Several different types of thermoforming machines are in use today. These range from a desktop thermoformer with only a few parts to large industrial machines with many different (and complex) parts. A thermoformer can also be a manually-operated or automatic device. But despite these differences, the machine’s goal, which is the thermoforming of plastics into 3-dimensional products, remains. This section explains the different types of thermoformers.
Different Types of Thermoforming Machines
Thermoformers are generally single stage or multi-stage units. A single station thermoformer has everything contained in one unit, while a multi-station type has a heating unit that is separate from the forming and other stations. The thermoforming machines are further categorized based on the following criteria.
- Size– mini or tabletop thermoformer, large industrial thermoforming machine
- Operation Method- manual thermoforming machine, semiautomatic thermoforming machine, fully automatic thermoforming machine, rotary thermoforming machine
- In-feed mechanism- roll-fed thermoforming machine, sheet-fed thermoforming machine
- Forming method- vacuum thermoforming machine, pressure thermoforming machine, plug-assist thermoforming machine
This is a small thermoforming machine, also called a table or desktop thermoforming machine. It’s usually simple to use and composed of a single station for the thermoforming process. Most often, the tabletop thermoforming machine is used for research applications in a lab or for creating prototypes. It’s also a great option for hobbyists and artisans.
Industrial Thermoforming machine
An industrial thermoforming machine is a large unit used in industrial settings. Most are multi-station machines capable of a continuous production and automated processes. These types of thermoforming machines may also be placed in a production line to support other manufacturing process or include extruder upstream and packaging machinery downstream.
Manual Thermoforming Machine
A manual thermoforming machine is mostly a small-scale unit with only a few components or parts. It typically requires the operator to load and off-load it manually, and is often single station equipment. Most are used for applications where only a few thermoformed products are required at a time. An example of such equipment is a lab thermoformer used for research or a larger unit to produce low-volume packaging products.
Semi-Automatic Thermoforming Machine
This machine has some mechanisms working by themselves so it can continuously run without stopping for operator loading or unloading for example. It may use a sheet fed loading system or require manual stacking of finished products and other options. A manual thermoforming machine is also a low-cost option for startups as well as existing businesses.
Fully Automatic Thermoforming Machine
A fully automatic thermoforming machine is much more sophisticated than the other types and has very fast production rates. This type of machine also requires fewer interventions by the operator and can load, form, trim, and stack parts on its own. A modern, automatic thermoforming machine will usually include sensors to monitor operation and CNC routers as trimming equipment.
Roll Fed Thermoforming machine
In this machine, a roller pulls the plastic out from a coil and feeds it into the thermoformer. It’s also called in-line thermoforming machine when it connects to an extruder, and uses a continuous plastic sheet instead of cut pieces. The source of plastic is normally either a roll of preformed thermoplastic or direct from an extruder.
Generally, these types of thermoformers use sheets that are 0.125 inches or thinner and for thermoforming processes that do not need high tolerances. As a result, they’re most suited for manufacturing disposable cups, trays, clamshells, and other thin-walled thermoplastic products.
Sheet Fed Thermoforming Machine
The sheet fed thermoforming machine is also called a shuttle thermoformer or cut sheet thermoforming machine. Instead of a continuous sheet, it clamps and shuttles pre-cut plastic pieces into the heating station, usually one piece at a time. These thermoformers work well with a wide range of sheet thicknesses, including thick-gauge plastic pieces for heavy duty products.
One of the advantages of a sheet fed thermoforming machine is their ability to allow quick mold changes. Their versatility too, which allows them to be used for the thermoformig of different types of products such as packaging, car components, cases, and more.
Rotary Thermoforming Machine
In these types of types of thermoforming machines, plastic sheets are clamped in frames located on a rotating table. A rotary thermoforming machine is usually a 2-station, 3-station, or 4-station thermoformer with all produces happening simultaneously. 3-and 4-sation machine are the most common.
A rotary thermoformer is a fast operating and mostly used in applications where production cycles are critical. They can also use thick plastic and works well with all forming techniques including the mechanical type where two molds are used together to form a product.
Vacuum Thermoforming Machine
A vacuum thermoforming machine relies on vacuum (negative pressure) to draw heated thermoplastic over the mold. This happens through holes or slots in the mold, and with the help of a vacuum-creating system. The vacuum system typically consists of a vacuum pump, vacuum lines, vacuum gauge, and an on/off valve.
The types of thermoforming machines that use vacuum pressure are much more popular with applications that do not require finer details such as higher tolerances, textured surfaces, and several other product specifications. They are also more common with compact machines for low production needs since they do not come with many parts and are a simpler design.
Pressure Thermoforming Machine
The types of thermoforming machines are similar vacuum thermoformers, but with the addition of a system to introduce positive pressure to the top of the mold. The machine offers two main advantages. First, it allows for higher texture levels in the formed product, including branding. Pressure forming also allows for higher depth forming,
A pressure thermoforming machine mostly uses thick gauge plastic. That means the machine is suitable for permanent-application products that require rigidity and durability. Examples include automotive parts such as panels and seats, signage products, and more.
Plug Assist Thermoforming Machine
This is another name for a machine that uses a mechanical process to shape the plastic sheet. A plug assist (male mold) pushes the plastic against a second female mold, forcing it to take the shape of the mold. Most often, the machine works with the addition of vacuum pressure and is most suited for depth forming. A twin sheet thermoforming machine is also this type.
Plug assists are automated molds although manual types are also available. Automatic plugs use pneumatic actuators or they can be servo-motor operated. Servo driven plug assist offer more advantages. They allow multiple speed operation in both directions, unlike the one-speed operation of air drive plugs.
Different types of thermoforming machines use different tooling types and thermoforming processes. These differences make them to perform differently and suit the making of specific products better. That means a lot when it comes to selecting a machine for a particular project. Find out what a thermoformer is capable of producing in the coming part.