Stratasys was in attendance at the recent Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Conference in Atlanta. Our engineers and modeling experts came armed with information to shed light on how 3D printing can decrease lead times, save tooling costs and enhance the traditional thermoforming process.
Just a quick refresher: thermoforming is a process for molding or shaping plastics that begins with heated plastic. At elevated temperatures, the plastic is more pliable and is pressed into or over a mold that changes its shape.
3D printing can expedite the thermoforming process by eliminating the need for tooling. Rather than the days or weeks required to make a mold through traditional subtractive manufacturing, designers or engineers are able to 3D print a mold that is ready for use in a matter of hours and often at a fraction of the price.
This thermoforming conference was focused on sheet and roll feed thermoforming, which traditionally uses subtractive manufacturing methods. Many manufacturers who stopped by the Stratasys booth were very interested in how additive manufacturing could be applied to their current business practices. It was also great to hear that a number of companies at the convention already owned Stratasys 3D printers.
Hot topics of discussion at the booth concerned the thickest sheet of plastic that can be used to form around a 3D printed mold, how long 3D printed parts could be used before failure (in the thermoforming process), and what limitations might exist by using these processes. Many of the manufacturers in attendance have low volume thermoforming runs, and are therefore interested in using 3D printing technology. By using 3D printed parts as a base for the thermoforming machine, companies are able to start production faster, save money with a thermoforming mold (via a 3D printed part), and can try multiple designs before ramping up to production. Thermoforming companies are beginning to see how 3D printing can greatly enhance and add value to their current business processes by saving time, money, and further perfecting designs.
Stratasys FDM Applications Supervisor Rob Winker did a great job comparing the processes of actually machining a part (i.e., creating 2D drawings of the part, working with the CNC shop to make sure the 2D drawings will actually work, setting up the shop, actually making the part, and finally doing quality control on the part) versus the 3D printed equivalent. With 3D printing, one only needs to create a 3D file, process it in Stratasys software, and let the machine do the heavy lifting of actually manifesting a physical part. Mr. Winker also hosted a technical session explaining the details of how additive manufacturing can be applied to thermoforming, and how it saves time and money over traditional pattern creation methods.
We had a terrific time in Atlanta! Where will 3D printing save time and money for traditional manufacturers next?