Vacuum Forming

Vacuum Forming Overview

Airforme - Your Specialists in Vacuum Forming

Since being established in 1993 AIRFORME has been at the forefront of vacuum forming industry standards. Primarily involved in the production of vacuum formed moulds for the wetcast concrete industry, our expertise and knowledge soon spread to all areas of vacuum forming.
We have vast experience in manufacturing vacuum formed components for the Aviation, Automotive, Electrical, Catering, Marine, Rail, Military, Medical, Retail, Food & Drink, point of display and Transportation Industries.
We have worked with some of the biggest names within these industries helping us to gain a reputation for quality and service within the vacuum forming industry.
We have a design team on hand to help guide you through the vacuum forming process, they are here to assist you with all your vacuum forming requirements – they will advise you on the most effective way to produce your vacuum formed part. Together we can discuss which material suits your particular project the best and in this way we are able to understand exactly what it is you require.
We manufacture all our vacuum forming tools in-house, this reduces the time it takes to make any modifications required and also reduces third party involvement keeping your designs completely confidential.
We offer a complete one stop solution – we are able to take a new vacuum formed product from design to prototype, then into production with efficiency without compromising quality.
We have a design team on hand to help guide you through the vacuum forming process, they are here to assist you with all your vacuum forming requirements – they will advise you on the most effective way to produce your vacuum formed part. Together we can discuss which material suits your particular project the best and in this way we are able to understand exactly what it is you require.
We manufacture all our vacuum forming tools in-house, this reduces the time it takes to make any modifications required and also reduces third party involvement keeping your designs completely confidential.
We offer a complete one stop solution – we are able to take a new vacuum formed product from design to prototype, then into production with efficiency without compromising quality.

The History of Vacuum Forming

Vacuum forming is one of the oldest methods of moulding plastic, with a history which can be traced back for more than a hundred years . Whilst there was a limited usage until the middle of the twentieth century, the introduction of more readily available plastics in the mid 1950s saw a rapid increase in the popularity of the process. Early product ranges consisted of the relatively simple items such as containers and lids, together with various food packaging products.
The development of many different plastic formats together with the technology advances in the industry have ensured that vacuum forming became one of the most efficient and cost effective processes of satisfying the explosion in demand for plastic products, being a relatively simple process involving vacuum, heat and air. The method employed is to use vacuum to evenly apply pressure over the material whilst heating sufficiently to allow it to be pulled down over the master tool. Once this is achieved the material is cooled rapidly using large fans until sufficiently cool to allow the material to be removed from the tool whilst retaining the shape and surface texture.
These technical advances have during the past 50/60 years have seen plastic evolve into one of the most universally utilised materials in modern manufacturing, the results are common place in our every day life, with plastic components being used in a range of products from simple disposable containers to the advances in space exploration.

What is Vacuum Forming and how does it work?

Vacuum forming allows you to mould a plastic sheet into virtually any shape you can imagine.

Step 1

The vacuum forming process starts with a sheet of plastic which is clamped into position.

Step 2

The sheet is then heated by two heaters one above the sheet and one below the sheet.
This method is called sandwich heating and gives a more consistent temperature throughout the sheet avoiding any cold areas which in turn gives you a sharper and more defined vacuum form.

Step 3

Once the sheet is heated to the correct temperature it will become pliable, the vacuum forming tool is raised and a vacuum is applied which pulls the now malleable plastic sheet down onto the vacuum forming tool

Step 4

The vacuum is kept on while the plastic is cooled using large fans and water spray so that it retains the shape off the vacuum forming tool.

Step 5

Once the plastic is cooled the vacuum is released and the plastic part removed by gently applying a short blast of air between the vacuum forming tool and the plastic component.
The vacuum form is now ready for finishing either by hand or CNC machine.

Vacuum Forming FAQ's

What is vacuum forming?
Vacuum forming is a process used to produce virtually any shape in plastic using heat, vacuum and air.
How does vacuum forming work?
Tooling that is the same as the inside face of the part required is fixed in the vacuum forming machine on a vertical moving table, then a sheet of plastic is clamped into position above the vacuum forming tool, two heaters one above the sheet and one below them sandwich the sheet heating it gently. When the sheet is at the required temperature the heaters are moved back the table is raised and vacuum is applied, once the plastic has been pulled down sufficiently the plastic is cooled using water spray and air, once cooled the tool is lowered, the plastic component is unclamped and now ready for finishing.
What shapes can be vacuum formed?
There are very few limitations when vacuum forming, as a guide it is best not have too many undercuts and where possible have a shallow taper on vertical faces.
Is vacuum forming cost effective?
Vacuum forming is regarded as the most cost effective way of producing plastic parts especially for low to medium production runs due to the relatively low cost of the tooling compared to other methods.
What thickness can I vacuum form?
Typically 1-6mm is sufficient depending on the application.
Does the material get thinner during vacuum forming?
Yes thinning does occur but this can be greatly reduced with subtle design changes and various vacuum forming techniques.
What kind of surface finish can I expect?
Generally you can achieve the finish required, certain aspects have to be taken into consideration these are thickness and finish of the material i.e. gloss, matt, smooth or textured. The design and construction of the tooling are equally as important. This is something our in-house design team can help you with.
Do I need a professional drawing of my product?
No a professional drawing is not required as we can make your product from a sketch or a sample.
Can deep parts be formed?
Deep parts can be formed providing the vertical face has a taper, to ensure the material does not thin too much a plug may be used to help push the material onto the tool.
Is tooling expensive?
Vacuum forming tooling is considered to be inexpensive compared to most other forms of plastic part manufacturing. Tooling can be made from wood for 1st off and prototype parts.
What quantities can be produced?
Wooden tooling is used for the prototyping, resin tooling will produce thousands in small batches, aluminium tooling will produce thousands at a time and out last the life of the product.
What plastic materials can be formed?
There are a large number of plastics that can be vacuum formed the most commonly used are ABS, HIPS, HDPE, PVC, ACRYLIC, Kydex, and POLYCARBONATE.
What is the maximum size for vacuum forming?
The maximum size for our machines is 2000mm x 1000mm and within this size single formings or multiple configurations can be achieved.
What tolerances can be achieved?
With the use of skilled pattern makers and cnc machines for the more complex tooling, tolerances between 0.10 and 0.25mm can be expected.

Vacuum Forming FAQ's

The vacuum forming industry revolves around plastic and it is therefore essential that as a company Airforme keeps up with all the latest developments regarding plastic production and recycling, this enables us to maintain our high level of service, keeping our customers informed of the latest materials as and when they become available.
As we all know the effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent and coupled with the growing shortage of raw materials it is now more important than ever to recycle waste material. Airforme consumes in excess of 80 tonnes of plastic per annum and every effort is made to encourage the recycling of any wastage that occurs during the manufacturing process, and as a result of our strict “no land fill” policy over 95% of our waste plastic material is recycled.
Where possible we source our materials from local suppliers, and on occasions when we cannot obtain the required materials and have to import plastics we try to predict future requirements thus reducing our carbon foot print. The plastic is delivered into us wrapped and sealed in a plastic film this is then recycled in the form of packaging for our moulds.
The plastic recycling process begins with us, after we have produced and trimmed our vacuum formings there will always be a small amount of waste material which is sorted into specific plastic types and placed in reusable containers ready for collection. Once the plastic reaches the recycling plant it is washed and dried to remove any contaminations such as protective films, labels and general dirt thus ensuring the regrind is of a high standard. The clean plastic is reduced in size by shredding then placed in a granulator ready for blending.
The blending process assembles multiple small batches of the same type of plastic to which additives and enhancing agents are introduced to suit the formula required for the regrind type being produced by the recycling plant. The plastic material is now ready to be turned back into sheet plastic.