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Raising the bar for thermoformed parts

November 1, 2007

4 Min Read
Raising the bar for thermoformed parts

Spencer Industries Inc.’s “RTV (Recreational Towed Vehicle) Shelter Trailer” won in the twin-sheet category, and also won the People’s Choice Award.

Specialty Manufacturing Inc.’s “Podiatry Chair” won a gold award in the “Heavy Gauge/Cut Sheet Pressure Forming” category.

Watch out, injection molding: The SPE thermoforming conference in September punctuated the continuing transition of thermoforming from a ‘black art’ to a scientifically measurable process.

Evidence of the transition was crystal clear at the SPE event, where this year’s parts competition was open to OEMs and firms outside the SPE thermoforming division membership. Haydn Forward, president of Specialty Manufacturing Co. (San Diego, CA) and chairman of this year’s competition, was exceptionally pleased with the response. “We had a record number of entrants and a broad spectrum of applications. It truly shows that the industry has adapted the form of the future,” he said.

Jack Schrieffer, also of Specialty Manufacturing, has entered parts in the SPE thermoforming competition since 1982, and noted that some of this year’s entries were for applications inconceivable for thermoforming just a few years ago. “We’re doing what the gas-assist process (in injection molding) would have done previously, especially for lower volumes,” Schrieffer stated, pointing to Specialty Manufacturing’s entry of a podiatry chair enclosure, which took the top award in the Heavy Gauge category. “It looks like a gas-assist part except there’s no sprue.”

Many of the winning parts had undercuts, including the podiatry chair, which has a double step undercut on both the enclosure base and back.

Larger parts tackle thermoset territory

Also recognized in the competition were some large parts that clearly displace what typically would be thermoset composite or even aluminum applications. For instance, top prize in the vacuum forming category went to Penda Corp. (Portage, WI) for its tonneau cover for light trucks. These replace fiberglass covers with a paint-free thermoplastic solution that matches a truck’s color while eliminating the cracking/chipping issues that are associated with conventional fiberglass finishes.

Dow Chemical supplied material for the tonneau cover, with Ben Matuska, market manager, consumer durables, sheet and appliance, noting there is renewed interest at Dow in supplying processors of thermoforming sheet. “We’re going to the OEMs with something unique to help drive the transformation from metal and fiberglass,” he said. Dow’s Inspire EFP thermoplastic olefins, introduced at the NPE show in June 2006, are specifically for cut sheet thermoforming, with the melt strength needed to limit sag, even on very large sheet. “The market is huge for thermoformed TPO applications, particularly in recreational vehicles, marine applications, and heavy commercial trucks,” Matuska added.

Another submission that awed the crowd was the camping trailer and tent/shelter vehicle, entered by CAMP Technologies LLC (Orangeburg, NY), which captured the People’s Choice Award. The exterior of the camper is constructed of steel gull wing doors covered with twin sheet thermoformed plastic sheet as the outer shell.

Automation accelerated

Ben Hentig, plant manager for Mattson Tool & Die Corp. (Belmont, MI), said that the thermoforming industry is “automating more and more” to keep pace with customer demands and reduce costs to manufacture, and his thoughts were echoed by thermoforming consultant Jay Waddell of Plastic Concepts & Innovations LLC (Mt. Pleasant, SC), who said that “machinery manufacturers have stepped up to the plate” to meet customer demands. Sven Englemann of Gerhard Schubert GmbH (Crailsheim, Germany), with subsidiary in Dallas, TX, said his firm has developed a range of pick-and-place robots for roll-fed thermoforming lines.

“Anything you can grab with your hand, we can grab with a robot,” said Englemann, who a few years ago joined Schubert from thermoforming machinery manufacturer Illig to help his current employer increase its presence in the thermoforming market. “You need automation for high efficiencies, or when producing in high-labor-cost countries, or when hygiene is of prime importance.”

Additionally, said Waddell, customers are asking thermoformers to offer turnkey solutions and total project management. “We’re seeing a more sophisticated customer base looking at the technology of thermoforming in a different light,” said Waddell. “The result is more sophisticated tooling and a higher degree of automation.”

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