There are the way in which the plastic thickness? Or the degree of dif-
at least three definitions. Let’s is stretched in a tensile test ficulty in forming the part? Or
define the common ones. machine, whether webs are formed some-
  Areal Draw Ratio, often given   Height-to-Diameter Ratio, where in the part? Or what the
the symbol RA, is the ratio of the often written as H:D, is the plug needs to look like? Or …?
area of the part being formed height of the cylinder (1), to the Really, nothing.
to the area of the sheet needed diameter of the cylinder (1). Or   Having said that, areal draw
to make the part. Although I H:D = 1. H:D is used primarily ratio is perhaps the easiest
promised not to use equations for axisymmetric2 parts such as concept to understand. Linear
in our TF 101 lessons, some cones or cylinders, such as drink draw ratio, as noted, is often
simple ones here won’t hurt all cups. compared with extension lim-
that much:   In summary, for the cylinder its determined from tensile
RA = AreaPart/AreaSheet described above, RA=5, RL = 3, testing equipment. And H:D is
and H:D = 1. So you see, there often used in Europe to describe
  A simple example, please? formability of plastics for cup
is no agreement between these
Consider a cylinder one unit in applications.
diameter by one unit high. The definitions.
  At best, draw ratios represent
area of the cylinder is (+/4) bragging rights rather than in-
= 54. The area of the sheet Are Draw Ratios of formation about the degree of
used to form the cylinder is Use? Importance? difficulty in forming the parts.
/4. Therefore the areal draw Many formers will tell you that
  So, which one do we use?
ratio, RA, is 5. As an interest- parts that have very small draw
Depends. First, we need to
ing aside, the reciprocal of the ratios are much more difficult
determine whether draw ratio is
areal draw ratio is the average to form reliably than parts with
a useful concept.
reduced thickness of the formed large draw ratios. And parts
part, being 1/5 = 0.20. In other   Let’s focus on areal draw
ratio to determine its utility. with many compartments are
words, the original sheet thick- far more difficult to form than
ness has been reduced by 80%, As we have already learned,
the reciprocal of RA is the av- parts with single compartments,
on the average. even when the draw ratios of the
  Linear Draw Ratio, often erage reduced thickness. But
where is this reduced thickness? two types are identical.
given the symbol RL, is the ratio
Somewhere down the side of   [See? Those equations didn’t
of the length of a line scribed
the formed part. In fact, there hurt at all, now, did they?] ■
Ubiquitous: Being present everywhere is probably a line around the
at once. periphery of the part where Keywords: Areal draw ratio,
Axisymmetric: Having symmetry around linear draw ratio, H:D
an axis.
the part thickness is exactly the

36 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 36 9/25/07 8:55:49 AM


Draft Angles
S ome time ago, we discussed
shrinkage and warpage. At that
time, we pointed out that plastic, like
the mold surface. To release the part
from the mold, it is necessary to
provide a draft angle on the vertical THERMOFORMING
most other materials, increases in mold surfaces. The amount of draft 101
volume when heated and decreases depends strongly on the volumetric
in volume when cooled. And we change in the polymer. If the polymer
said that to form the desired shape, is amorphous – PS, PVC, PC – the
the hot plastic is pushed against a draft angle may be no more than
cool mold surface. It follows that as 2° to 3°. If the polymer is crystalline
– PE, PE – the draft angle may be in segments may also be sources of
the plastic cools, it shrinks. But the
excess of 5°. The average is generally internal webbing3.
mold doesn’t change in dimension.
If the mold is male or positive, or if 4° but the designer must be alert to
even a portion of the mold is male or effects of temperature variation and How Serious is the Draft
recrystallization rates.
positive, the plastic will shrink onto
  A textured surface requires
the mold surface. And if the mold is
not properly designed, we will have an increase in draft angle. It is   The draft angle can lead to serious
a devil of a time getting the part off recommended that the draft angle be dimensional changes in the formed
it. Thus we face the subject of draft increased at least 1° for every 0.2 mils part. Consider a simple example, a
angles. [0.0002 in or 5 microns] in texture 10-inch male mold. The vertical wall
depth. Keep in mind that increasing is 1 inch wide at the top. Consider
applied pressure, sheet temperature, a draft angle of 5°. The width at
Draft Angles – Defined and mold temperature will result in the bottom of the vertical wall is
  The best definition of a draft angle greater penetration of the sheet into determined as follows:
is the angle the mold wall makes the texture.   The increased width on one side is
with the vertical. If the mold wall is 10 x tan 5° = 0.875 in. The total width
vertical, the draft angle is zero. Recall What About Parts at the bottom is then 1 + 2 x 0.875 =
that most thermoforming molds are 2.75 in.
single-surfaced. That is, the sheet
With Male and Female   This is a substantial dimensional
is pulled into or over a single mold Components? change in the thickness of the vertical
surface. For draw-down into a wall.
  Multiple-compartment trays and
female or negative mold, the sheet pallets 1 can pose series drafting
is constrained on its outer surface issues. Consider a female cavity When is the Draft Angle Not a
by the mold. As a result, when the bordered by two male segments. The Draft Angle at All?
sheet cools, it tends to shrink away sheet will attempt to shrink away
from the mold surface. As a result,   When it is used for something
from the female mold surface but else. The classic example is the drink
it is entirely feasible to thermoform onto the male segments. Excessive
into a female mold having zero draft cup. The sidewalls are tapered as
draft on the male segments may much as 20° for stacking purposes,
angles. Most part designers prefer a allow the sheet to release from the
slight draft angle, say 0° to 2°, “just not shrinkage. In multi-compart-
female mold surface before the sheet ment parts, care must be taken in
in case.” The average is generally has replicated the mold surface. On
1/2° to 1°. the design to accommodate both the
the other hand, inadequate draft draft angle required for shrinkage
  On the other hand, when the sheet on the male segments may allow
is drawn over a male or positive mold, and the necessary stacking taper.
the sheet to satisfactorily form the
it is constrained on its inner surface Stacking lugs, stand-offs, or rings
female mold surface, but the sheet
by the mold. As a result, when the are often designed into complex
may “lock” onto the male segments.
sheet cools, it tends to shrink onto parts, simply because it is not always
The problem is exacerbated2 when
possible to predict the exact local
These parts are sometimes called an- molding compartment trays where
shrinkage. ■
drogynous, meaning that they have both the male portions are interrupted.
female and male characteristics. Essentially interrupted walls in
Keywords: draft angle, taper,
Exacerbate: To aggravate. the molded part. In addition to the
Webbing will be discussed in a later shrinkage issues, interrupted male

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 37

TF101 Insides 07.indd 37 9/25/07 8:55:50 AM


M ost plastic parts have corners.
And most corners are radiused.
Designers often seek sharp corners or
  We must keep in mind that the
plastic stretches from the sheet that
is not contacting the mold surface. As
more properly, corners with very more and more of the plastic sheet THERMOFORMING
small radii. Aesthetics is often cited contact the mold surface, the sheet 101
as the reason for this. But aesthetics not contacting the mold becomes
is not the only reason. Often the thinner and thinner. For a part such
container must contain material as a cup or can, the plastic stretches
of a specific volume. For a given into the bottom 2D corner last. As
dimensioned container, the internal a result, the material in the corner
volume decreases with increasing is usually the thinnest. Although
mechanical and pneu-matic assists radius in one corner of the part that
corner radii. Con-versely, for a given
help redistribute the sheet during is 50% of that in another corner of the
volume, the overall dimensions of
stretching, the part wall is usually part, the part thickness in that corner
the container (and thus the amount of
thin in the corners. And smaller will have 50% of the thickness in the
plastic needed to make the container) corner radii usually lead to thinner
increase with increasing corner other corner. If the corner design
part walls. In other words, sharp radius is 25%, the part thickness will
radii. In this lesson, we consider the corners lead to thin-walled parts in be 25% of that in the other corner.
concept of the corner. corners.   Why are we concerned about
part wall thickness in 3D corners?
Can a Part Have More Wall Thickness in Because many of our parts are similar
Than One Type of Corner? 2D Corners to the five-sided box we’ve used as
an example. And five-sided boxes
  Of course. Consider the simplest   The wall thickness in the bottom are often filled and handled during
type of corner, being the place where 2D corner of a five-sided box is shipping, installation, and use. And
two planes intersect. Picture the proportional to the corner radius to 3D corners of five-sided boxes are
bottom edge of an axisymmetric part about the 0.4-power. If the design most susceptible to impacting. In
as a drink cup or a can, for instance. calls for a radius in one area of the an earlier lesson we discussed that
The vertical or near-vertical side of bottom of the part that is 50% of that when we stretched a sheet, we
the container intersects the bottom of in another area of the bottom of the thinned it. We needed greater forces
the container at a right or near-right part, the part thickness in that area to stretch the sheet to greater and
angle, thus forming the corner, in will have about 75% of the thickness greater extent. And when we cooled
this case, a bottom two-dimensional of the other area. If the design radius the sheet we locked in the stresses
or 2D corner. Of course, any good is 25%, the thickness in that area will we used to stretch the sheet. So
thermoformer worth his or her be about 55% of that of the other when we impact the 3D corner of
salt would not make a sharp angle area. the formed part, we are applying
at the intersection. The reason for   I n t e re s t i n g l y e n o u g h , w a l l stress on top of those already frozen
this is intuitively obvious but will thickness in vertical 2D corners is into the corner. On top of this, the 3D
about equal to wall thickness of corner is very thin. In short, sharply-
be explained in a little more detail
surfaces adjacent to the corners. This radiused corners are often desired
is probably because the part walls by designers but of great concern
  Is there more than one type of
in the vertical corners are formed to thermoformers. As a result, the
corner on a five-sided box? Sure. at the same time the part walls of designer must often accept greater
There’s the intersection between adjacent surfaces are formed and not radiuses than he/she desires.
the vertical wall and the bottom. afterwards, as is the case with bottom   In a subsequent lesson, we consider
And the intersection between one 2D corners. alternative designs for corners, as
vertical wall and another. And what well as other product features. ■
about the intersection between two
vertical walls and the bottom? So we
Wall Thickness in
Keywords: vertical 2D corner,
have bottom two-dimensional or 2D 3D Corners
bottom 2D corner, 3D corner,
corners, vertical 2D corners, and in   The wall thickness in the 3D corner corner radius
the last case, three-dimensional or 3D of a five-sided box decreases in
corners. And, as with the cup or can proportion to the corner radius to the
example, corners should have radii. 1.0-power. If a design calls for a 3D

38 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 38 9/25/07 8:55:51 AM


The Cutting Edge

F or those of you who came in late,
we have been examining the various
aspects of part design. In this lesson, we
focus on the edge or periphery of the
part. The first thing we need to realize THERMOFORMING
is that the part we’ve just thermoformed
is still attached to the plastic that held 101
it in the clamp frame while it was
being formed. This is true whether the
entire assembly, formed part and edge
material, is removed to a separate fixture
or whether the formed part is punched is rough-cut initially. This edge finish customer. There are three major issues
from the trim material immediately after may be adequate if the cut edge of the with the cut edges of thin-gauge parts:
forming. We’ve discussed trimming part is completely hidden in the final
in earlier tutorials. In this tutorial, we assembly. Polycarbonate skylights that • Trim dust and fibers, known as angel
discuss the characteristics of the edge are edged in aluminum are examples. hair and fuzz.
itself. Often the product requires a smoother • Microcracks that can grow into the
edge. For robotic trimming to achieve formed part as it is flexed
Registration the desired edge, the rough-cut edge
• Jagged edges that can cut or abrade
  Trimming devices need to trim the part is routed a second time while the part
the user
where the designer wanted it trimmed. remains on the trim fixture.
This means that the trim line and the   In some applications, the edge must be   Edge and surface contamination are
trim device must register. The accuracy as smooth as the overall plastic surface. often the results of problems in the
of registration is a design issue. In heavy Here are some ways of achieving a very trimming step. But not always. It is very
gauge forming, it is impractical to ask a smooth, even polished edge. difficult to trim polystyrene without
trim device to trim within thousandths • Fine grit sanding followed by Crocus generating very tenacious trim dust. It
of the design trim line everywhere along cloth or 1200-grit polishing is often difficult to trim polypropylene
the trim line. Heavy-gauge parts may or PET without generating fibers and
• The above method, followed by fuzz. Adding antistatic agents to PS,
be fixtured between the time they are
pumice polishing either as an additive that is compounded
formed and the time they are trimmed.
Fixturing allows for some residual stress • For certain plastics, a light wipe into the polymer or as a topical coat
relaxation and often improves the trim with a mild solvent will smooth to the sheet prior to forming, helps the
registry. In thin-gauge forming, the trim trim cuts. Care must be taken to trim dust problem. If fuzz and fibers are
device should be able to trim very close minimize the amount of solvent that objectionable to the customer, they are
to the design trim line. Because many is absorbed into the polymer. often minimized by passing the container
thin gauge parts are axisymmetric, edges through a hot air knife. The heat
• Flame-polishing is popular with
meaning that the trim line is round, shrivels the fibers to microscopic size.
transparent amorphous plastics
registration focuses on the degree of   Microcracks and jagged edges can
such as acrylics and polycarbonates.
ovality of the formed trim line prior also be “healed” by heating the edges
Flame-polishing is not recommended
to the trimming step. Thin-gauge parts with hot air. One approach is to collect
with plastics such as PVC.
are often trimmed within minutes of and nest a stacked, counted number of
being formed. Certain polymers such • Laser cutting. The laser is a high- parts and pass the stack though a hot air
as polypropylene continue to crystallize intensity beam that cuts plastic by tunnel prior to packaging or boxing for
after forming. As a result, the design trim melting and vaporizing it. The cut shipment. ■
line and the final part edge peripheral line is usually very smooth.
location may be quite different. Keywords: registration, flame
Thin-Gauge Cut Edge polishing, laser cutting, trim dust,
Heavy-Gauge Cut Edge   Thin-gauge trimming is substantially microcracks
  The nature of the final cut edge simpler than heavy-gauge trimming.
depends strongly on the trimming device. Nevertheless, the trim edge charac-
In many robotic trimming steps, the edge teristics can be quite important to the

[This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.] 39

TF101 Insides 07.indd 39 9/25/07 8:55:51 AM


The Rim
S o, we know about draft angles
and corners and wall thickness
variation and on and on. But
chamfers, and ridges. The rim
may be designed to fit
into or over another THERMOFORMING
what about the rim? You know, part, Or it may be 101
the region of the formed part that trimmed to accept
forms the periphery of the part. secondary assembly
This lesson focuses on some of the features. The part
important issues dealing with the design may require
rim. In the next lesson, we’ll look at the trim line to
the characteristics of the trimmed be “hidden,” so that the rim is portion of the part. And keep in
edge itself. U-shaped with appropriate radii mind that, without plug assist,
or chamfers. parts really thin rapidly when
Does the Rim Have a vacuum- or pressure-drawn into

Function in the Part? Can We Get the parallel-walled mold sections.

Formed Part Off the

  Other than just being the edge What About Texture?
of the part, let’s say. In thin-gauge Mold?
forming of axisymmetric parts   Whenever you draw textured
  Before we contemplate this sheet, the texture flattens. In grained
such as cups, the trimmed-out question in detail, remember that sheet, the effect is called “grain
rim is usually manipulated in a thermoformed parts shrink as they wash.” The typical rule of thumb is
post-molding operation known cool. So they shrink away from the that texture flattening is acceptable
are rim-rolling. Here, the cup is sides of a female or negative mold if the local draw ratio is less than
rotated along its axis as the rim is cavity and onto the sides of a male about two or the local thickness is
heated and softened. The rotating or positive mold cavity. If we build a more than half the original sheet
action forces the soften rim against simple cup mold, for example, and thickness. The real problem occurs
a shaping ring that effectively design the rim so that the plastic is in the rim area where the sheet is
rolls the rim into an annulus. The formed over a ring at the mold top, often drawn into sharp corner radii.
rolled rim provides great stiffness we need to provide adequate draft One design method is to chamfer
to an otherwise flimsy thin-walled to get the thing off the mold. In the rim. A second is to facet the
container. other words, the rim will not have surface design. A third is to use
  Staying with thin-gauge products right-angled sides. Does this affect a series of steps. In each of these
for a moment, the rim design for the design? By the way, this design cases, the objective is to trick the
lidded containers often requires is often called a “dam” design. This eye into seeing local architecture
interlocks and detents that must be design minimizes excess plastic rather than texture.
quite precise. In certain instances, from being drawn over the edge of   The alternative to drawing
the container rim may include the mold and into the mold cavity. textured sheet is to texture the
denesting features that allow Frequently a trim line concentric mold. However, as any mold maker
stacked containers to be readily to the dam will also be molded in. will tell you, it is very difficult to
separated by the customer. This is often called a “moat.” build uniform texture into very
  What about the rim on a heavy-   We discussed the hidden trim line sharply radiused corners.
gauge part? Often the rim is the a minute ago. How are we going to   You should never fall into the
finished edge of the part. The rim get the part off the mold? Flip-up habit of leaving rim design to the
may be very simple, such as the sections? Removable sections? It is end of product design. ■
trimmed end of a flat surface. Or it very difficult to get moving mold
may be very complex, with radii, sections to seat without a gap Keywords: rolled rim, moat,
between mating parts. As a result, dam, hidden trim line,
This is the last TF 101 column written by we may wind up with a “witness
Throne. The new TFQ editorial staff will de- textured sheet
termine whether the column will continue. line” right at the most cosmetic

40 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 40 9/25/07 8:55:52 AM


Process – Cycle Time

  (Editor’s Note: This is the first Thermoforming size quantities but it can be a lot better. I will
101 article written by your new technical editor. explain later.
Dr. Throne wrote 34 articles that date back to
1998, Volume 17, Number 3. He had originally Sheet-Fed THERMOFORMING
intended to write a series of 18 general interest   OK, so what about heavy-gauge, sheet-
articles but the 101 series has become a
fed forming? The same principle applies. In
mainstay of the Quarterly. The year-end booklet
that contains every 101 article to date is a great
North America the machinery manufacturers
reference source for thermoforming practitioners. recognized early on that they must do something tooling. Fortunately the new machines have
This technical editor has every intention of about the length of time it takes to heat the sheet electric presses which make setting the shut
maintaining the series and the booklet which is evenly and thoroughly. So the 4 station rotary height so much easier.
becoming the perfect reading material for people machine was designed which cut heating time   Press speed affects the length of the cycle
entering the industry or seasoned personnel dramatically by using 2 heater banks through time but sometimes it is necessary to slow the
who need help on a specific problem. Jim wrote which the sheet travels on its way to the mold. press closing speed to accommodate plug or
4 articles last year that dealt with part design. I So why not build a 5 station rotary with 3 heater assist action. If you are having difficulty with
hope he will forgive me for not continuing with banks and really cut heating time? The answer de-molding you may need to slow the opening
the “Trimmed Edge” topic he suggested for this is, there would be no point unless the part could speed. Other than these conditions, you can
lesson. I will deal with this topic when we take a be formed and cooled in a time less than one move the platens as fast as you want. Third
closer look at the subject of “Die-Cutting.” This motion tooling or independent plug control
third the heating time. In fact the cooling of
Thermoforming 101 article deals with a subject
some materials is so difficult that one heater with individual cavity clamping can greatly
about which we should all be more diligent.
Foreign competition has forced us to maximize bank on a 4 station would have to be shut off improve cycle time but this is getting beyond
efficiency and become more competitive. So or set at a lower temperature to allow time the scope of a 101 article.
let us review the basic factors that determine for proper cooling. So if we can do things to   Cooling time is by far the most important
cycle time.) speed up the heating of the sheet, what can factor in achieving a fast cycle time. In my very
we do to cool the part quicker? This is where early days of thermoforming we tried running
General Assumptions it gets tricky. an epoxy mold on a modern in line machine.
  We all should be aware that if we let the Even with a water cooled base under the mold
operator determine when a machine cycles, the best we could do is 2 cycles per minute
The Forming Segment of the Cycle simply because the mold never got a chance
our production rate will suffer. Running
  On roll-fed machines, unless you are dealing to cool down. Using an aluminum mold on
thermoforming machines on manual mode is
with super fast lines, you can forget about the a water cooled base allows you to run most
necessary for set up and of course if all you have
is a simple shuttle machine with rudimentary trimming and stacking segments of the cycle jobs at reasonable speeds as long as the height
controls you have no other choice. So let’s just when looking for what is slowing you down. (or depth if it’s a female) of the mold is no
deal with thermoforming in automatic mode. Concentrate on the forming segment from the more than say 2 inches. To achieve maximum
We will only deal with the forming part of time the sheet leaves the heaters to the time the efficiency and reduce cooling time the mold
the process. Trimming of heavy gauge parts formed part leaves the form station. Let’s break must be kept at the target temperature as
is another topic. Also for this purpose we will down the actions that take place. specified by the material supplier. Hot material
assume that when thinking roll-fed, we are   Index speed is the speed that the sheet at 350 degrees F hitting the metal mold requires
using a machine with in-line die-cutting. travels from the heaters to the form station. a very efficient cooling system to maintain that
Roll-fed pin chains can travel up to 95 inches mold temperature that may have to run at 200
The Basic Concept per second. A rotary turntable moves a lot degrees F constantly to run fast cycles. The
  If we take all the segments of the rotary or in- slower. On both roll-fed and sheet-fed lines only way to do this is to run cooling lines in the
line thermoforming process: heating. indexing the stopping and starting actions can become mold itself usually no more than 2" to 3" apart
the sheet, closing the press, forming the part, too violent if the index speed is too fast which depending on the size and configuration of the
cooling the part, opening the press, trimming may cause the hot sheet to move as the mold mold. Cast-in lines are the norm for aluminum
and stacking (if in-line), the cycle time is closes on it. Move the sheet as fast as possible cast molds and machined in lines are the norm
dictated solely by the slowest segment of the but make sure that the drape is stationary when for machined aluminum molds.
process. Most people looking at our process for the mold closes.   Cooling time on sheet-fed rotary machines
the first time will say it has to be the heating   Shut height or platen travel is the distance running thick HDPE can be improved by using
segment that is the slowest part of the process. the form platens must travel from the open external fans, water mist or cold air directed
This is not necessarily so. position to the closed position. All too often onto the part but care must be taken not to
set-up people will not take the time to reduce form in stresses. A well built water cooled
Roll-Fed the shut height to optimum levels. I have seen mold is still necessary for the most significant
  It is especially not so with roll-fed machines a roll-fed job running very shallow pill blisters improvement in cycle time.
that usually are designed to have 4 indexes in with a female tool on the bottom and the   So how do some roll-fed thermoformers get
the ovens. For example if the maximum mold plugs on the top showing 3 inches of daylight 50,000 parts per hour? This will be the subject
size in the index direction is 36". The oven between the plugs and the sheet line because of technical articles in the future. It’s not a
length will be roughly 4 times 36" or 12 feet the operator did not lower the shut height of the subject for the 101 series but here is a hint: third
long. So if you are running .020 PVC which top press. This added at least 1 second to the motion tools, cavity clamping, pre-heaters and
would normally be in the oven for 20 seconds cycle time and over a 30 hour run at 15 cycles great cooling in the molds.
to get up to forming temperature, your cycle per minute added over 2 hours of unnecessary   Cycle time is just one way to make our
time, based on a 4 index oven, is 5 seconds labor and machine time. If you don’t have shut operations lean and more competitive. Other
(20 divided by 4) or 12 cycles per minute. This height adjustment on your form press the only ways will be discussed in future Thermoforming
is not bad for running smaller and medium way to do this is to add build ups behind the 101 articles. ■

41 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 41 9/25/07 8:55:53 AM


“Down Gauging” – It’s a Good Thing

H ow many of us quote jobs and
specify the starting gauge? I would
suggest that the majority of custom
gauge. If we are not given a material
gauge requirement in the RFQ, many of
us will be unsure what gauge should be
thermoformers are accustomed to quoting used so we will quote 2 or more. Would THERMOFORMING
this way. In the case of proprietary it not be more professional to do some 101
thermoformers producing such things homework and quote the part stating a
as food service items, although the minimum thickness or perhaps even a
range of wall thickness measurements maintaining a minimum wall thickness is
starting gauge is a major factor in the
throughout the part? to look at some of the different forming
costing of the parts, it is of little interest
  When I bring up this point with those techniques available to us. Many of
to the customer because he or she only
in the industry I am told that the “good” us have listened to seminars by Bill
cares about how well the part performs
thermoformers do not quote starting McConnell or Art Buckel that show
which would relate only to the thickness
gauge. This leads me to believe that what techniques such as billow forming or
of the finished part. So why do custom
separates the “good” thermoformers snap-back forming. These methods are
thermoformers continue to state starting
from the “not so good” is know-how. designed primarily to provide better
gauge on their proposals?
That is, knowing how to produce the material distribution which of course
  My point is this. Why should any
part with the specified minimum wall relates to improved wall thickness in the
customer buying thermoformed parts,
thickness requirements using the thinnest critical areas on the part. Of course in
care about what gauge of raw material
possible starting gauge. What do we order to utilize these techniques we must
we start with. He should only care about
need to know to be able to produce the build special tooling, have the equipment
how well his part performs. We sell to a
part with minimum wall thickness specs that allows the extra step in the process
wide variety of customers, from the very
and do so with a thinner material than and we may have to extend the cycle
knowledgeable to the –well lets be kind
our competition? Are the lights going time a little. However it could result
and say, technically challenged. With
on yet? in getting the job because of a more
the latter we have a duty to explain the
  Dare I say that, “down gauging” uniform part, a significant reduction
process of thermoforming and how the
has some negative connotations that in starting gauge and consequently a
plastic thins during heating and forming.
relate to using a material gauge that reduction in material costs.
Those who already understand may
is less than what was quoted because   It is one thing to know what techniques
need to be reminded and shown where
the term “down gauging” is sometimes and tooling will improve material
the thinning will be most prevalent.
used when competitive pressures force distribution and another to predict wall
In all cases however, we must educate
a need to reduce costs. However if thickness accurately. An experienced
our customers and work with them
starting gauge is never specified, then tool designer who has the benefit of
to determine what the minimum wall
we would eliminate any possibility of many years in the job will be able to do
thickness should be and in some cases
being accused of such a practice. It is so fairly well; however, these people are
specify the thickness in various places on
a win – win situation for supplier and scarce. There are computer simulation
the part. Once he or she has established
customer. The real competitive edge programs available that can assist with
these thickness criteria, it should become
goes to the thermoforming supplier with this and make the predictions within
the specification with no mention of the
the most know-how and there-in lies the a few thousandths of an inch. One of
starting gauge.
moral of the story. these programs could become your best
  Unless we are dealing with a seasoned
  We in the SPE are trying to educate sales tool.
customer who has already considered
thermoformers to be more competitive,   Like most practices that have
wall thickness requirements, most of the
more innovative and more successful. become routine, modifying our quoting
time customers will indicate the need
Those who work to that end will procedures to reflect minimum wall
for a specific starting gauge. This may
ultimately prevail. Having the know- thickness instead of starting gauge will
be because he or she has a competitive
how to be able to guarantee a minimum take some effort. It will require us to take
proposal that specifies a starting gauge or
wall thickness with a thinner starting more time with the customer to agree on
the part is existing and because the spec
gauge is indeed, a superior way to sell. the specs. It will require knowledgeable
calls for a starting gauge he or she simply
By using better material, better part engineering personnel to determine tool
assumes that it should continue to be that
design, better tooling or better equipment design, process techniques and what
(Technical Editor’s Note: Thermoforming 101 gauge material to use. But in my opinion
articles are intended not only to educate but also than our competition, we will get the
to generate interest in making improvements job and have a much better chance of it will make us better thermoformers
in our industry and our businesses. I welcome keeping the job if it gets shopped around by putting the responsibility on our
any feedback, positive, negative or otherwise. engineers to find ways to down gauge
If I have provoked some dialogue and thought by the customer.
  One way to produce a thermoformed while maintaining wall thickness
by writing an article like this it is for the good of
the industry.) part in a thinner gauge, while still requirements. ■

42 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 42 9/25/07 8:55:54 AM

➤ Thermoforming 101

The Impossible
Draw Ratio
A Technical Article – 2006 Volume 26, #3
➤ By Barry Shepherd

(Technical Editor’s Note: Looking back over the last 9 years at 36 too expensive. The designer must make a decision knowing
Thermoforming 101 articles, which are all presented in our annu- that he has a number of tooling options available.
ally updated booklet, it is the most comprehensive collection of
basic technical information one could find on our process. For this Pre-Stretch Tooling
issue I have chosen to talk about a subject that my predecessor Jim
Throne wrote about in 2000 and 2001 – pre-stretching the sheet. The main problems that must be addressed in designing
But this time I want to discuss what type of pre-stretching should the tooling for this part is a) how to pre-stretch the mate-
be used in a very difficult application.) rial so that there is enough material in the areas around
the towers and b) how to get the material down into the
valleys between the towers without webbing or bridging.
Knowing It Can Be Done
Pre-stretching the material can be done by forming a seal
The customer knows what he wants and you want to give on the material around the edge of a box and drawing
him a part that will do what he wants but in the back of a vacuum to pull the sheet into a bubble. This is called a
your mind you are thinking, “I should be telling him this pre-draw box and this is done on the opposite platen to
is impossible.” However, you know it is possible with the the mold platen. So now we have stretched the material
right tooling. to give us enough surface area to cover the towers with-
The main ingredient in getting hot plastic to form tight out getting too thin. Now how do we get all that material
over a mold is vacuum. Air pressure and other various down to the bottom of the valleys?
forms of assist tools make vacuum forming, thermoform-
ing. The trick is to decide what tooling options to use to Plugging or Pushing
give the customer what he wants without creating prob- This is where a newer technique of plug assist can be used
lems for your production department, while staying within effectively. Visualize the material in a bubble hanging
the customers tooling budget. below the mold in the clamp frames. It has been pulled
Back in the days when we used to say thermoforming is down by the pre-draw box. With an independently acting
half art, half science we would make a mold, put it into the air cylinder inside the pre-draw box, a plug or pusher tool
press and see what happens. Then start adding pieces of can be mounted and used to push the pre-stretched mate-
wood we called web stretchers and if we had a top press rial into the valleys. Obviously you must have this capability
at that time we could build a pusher to assist the plastic built into your machine and the timing must be such that
into a problem area. OK, so maybe some of us still do this the mold, vacuum and pusher are activated in the right
in prototyping but the ultimate aim for all of us is to build sequence.
production tooling that will go into the machine and start If the machine does not have the capability to have this
forming good parts on the first shot. third motion tool then it may be possible to mount a fixed
pusher inside the pre-draw box. However this means the
Part Design/Tool Design material must then drape around the pusher during the
You can’t design a thermoformed part unless you have a pre-stretching and this could mean that the material cools
full understanding of tool design and what capabilities you in these areas causing other forming problems. Pusher
have in your equipment. This seems obvious but when the shape and heating then becomes critical.
part has extreme draw ratios and wall thickness require-
ments that must be met, it is imperative. Impossible No More
Let’s take a heavy gauge part that has towers that defy We see thermoformed parts now that once would be im-
all principles of thermoforming, 8” high, only about 2” possible to thermoform – especially in roll-fed, thin gauge
diameter at the top and only 6” between towers and it applications. Third motion tooling, improved materials and
must be polyethylene which makes matters worse. The plug assist design has made severe draw ratio’s common
configuration of the part is such that the tall sections are at place in the packaging and drinking cup sector. The same
the perimeter. In other words, this is a job that would seem principals can be used in heavy gauge, sheet-fed thermo-
impossible. But the customer is faced with having to build forming to form large heavy parts. ➤
these parts on a limited budget and other processes are

43 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 43 9/25/07 8:55:55 AM

➤ Notes

44 [This is one in a series of articles introducing general concepts in thermoforming.]

TF101 Insides 07.indd 44 9/25/07 8:55:55 AM