Jan. 17, 2019
Much like 3D printing, getting started with thermoforming has its own nuances, tricks, and workflow that takes some getting used to. Even across the various forms of 3D printing, the workflow is different; some can handle complex overhangs, geometry, and things like internal cavities, but models for thermoforming need to be a lot simpler than that. Thanks to this article, you will have a much better understanding of how thermoforming works, what you need to consider, and some ideas of how to utilize it best.
Thermoforming is different from other types of molds in that you aren’t trying to create a 1:1 replication of an object, just a close approximation. A thermoformer will clamp onto a sheet of plastic and heat it until malleable and it starts to droop. At that point, the plastic and clamping mechanism will be lowered onto a forming buck, or master, and suction is applied to pull out the air trapped underneath the plastic, just like pulling the air out of a plastic bag using your mouth. Some thermoformers used large vacuum tanks that pull all the air at once, while home and consumer thermoformers use household vacuums due to their ease of use and having plenty of suction for small scale parts.
The construction of the part that the forming buck rests on, or platen, can vary. Some look like pegboard with a grid of holes spread all across the platen, while others utilize a mesh placed over the top of the platen with one hole in the center of it.
Unlike other forms of moldmaking like silicone molds, you are limited in the types of geometry that are able to be reproduced by a thermoformer. There’s three rules to remember:
You may not realize it, but many products all around you are thermoformed. From things like packaging to sleds to costumes, it’s a really cheap and effective way to make a product and depending on your intent, you can use the thermoformed plastic as a mold or as the usable part.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, thermoforming can get very addicting; you’ll be scrambling to find the next thing you can stretch plastic over and create something totally new. Whether it’s some soap molds, packaging for your newest project and product, or part of your latest cosplay or prop, a thermoformer is a great addition to your toolset.
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