Thermoformed plastic manufacturing is a major business in North America, grossing over 10 billion dollars in the US market. This efficient way to produce product packaging gives way to quick and simple manufacturing, while still managing to stay green to keep the environment safe.
You may not take much notice of the packaging that holds the products you use every day, but there is actually a lot of thought and consideration that goes into the design and manufacturing of product packaging. One of the simplest processes for packaging production is thermoforming, a manufacturing process where plastic sheets are heated to form shapes from molds. Thermoforming isn’t strictly restricted to packaging — many of the products in your home are produced with this technique; these objects include disposable cups, containers, vehicle door panels, and plastic pallets.
How Thermoforming Works
There are two general thermoforming process categories, characterized by thin gauge and heavy gauge. In thin gauge thermoforming, a plastic sheet is fed into a set of indexing chains that incorporate pins or spikes that pierce the sheet and transport it through an oven for heating to warm it up to forming temperature. The heated sheet is then moved to a form station where a mold and pressure-box close on the sheet, forming the shape of the plastic with pressurized air from a vacuum. Molds can be made from wood, cast aluminum, machined aluminum, or composites usually made from filled resins. Product packaging is easily mass-produced this way, with packaging types like clamshell containers, cosmetics container packaging, and medical packaging all created in a snap with little physical labor needed.
Is Thermoformed Plastic Safe?
Most thermoform packaging companies recycle scrap and waste plastic for re-use in their own facilities, and even offer alternatives to plastic like paper pulp thermoforming, and molded fiber packaging. Common thermoform recycling is compresses the scrap plastic in a baling machine or granulator to produce a ground flake that can then be used to create new sheets. Some thermoforming plastic manufacturers take corporate initiatives toward green production processes to protect the environment. Such programs like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Green Tier work to reduce environmental footprints made by plastic manufacturers.
The Thermoformed Plastics Industry
The North American market for thermoformed plastic is higher than 10 billion dollars, with a majority of that production focused on thin gauge products. In 2003, there were about 150 thin gauge thermoformers in the States, and another 250 heavy gauge formers. With nearly a dozen thin-gauge formers having annual sales of at least USD100 million, you can imagine how large and impactful the industry for product packaging and plastic manufacturing has become.