Thermoforming has been an excellent invention since it was first used in the 1940s. Not only does it save time and energy, but, one could argue, that it has helped the environment because the plastics that are used in thermoforming are recyclable. When determining if thermoforming is right for a project you must first understand the differences between heavy gauge thermoforming and thin gauge thermoforming.
Thermoforming itself is quite basic: heat a plastic to where it is most malleable, put it over or into a mold and then use a press or vacuum to form the malleable plastic to the mold. With thin gauge thermoforming, this is most often the case. A huge roll of thin gauge plastic or inline extrusion is heated in an oven and molded appropriately to the manufacturers specifications.
Thin Gauge Thermoforming
Most often, thin gauge plastic is used for recyclable and disposable packaging, containers, and displays. The thickness of thin gauge plastic usually stays below 1.5 millimeters in thickness, but can sometimes be as thick as 3 millimeters. Thin gauge thermoforming is the brunt of the thermoforming industry and accounts for about three quarters of the thermoforming industries sales every year. The 10 billion dollar US thermoforming market is primarily cornered by thin gauge thermoforming for the use of bottles and other food packaging. Most of the waste that is generated by thin gauge thermoforming is reused either in house, or turned into plastic flakes and resold for other uses.
Heavy Gauge Thermoforming
Heavy gauge thermoforming, on the other hand, is used much less and in much more specific ways. Heavy gauge refers to plastic that is between 6.35mm and 9.35 mm. The same steps apply to most of the process but the end result for heavy gauge thermoforming is a more standalone product. Heavy gauge thermoforming is used in the automobile industry for car exteriors, in the aircraft industry for airplane windshields, in the appliance industry for shells on microwaves and refrigerators, for making plastic pallets, in World War II for machine gun turret windscreens, and in many and various other applications including structural support for kiosks, automobiles again, and in the medical field. Heavy gauge thermoforming might find one of its best uses in the medical field where sanitation and cleanliness are of utmost importance. Heavy gauge thermoforming also allows for an attractive finish to any medical device enclosure or medical tray, and since the upfront costs are much less than say metals, heavy gauge thermoforming can help save money.
The uses and possibilities with heavy gauge thermoforming are almost endless since anything thermoformed with heavy gauge plastic is able to be hand worked to fit any customers custom desires. Cutting, drilling, reshaping, and reforming a piece of heavy gauge thermoformed plastic allows for the utmost in custom fitting no matter what a company’s needs are. Although most heavy gauge thermoformed products are not easily recycled, their more permanent status in the construction of a product like a car or truck or kiosk outweighs the fact that the average consumer cannot simply throw a piece of heavy gauge thermoformed plastic in the recycling bin.
Engineering technology is also helping to refine, reduce waste, and increase efficiency in the cutting and molding of not only thin gauge thermoformed products, but also heavy gauge thermoforming. With the change to electric servos from clutches and manual cutting devices, the amount of scrap and waste has been reduced. Timing of ovens has become far more efficient to increase efficiency in between jobs, and oven technologies have made for more even and efficient heating of thermoformed sheets of plastic.