Thermoforming Polycarbonate: A Complete Guide

Thermoforming is one of such processes which enable you to create and attain a particular part into the desired shape and size.

What I know is that in many instances you’ve seen several types of unique polycarbonate materials imagining how their formation came to place.

Well, you’re now lucky because, in this guide, I want to exhaustively discuss all the different aspects revolving around thermoforming polycarbonate.

And by the end of this guide, I’m certain that you’ll have thorough knowledge regarding the process and other related aspects.

But first of all, let’s describe what it involves;

Nowadays, the extent of doing things to achieve desirable results is technologically-advanced and efficient.

What is Thermoforming Polycarbonate Sheet?

This refers to the process of changing the shape and structure of a polycarbonate sheet using a wide range of methods.

In most instances, this process normally involves forcing of heated thermoplastic sheets against mold as a way of attaining the desired structure.

Solid Polycarbonate sheet

Figure 1Solid polycarbonate sheet

So the thermoplastic sheet cools as it retains the specifications of the mold that is forming it.

In other words, thermoforming a polycarbonate is primarily a process of heating polycarbonate sheet to a particular temperature, always below its melting point.

This heating goes to the extent of turning glassy or soft then later on stretching to contours of the mold.

And to make it even simpler, we can say that it is a process of molding plastic by heating it to a high temperature then forming it over a mold.

Polycarbonate products

Polycarbonate product

What then follows is that the plastic sheet takes the shape of the mold after coming into contact with it.

Afterward, you’ll only need to trim the mold to make it a usable product.

As you will find out later on in this guide, this process is economical and practical especially when processing large parts for specific applications.

While at it, you also need to ensure that you integrate critical process modifications specific to the thermoplastic sheet.

The essence of this is to make sure that the formation of the parts is uniform and repeatable.

Now, let look at some of the critical pros and cons of thermoforming polycarbonate before moving to the next section.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Thermoforming Polycarbonate

Listen, this particular process presents quite a number of advantages given that it is more of technologically-oriented.

Many people who like this process always attribute it to remarkably fast turnaround times as well as low cost.

Of great essence, you’ll realize that these two key advantages are what make thermoforming polycarbonate suitable for low volume production.

Well, other than these two, let’s also look at some of the advantages of this particular process comparing it to other methods.

  • It is beneficial when creating relatively large parts. What I mean here is that this process gives you a wider design scope which enables you to make even large pieces comfortably.

The essence of this is that it enhances your efficiency which is important in establishing quality end products.

  • The other advantage of this process is that it involves low tooling costs. You see, thermoforming polycarbonate often needs one mold half.

So in essence, you will never require a lot of tools which in most instances normally increase the cost of the process.

  • Thermoforming polycarbonate also provides you with a wide range of options when it comes to finishing, textures, and

What this ordinary implies is that you have the freedom to create a particular part which meets all your desires.

And for that reason, you have no reason that can perhaps limit you to a specific design, finish or maybe texture.

  • The speed for carrying out this process is also high. So it means that this is a process you can you to achieve the production process within the specific time accordingly.

What’s more is that the faster speed also makes it possible for you to create a large number of different parts with a short time.

So ultimately, this process is an ideal way of increasing production and turnover.

  • The other advantage is that thermoforming gives you the liberty to form a particular part to meet your requirements and standards.

In other words, when using this process, you can easily customize a certain part and adjust it accordingly to suit your needs.

Incidentally, this is important given that different applications require different designs and specifications.

  • Thermoforming also allows the use of almost all types of plastics. Of course this advantageous given that it is unusual when it comes to other methods that only use specific types of materials.
  • Then finally, this process is also advantageous because it allows you to add different types of enhancing elements during production.

What I’m saying here is that in some instances you may choose to add other products to enhance the quality of the final product.

So during thermoforming, it becomes easy to achieve the same given that it gives you that flexibility to add such elements.

Well as you also know, thermoforming also has some of its disadvantages.

Some of them include the following;

Polycarbonate cover

Polycarbonate cover – Source: SAFE LINCS

  • The process is relatively thorough especially when it comes to the bit of heating.
  • Therefore, the chances are high that the plastic sheets can always break as a result of excessive stretching under such circumstances.

So in the end, you will realize that you have wasted almost 20% of the raw materials, which can eventually turn out to be costly.

  • The other downside of this process is that it becomes somewhat difficult to create molds which have sharp bends and corners.

You see, what happens is that internal stresses are often common with this process.

So you’ll realize that at the end of it all some of these sections will not form the desired shape.

And this can be disadvantageous especially after undertaking the entire process and also after utilizing the raw materials.

Nonetheless, the truth is that the advantages of thermoforming polycarbonate supersede its shortcomings.

Therefore, in the next section, we want to delve into some of the critical aspects to look into in thermoforming polycarbonate process.

Important Considerations in Thermoforming Polycarbonate

Well, there are quite a number of elements which you need to consider before, during and after undertaking thermoforming polycarbonate process.

Incidentally, it is always essential since it makes it possible for you to obtain the best results from this particular process.

So in this section, I want to highlight and discuss a few but vital considerations that you need to factor in thermoforming polycarbonate.

· Temperature

This arguably one of the essential elements which you must determine in any thermoforming polycarbonate process.

What you also need to know is that it isn’t a question of one heating element versus another.

Instead, it is an aspect revolving around attaining the optimum element for the particular application.

Thermoforming temperature

Thermoforming temperature

Determining the temperature is ideal since it is what dictates the process.

So in other words, it is the temperature that results in the creation of a better product as well as less cycle time.

In most cases, the heat for thermoforming polycarbonate often varies depending on quite a number of factors.

What this implies is that there is no specific type of heating element which cuts across the board when processing all materials.

Therefore, we can say that the ideal temperature is dependent on the material you are processing as well as its end use.

· Type of Thermoforming Polycarbonate Machine

It is also another essential element to consider when it comes to thermoforming polycarbonate.

What happens is that there are quite a lot of machines that you use for undertaking this particular process.

In that regard, you, therefore, need to be careful when selecting one as a way of ensuring that you find one which suits your needs.

Thermoforming machine

Plastic thermoforming machine – Photo courtesy: StarPlas

For instance, you can choose a rotary, inline or shuttle.

Of course, the ultimate choice is dependent on various aspects such as speed of the process.

The bottom line, in this case, is that you need to know the right machine which fits the application you’re thermoforming.

· The Complexity of Part to be Formed

As you read out earlier in this article, the thermoforming process is ideal for creating complex molds.

So you also need to know the right procedure for forming such molds as a way of attaining desirable results.

Polycarbonate sheet

Polycarbonate

In most instances, the complexity of the part you want to form is an essential consideration to look into.

It helps you to determine the technique, process, temperature as well as the type of machine to use.

Sheet size

Again, you need to consider the size of the polycarbonate sheet which you want to take through the thermoforming process.

· Thermoforming System’s Process

Thermoforming has a process which you need to follow appropriately to get the best results.

In fact, it is a step by step procedure that you need to execute appropriately.

By the way, we will discuss this procedure in this article later on so you shouldn’t worry about it.

Plastic forming process

Plastic forming process

Now, the most important thing, in this case, is understanding that the system’s process is what enables you to yield desirable results.

And for that matter, there is dire need of ensuring that you understand the procedure accordingly.

· Operator’s Savvy

It is also a necessary element which you have to consider in the thermoforming process.

Remember you’re using different types of machines and techniques to create various types of materials.

So it is inevitable that you need to know how to operate the machines as well as ways of integrating the numerous parameters.

By the way, an operator also plays a fundamental role in the entire thermoforming polycarbonate role.

Therefore, you need to ensure that have the relevant knowledge, creativity as well as the ability to incorporate various aspects during the process seamlessly.

Polycarbonate Thermoforming Techniques

As I did mention earlier in this guide, the specific technique which you use in the thermoforming process plays an integral role in determining the outcome.

In other words, you need to identify the actual method for thermoforming your polycarbonate sheet which suits your needs.

Nonetheless, it is also ideal to know that the various techniques vary depending on different elements.

So let’s look at them briefly to understand what they entail;

Vacuum Thermoforming Polycarbonate

This refers to a thermoforming process which involves forming thermoplastic sheets into three-dimensional shapes.

Vacuum thermoforming

Vacuum thermoforming – Photo courtesy: TECHMINY

This process also involves the application of heat and pressure hence making it easy for the plastic material to form the ideal shape.

In simple words, vacuum thermoforming is a process which involves all polycarbonate sheet forming techniques including drape forming.

What normally happens during vacuum thermoforming processes is that plastic material heats until it becomes pliant.

After it becomes malleable, you then place it over a mold and then drawn into a vacuum until it attains the desired shape.

Pressure Thermoforming Polycarbonate

This technique is more or less similar to vacuum thermoforming.

The only major difference is that in this case, there is the addition of pressure which is what helps to push the sheet into the shape of the mold.

Pressure thermoforming

Pressure thermoforming – Photo courtesy: Visual Pak Companies

It is an essential technique especially for parts which require aesthetic and styling qualities.

The reason for this is that in many instances, pressure helps in forming ideal detail.

Therefore, it allows for easy formation of undercuts, textured surfaces as well as sharp corners.

Ordinarily, such elements are often a little bit difficult to create with vacuum thermoforming technique.

Drape Forming Polycarbonate

In this particular thermoforming polycarbonate, a plastic sheet is heated and then stretched down over a mold.

Drape forming

Drape thermoforming

So what happens next, of course, depending on the shape of the mold is that gravity pulls the material to the mold.

From here, a vacuum is applied to draw the sheet to the mold which adds more detail to the interior part.

Twin Sheet Forming Polycarbonate

This refers to the process of vacuum and pressure forming of two sheets of polycarbonate simultaneously.

So it happens that you have to use a separate mold on top and bottom platens.

After the plastic sheet is molded, it stays in the molds then the two molds are brought together of course under high pressure.

After that, the two different sheets are now welded wherever the mold edicts a weld.

Now, these are the major thermoforming techniques that you ought to know.

Indeed, there are other means of this process but in most instances, you’ll these mentioned above as common in many processes.

And talking of processes, let’s now look at the key thermoforming polycarbonate steps that you need to know;

Thermoforming Polycarbonate Process

So one of the most fundamental aspects when it comes to thermoforming polycarbonate is understanding the process.

Normally, as I did mention earlier on, you need to be specific when it comes to the application of the material you’re thermoforming.

Also, you need to ensure that you have the right machinery and knowledge to make it easy for you to accomplish the process accordingly.

Of course, the procedures may vary depending on a number of elements.

Nonetheless, I want us to look into the core stages of thermoforming polycarbonate.

Thermoforming process

Thermoforming process

Step 1: Pre Drying Polycarbonate

The truth is that before you even begin the actual thermoforming process, you have to pre-dry the polycarbonate sheet.

In most instances, the preferable pre-drying temperature should always be 125° C.

This is essential because it absorbs moisture at a very high rate.

So this is the thing, trapped moisture often tends to form vapor above 250F hence making the vapor expansion to create bubbles in the sheet.

Therefore, you need to place the polycarbonate sheet in a dehumidifying air circulating oven.

And while at it you need to ensure that separate the sheets at approximately 1-inch between them.

While pre-drying the sheet in the oven, you should also ensure that you control the temperature until you finish the process.

The duration for pre-drying the sheet depends on the amount of humidity that it has absorbed as well as its thickness.

In general, though you need to ensure that you undertake all the ideal interventions to take the least time possible in pre-drying the sheet.

On the same note, you should also be aware of the fact that polycarbonate sheet often starts absorbing you immediately remove it from the pre-drying oven.

Again, the rate at which it absorbs this moisture also depends on the ambient dew point.

Therefore, ensure that you transfer the sheet directly to the forming machine as fast as possible.

Step 2: Heating Polycarbonate

Now, this is also another crucial step that you must look into keenly.

Generally, it is possible or rather appropriate to heat a pre-dried polycarbonate material up to a temperature of between 180°C to 190°C.

The reason, in this case, is that at this range of temperature allows the sheet to form into complex shapes with tight curves as well as deep draw.

Heating should be uniform in the entire area of the sheet with an air circulating oven preferably with accurate temperature control.

And in most cases, vertical hanging is always the ideal method for suspending the clamps to suspend the sheets along their dimension.

Alternatively, you can as well consider using particular infra-red heaters particularly those with quartz or ceramic elements.

What you, however, need to know is that such devices normally tend to heat the surface of the sheet rather fast.

So for that reason, you need to make sure that heaters and heated platens are designed to provide homogenous heating under regulated conditions.

The essence, in this case, is to prevent overheating and degradation of the polycarbonate sheet.

Step 3: Shape Polycarbonate

At this stage, it means that you’ve already withdrawn the all the heaters hence making it possible to pre-blow the sheet to the necessary height.

What often happens is that the mold tends to move up and then the vacuum is applied to ensure that it firmly form the sheet over the mold.

In other words, a heated polycarbonate will always exhibit more shrinkage along the direction of extrusion and little across the direction of extrusion.

Therefore, it becomes easy to attain the appropriate shape that fits your particular application.

Step 4: Cool Polycarbonate

At this stage, it means that you’re done with all the crucial stages and possibly attained the necessary part which you need.

So all you need to do in this case is simply ensuring that you complete the process seamlessly.

Therefore, after thermoforming, you can now lift the polycarbonate sheet off the mold at a temperature of about 90°C.

As an ideal way of preventing warping, you can choose to place the moldings in cooling jigs if need be until when you attain the room temperature.

So these four steps are majorly what you undertake whenever you’re thermoforming a polycarbonate sheet.

Ideally, you need to get every step correct if at all you want to attain the best results possible.

Main Applications of Thermoforming Polycarbonate

Generally speaking, the truth chances are high you’re using, or you should be using thermoforming polycarbonate especially in the manufacturing industry.

Thermoforming has a wide range of applications in a number of manufacturing sectors in one way or the other.

In this section, I want us to briefly look at some of the common applications of thermoforming polycarbonate.

And some of them include the following;

Automotive manufacturing industry

It largely uses thermoforming in various parts of the vehicles.

As arguably the strongest material, polycarbonate becomes a vital material in making different parts of the vehicles, especially during assembling.

Polycarbonate headlights

Polycarbonate headlights

For instance, some of the common parts that use thermoforming materials include dashboards, engine bay panels, bumpers, air ducts interior door panels, etc.

In general, thermoforming is widely used in manufacturing various parts to fix in a motor vehicle.

Aerospace and Aviation

If you were never ware, let me tell you that the aerospace and aviation industry apparently dominates the use of thermoforming polycarbonate.

Several components of air crafts and other elements revolving around the aviation industry are formed from this material.

Fighter ject polycarbonate canopy

Fighter jet polycarbonate canopy

For instance, the window shades of an aircraft are purely from polycarbonate materials.

Also, the seating parts, ducting, interior paneling, gallery components, and overhead luggage bins among others are made from polycarbonate.

Business and Office Machines

Most of the equipment that you see and use in various offices and other business premises are made of thermoforming polycarbonate materials.

Printer enclosures, computer enclosures, fax machine enclosures, bezels, and other office furniture are polycarbonate materials.

Polycarbonate chair

Polycarbonate chair

So you’ll realize that the application of this material covers quite a significant part of office equipment.

Medical Industry

Incidentally, thermoforming polycarbonate materials are also common in manufacturing various medical equipment.

In fact, nowadays, we have all types of medical machinery, some as huge to cover an entire room all manufactured from polycarbonate.

For example, imaging enclosures such as X-ray, MRI and CT scan as well as other medical electronics housing use thermoforming polycarbonate.

CT Scan

CT Scan

Other applications in the medical field where this material is applicable include sterile packaging, hospital bed equipment, and bins and trays.

Health and Recreational Equipment

In most cases, when you get to the gym, you’ll notice that most of the components have particular plastic materials.

It never matters whether it’s a treadmill or any other exercising equipment.

Most of them are made using thermoforming polycarbonate materials.

And it is that reason why most of this equipment is generally durable because of the strength of the material and quality workmanship.

Building and Construction

Also, a number of building and construction materials are from thermoforming polycarbonate.

If you look keenly at any particular construction site, you’ll notice that quite a lot of the equipment there have some polycarbonate traces.

For example, tool cases, skylights, machinery covers, and equipment enclosures are all made of polycarbonate.

Polycarbonate skylight

Polycarbonate skylight

These are some of the common applications of thermoforming polycarbonate.

The fact nevertheless is that in an ideal world, thermoforming polycarbonate is used in many applications than you can ever imagine.

And to be honest, I tend to believe that you can rarely go a day without coming across a thermoforming polycarbonate component.

Key Considerations when Buying Polycarbonate Thermoforming Machine

One thing that you need to know in from this guide is that there are different thermoforming machines in the market.

Of course, each machine is specifically tailored to manufacture different types of sheets for particular applications.

Polycarbonate thermoforming machine

Polycarbonate thermoforming machine

That notwithstanding, you also need to ensure that you look into other several factors as a way of attaining best results.

For that reason, let’s quickly run through some of the major considerations that should apparently guide your purchase decision;

· Usability

You obviously need to ensure that the particular polycarbonate thermoforming machine you’re buying is user-friendly.

And that’s why I stated earlier on that we have different machines tailored for specific applications.

So, there is a need for evaluating and determining whether or not you can comfortably use it or perhaps you’ll require further training.

· Control units

Well, with the advanced technology, it would be absurd even to find a thermoforming polycarbonate which does not integrate technology.

Control units vary and are helpful in various instances especially when it comes to determining different parameters during the thermoforming process.

So you need to check that the machine has all the primary and secondary control units since these are what enhance the efficiency of the operation.

· Size

The size of the machine is also a fundamental consideration to factor in when looking for this machine.

You see, these instruments come in different sizes to suit a wide range of applications.

So it is vital to choose the size that suits your particular needs and wouldn’t essentially cause unnecessary inconveniences.

· Safety features

Incidentally, you must always make sure that the particular polycarbonate thermoforming machine you’re seeking has all necessary safety features.

Remember the entire thermoforming process can be hazardous.

Therefore, you need to get a unit which you easily use to mitigate any safety risk should it arise.

Ideally, all safety control features of the machine should also be located within a point that you can access without difficulty.

And that’s the reason why you need to be savvy when operating this type of machine since it helps in preventing unnecessary safety risks.

· Cost

Well, this is always somewhat a sensitive issue when it comes to shopping for this type of machine or any other item for that matter.

The cost for such machines, of course, do vary depending on several factors.

However, it is always good to window shop in various outlets both online and offline since it is a sure way of obtaining betters deals.

Also, the amount you pay for buying any machine should be worth it considering the quality and other important aspects of the machine.

· Warranty

And something related to the price that you also need to factor in when buying this machine is the warranty policy of the manufacturer.

You need to read all those warranty policy details in black and white and understand the implications.

Nonetheless, you can choose to inquire more about the warranty conditions to enable you to make an informed buying decision.

FAQs in Polycarbonate Thermoforming

Well, polycarbonate thermoforming has been existing for several years now.

The truth, however, is that it is becoming more popular nowadays.

Therefore, it would be important to have an idea of what some of the commonly asked questions revolve around.

Hockey visor

Hockey visor

And some of them include the following;

1) What types of plastic can you thermoform effectively?

They are quite a number, and some of them include, ABS, HDPE, HMWPE, PVC, Acrylic, and PETG among others.

2) What makes thermoforming different from injection molding?

Thermoforming requires less tooling hence inexpensive, and it is also easy to redesign and update it compared to injection molding.

3) Which specific polycarbonate thermoforming technique is ideal?

It all depends on your particular needs hence you can’t necessarily pinpoint a specific technique.

4) How do you determine an ideal plastic for your application?

It is relatively difficult because different plastic materials have different physical characteristics.

So you need to consider an expert in this field to help you in making the right choice.

5) What are the types of available thermoforming molds?

Some of the commonly used include cast aluminum, machined aluminum, and composite molds.

Conclusion

Well, as you can see, polycarbonate thermoforming is a process that entails quite a lot of aspects.

Luckily in this guide, I have provided you with all the fundamental basics that may give you an idea of what it takes.

Hopefully, you can now tell what a thermoforming polycarbonate sheet is, and its pros and cons.

Also, you now know the vital elements to consider in thermoforming polycarbonate, the techniques, process, and main applications.

Besides, you also can also tell the key considerations when buying a machine for polycarbonate thermoforming and some of the commonly asked questions.

However, you can still feel free to leave your comment, suggestion or concern and we will surely get back to you accordingly.

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