Thermoforming | Definition, Working Principles and Use

Last Updated on February 27, 2024 by assistant

What is thermoforming?

Thermoforming is a plastic manufacturing process that involves heating a thermoplastic sheet to its softening point and stretching it over a mold to create a desired shape. This can be achieved through vacuum forming, pressure forming, or mechanical forming. After the sheet cools and solidifies, it is trimmed to its final shape. Thermoforming offers versatility, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to produce both thin and thick-gauge products. The two main processes in thermoforming are vacuum forming and pressure forming, each with its unique properties. Overall, thermoforming is a versatile and widely used technique for manufacturing plastic products with a range of applications.

What is the history of thermoforming?

Thermoforming has a rich history that dates back several centuries. The origins of thermoforming can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where materials like horn and clay were heated and shaped to create various objects. However, the modern development of thermoforming as an industrial process began in the mid-20th century. In the 1930s, the first vacuum forming machine was invented, which allowed for the mass production of molded plastic parts. Over the years, advancements in technology and materials have led to the refinement of thermoforming techniques, making it a widely used method for manufacturing products such as packaging, automotive components, and consumer goods. The process involves heating a plastic sheet until it becomes pliable, then using molds or vacuum pressure to shape it into the desired form. Thermoforming has become an integral part of many industries, offering cost-effective and versatile solutions for creating custom-designed plastic products.

How does thermoforming work?

Here is a video process on how thermoforming works:

What are the three typical heating methods used in thermoforming?

The three typical heating methods used in thermoforming are convection heating, radiant heating, and direct contact heating. Convection heating involves circulating hot air around the thermoplastic sheet to raise its temperature. Radiant heating utilizes infrared radiation to heat the sheet directly. Direct contact heating involves bringing the sheet into direct contact with a heated surface, such as hot plates or heated platens, to transfer heat and soften the material. These heating methods are employed in thermoforming to reach the desired temperature for the sheet to become pliable and ready for shaping over or into a mold.

What is thermoforming used for?

Thermoforming is widely used in various industries for a range of applications. Here are some additional details about its uses:

1. Packaging

Thermoforming is widely employed in the packaging industry due to its versatility and cost-effectiveness. It is utilized for creating trays, clamshells, blister packs, and other packaging solutions for a wide range of products, including food, electronics, cosmetics, and medical supplies. Thermoformed packaging provides product protection, visibility, and customization options.

2. Automotive Industry

Thermoforming plays a crucial role in the automotive sector for manufacturing interior and exterior components. Interior parts like dashboards, door panels, and console elements can be efficiently produced through thermoforming. Exterior applications include body panels, spoilers, grilles, and wheel arch liners. Thermoformed parts offer weight reduction, design flexibility, and cost savings compared to traditional manufacturing methods.

3. Consumer Goods

Thermoforming is utilized in the production of various consumer goods, including appliance housings, electronic enclosures, point-of-purchase displays, and product casings. Thermoformed consumer goods offer durability, aesthetics, and the ability to incorporate branding elements.

4. Aerospace Industry

Thermoforming is employed in the aerospace sector for manufacturing lightweight components, such as interior panels, seat backs, and tray tables. Thermoformed parts contribute to reducing the overall weight of aircraft, leading to fuel efficiency and improved performance.

5. Healthcare Sector

Thermoforming is extensively used in the healthcare industry for producing medical device components, surgical trays, packaging for pharmaceutical products, and patient-care items. Thermoformed medical products offer sterilizability, hygiene, and precise customization to meet specific medical requirements.

6. Industrial Manufacturing

Thermoforming finds applications in various industrial sectors, including machinery, electronics, and construction. It is used for creating protective covers, equipment enclosures, housing for electrical components, and industrial trays.

Overall, thermoforming is a highly adaptable manufacturing process that offers cost-effectiveness, design flexibility, and the ability to produce complex shapes, making it a preferred choice for numerous industries.

What are the commonly used thermoforming materials?

Thermoforming can be performed using various thermoplastic materials, each with its unique properties. Some commonly used thermoforming materials include:

1. Polystyrene (PS): Polystyrene is a widely used material in thermoforming due to its affordability, clarity, and ease of processing. It is commonly used for packaging applications, disposable food containers, and consumer goods.

2. Polyethylene (PE): Polyethylene is a versatile material available in different forms, such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). It offers excellent impact resistance, moisture resistance, and chemical resistance. Polyethylene is used in packaging, automotive components, and various industrial applications.

3. Polypropylene (PP): Polypropylene is known for its high strength, chemical resistance, and heat resistance. It is commonly used in packaging, automotive parts, and consumer goods. Polypropylene can be processed using both thin and thick-gauge thermoforming techniques.

4. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): PVC is a durable and versatile material used in various applications, including packaging, automotive components, construction materials, and medical products. It offers good chemical resistance and weatherability.

5. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS): ABS is a rigid and impact-resistant material commonly used in automotive parts, electronic enclosures, and consumer goods. It provides a balance of strength, toughness, and surface finish.

6. Polycarbonate (PC): Polycarbonate is a transparent and strong material with high impact resistance. It finds applications in areas such as automotive lighting, medical equipment, and electronic components.

7. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): PET is a transparent and lightweight material known for its excellent clarity and barrier properties. It is commonly used for packaging applications, particularly in the food and beverage industry. PET is also widely used for producing blister packs and clamshells.

8. Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG): PETG is a modified form of PET that offers increased impact resistance and flexibility. It is commonly used in applications where durability and clarity are required, such as medical packaging, electronic enclosures, and point-of-purchase displays.

9. Polyvinylidene Chloride (PVDC): PVDC is a material known for its exceptional oxygen and moisture barrier properties. It is often used as a coating layer in thermoformed packaging to enhance the product’s shelf life and protect it from external factors.

10. Polylactic Acid (PLA): PLA is a biodegradable and renewable thermoplastic derived from plant-based sources, such as cornstarch or sugarcane. It is used in environmentally conscious applications, such as disposable packaging, food containers, and compostable products.

11. Polyamide (PA): Polyamide, commonly known as nylon, offers excellent strength, toughness, and chemical resistance. It is used in thermoforming applications that require high mechanical performance, such as automotive components, industrial parts, and electrical enclosures.

12. Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA): EVA is a flexible and resilient material that provides cushioning and shock absorption properties. It is commonly used in applications like footwear, protective padding, and medical products.

13. Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA): PMMA, also known as acrylic, is a transparent material that offers excellent optical clarity and weather resistance. It is often used for applications where aesthetics and visual appeal are important, such as signage, display cases, and lighting fixtures.

What are the common processes for thermoforming?

There are many types of thermoforming processes. In the table below, we compare different thermoforming processes based on cost-effectiveness, throughput, applications, and materials:

Thermoforming Process Comparison Table
Thermoforming ProcessCost-EffectivenessThroughputApplicationsMaterials
Vacuum FormingHighModeratePackaging, automotive components, consumer goodsPolystyrene (PS), Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), PVC, PET, PETG
Pressure FormingModerateHighAutomotive parts, aerospace components, industrial applicationsABS, Polycarbonate (PC), Polypropylene (PP), PVC
Mechanical FormingModerateHighAutomotive parts, heavy-gauge applications, industrial componentsABS, Polycarbonate (PC), Polypropylene (PP), PVC
Twin-Sheet FormingModerateModerateAutomotive components, industrial enclosures, medical equipmentABS, Polycarbonate (PC), Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP)
Plug-Assist FormingModerateHighThin-walled containers, consumer packaging, electronic enclosuresPS, PET, PVC, Polypropylene (PP), ABS
Drape FormingHighLowDisplay stands, signage, artistic and decorative itemsAcrylic (PMMA), PETG, PVC
Strip HeatingHighModerateAutomotive interior panels, aircraft components, appliance partsABS, Polycarbonate (PC), Polypropylene (PP), PVC

Please note that the cost-effectiveness and throughput can vary depending on factors such as the complexity of the part, material selection, tooling costs, and production volume. The applications and materials listed in the table are general examples and not an exhaustive list. The specific requirements and considerations for each project may lead to different choices of processes and materials.

What are the advantages of thermoforming?

Thermoforming offers several advantages that make it a preferred manufacturing process in various industries. Here are some key advantages:

1. Cost-Effectiveness: Thermoforming is a cost-effective manufacturing process, especially for large production runs. It requires relatively low initial tooling costs compared to other processes like injection molding. The simplicity of the equipment and reduced setup time contribute to overall cost savings.

2. Design Flexibility: Thermoforming allows for a high degree of design flexibility. It can produce complex shapes, intricate details, and varying wall thicknesses. The process accommodates deep draws, undercuts, and textured surfaces, enabling the creation of customized and visually appealing products.

3. Versatility with Materials: Thermoforming can work with a wide range of thermoplastic materials, including PS, PE, PP, PVC, ABS, PC, and more. This versatility allows manufacturers to select the most suitable material based on the desired properties of the final product, such as strength, clarity, chemical resistance, or impact resistance.

4. Rapid Turnaround: Thermoforming offers fast production cycles, allowing for quick turnaround times from design to finished product. The heating and cooling stages are relatively quick, enabling efficient production and meeting tight project timelines.

5. Scalability: Thermoforming is scalable to accommodate both small and large production runs. It is suitable for high-volume production due to its efficient cycle times, as well as for low-volume runs or prototyping, as tooling costs are generally lower compared to other processes.

6. Material Efficiency: Thermoforming minimizes material waste compared to other processes like subtractive manufacturing methods. The excess material from the trimmed edges can often be recycled, reducing material costs and environmental impact.

7. Surface Finish Options: Thermoforming allows for a range of surface finish options, including gloss, matte, textures, and patterns. This enhances the aesthetics of the final product and opens up creative possibilities for branding and visual appeal.

What are the disadvantages of thermoforming?

While thermoforming offers numerous advantages, there are also some disadvantages to consider. Here are a few:

1. Limited Material Selection: Although thermoforming works with a wide range of thermoplastic materials, it may have limitations compared to processes like injection molding. Some advanced engineering-grade plastics may not be suitable for thermoforming due to their high melting points or specific processing requirements.

2. Thickness Variation: Thermoforming can result in variations in wall thickness, especially in deep-drawn or complex parts. Achieving consistent wall thickness throughout the entire part can be challenging, which may impact the structural integrity and performance of the product.

3. Tooling Costs for Complex Designs: Tooling costs can increase significantly for complex thermoformed designs. As the complexity of the part increases, the tooling requirements become more intricate, leading to higher tooling costs. This can be a consideration for projects with unique or intricate designs.

4. Limited Part Size: Thermoforming is generally more suited for producing parts of moderate to large sizes. Very large or oversized parts may pose challenges due to the size limitations of thermoforming equipment. For such cases, alternative manufacturing processes might be more appropriate.

5. Limited Precision: Thermoforming may have limitations in achieving extremely tight tolerances and intricate features compared to processes like CNC machining or injection molding. The nature of the process, including material stretching and forming, can introduce slight variations in dimensions and features.

6. Surface Imperfections: Depending on the material and process, thermoformed parts may exhibit minor surface imperfections such as flow lines, webbing, or slight texture variations. These imperfections may be acceptable for some applications but may require additional finishing operations for others.

It’s important to note that many of these disadvantages can be mitigated or managed through process optimization, material selection, and careful design considerations. Thermoforming remains a highly versatile and cost-effective manufacturing process for a wide range of applications, but it’s essential to assess its limitations and choose the appropriate manufacturing method based on specific project requirements.

How big can vacuum thermoform parts be?

The size of vacuum thermoformed parts can vary depending on several factors, including the capabilities of the equipment and the specific requirements of the project. Generally, vacuum thermoforming is well-suited for producing parts in moderate to large sizes.

The maximum size of vacuum thermoformed parts can be influenced by the size of the thermoforming machine’s forming area and the depth-draw capability of the equipment. Thermoforming machines with larger forming areas can accommodate larger sheet sizes and produce larger parts. Deep-draw machines with the ability to stretch the material further can also allow for larger part dimensions.

Typically, vacuum thermoformed parts can range from small components, such as packaging trays or consumer goods, to larger items like automotive interior panels or industrial enclosures. However, there are practical limitations to consider. Very large or oversized parts may require specialized equipment or alternative manufacturing processes.

How long does thermoforming take?

The time required for thermoforming can vary depending on several factors, including the complexity of the part, the size of the part, the material being used, and the specific thermoforming process employed.

Generally, thermoforming offers relatively fast production cycles compared to other manufacturing processes. The heating and cooling stages are typically the most time-consuming steps. Heating the thermoplastic sheet to the appropriate temperature for forming can range from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, depending on the material and its thickness.

Once the sheet is heated, the forming process itself can be completed in a matter of seconds to a few minutes. The time required for forming depends on factors like the depth of the draw, the complexity of the shape, and the equipment used.

After forming, the cooling process is essential to solidify and stabilize the formed part. Cooling times can vary depending on the material, part thickness, and ambient conditions. It can range from a few seconds to several minutes.

Overall, thermoforming offers relatively rapid turnaround times compared to processes like injection molding, especially for low to medium-volume production. However, it’s important to note that the specific time required for thermoforming will depend on the factors mentioned earlier and may vary from project to project.

How large can you make thermoformed parts?

Our company’s large vacuum equipment plastic sheet heating vacuum forming plastic
Shell, the maximum molding range is
The thickness range is 1mm~8mm.

How much do custom thermoforming services cost?

The cost of custom thermoforming services can vary widely depending on several factors, including the complexity of the part, the size of the part, the material selection, the desired quantity, and the specific requirements of the project.

Thermoforming generally offers cost advantages compared to processes like injection molding, particularly for large production runs. The lower initial tooling costs and quicker setup times contribute to cost savings. However, it’s important to note that the cost-effectiveness of thermoforming can vary depending on the specific project requirements.

Some of the cost factors to consider in custom thermoforming services include:

1. Tooling Costs: Tooling costs can vary based on factors such as the complexity of the part, the number of cavities needed, and the type of tooling required (e.g., molds, dies). More complex designs often require more intricate tooling, which can increase costs.

2. Material Costs: The choice of thermoplastic material will influence the overall cost. Different materials have different price points, and some specialty materials may be more expensive than standard options. Material selection also depends on factors such as the desired properties of the final product, such as strength, clarity, or chemical resistance.

3. Part Complexity: The complexity of the part affects the manufacturing process and the time required for production. Parts with intricate designs, undercuts, or complex geometries may require additional steps or specialized equipment, which can impact the overall cost.

4. Quantity: The quantity of parts needed affects the cost per unit. Thermoforming is often cost-effective for high-volume production due to its efficient cycle times and low per-unit costs. However, for low-volume or prototyping runs, the cost per unit may be higher due to tooling costs and setup requirements.

5. Finishing and Secondary Operations: Additional finishing operations, such as trimming, drilling, or assembly, may be required depending on the project specifications. These operations can add to the overall cost.

If you need thermoforming services, please feel free to ask us. Ruitai is a professional thermoforming service provider. We can provide detailed quotes based on factors like tooling, material selection, part complexity, and desired quantity, allowing you to assess the cost-effectiveness of custom thermoforming services for your specific needs.

Are thermoforming and vacuum forming the same?

Thermoforming and vacuum forming are related processes but not exactly the same. Vacuum forming is a subset of thermoforming.

Thermoforming is a general term that encompasses various manufacturing processes used to shape thermoplastic sheets into specific forms. It involves heating a thermoplastic sheet to a pliable state and then using molds or tooling to shape the sheet into the desired form. Thermoforming processes include vacuum forming, pressure forming, twin-sheet forming, and more.

Vacuum forming is a specific type of thermoforming process. It involves using a vacuum to draw the heated thermoplastic sheet onto or into a mold. The vacuum helps create the desired shape by pulling the sheet tightly against the mold surface. Vacuum forming is commonly used for producing products with shallow to moderate depths, such as packaging trays, disposable containers, and automotive interior components.

While vacuum forming is a popular and widely used method within the broader category of thermoforming, it is important to note that thermoforming itself includes other processes beyond vacuum forming. These other processes, such as pressure forming or twin-sheet forming, involve additional techniques or equipment to achieve specific outcomes or produce different types of parts.

In summary, vacuum forming is a specific thermoforming process, and while they are related, thermoforming refers to a broader range of manufacturing processes used to shape thermoplastic sheets.


This article provides a rich introduction to the thermoforming process. Clearly explain what it is, its broad applications, and demonstrate its advantages and disadvantages. Let you learn about thermoforming technology from many aspects. If you need more information, our team is ready to help you.

Ruitai specializes in the precision manufacturing prototype parts and provides comprehensive services to meet various prototyping and production requirements. We are committed to providing tailor-made solutions and are happy to provide you with a free quote. Please feel free to contact us at your convenience.


Please note that the content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Ruitai Mould assumes no responsibility for the completeness, accuracy, or validity of the information provided, whether expressed or implied.