FDM Thermoform Tooling

A kitting tray 3D printed using thermoformed plastics.

There’s a good chance you interact with multiple thermoformed products on a daily basis, whether that be in your grocery store, your car, or probably even your fridge. But what does it mean if something is thermoformed? Thermoforming is a conventional plastics forming process where heat is used to bring a sheet of plastic to its sagging point, or when it becomes pliable. The heat source is removed and the plastic sheet is positioned onto a mold. A vacuum is then drawn through the mold and the sheet conforms to the surface of that mold. Thermoformed products are prevalent throughout manufacturing industries; including medical, outdoor/recreational equipment, automotive and aerospace. Typical products most commonly seen are trays, various housing components, wind deflectors, tubs, and most frequently — packaging.

Using conventional methods, creating the tools for thermoforming can be a long, grueling process. Often these tools, especially if outsourced can take anywhere from 6-14 weeks depending on tool complexity and CNC capacity. This timeline is unattractive when you only need tooling for a short production run or a prototype tool. Typically, short-run, prototype and bridge tooling are made of a lower-cost tooling board. These materials still need to be machined to shape, and can begin to degrade after a short number of cycles, leading thermoforming companies to look for alternative solutions.

Capable FDM thermoform tooling can be made in a matter of hours or days depending on the size of the tool, will be a fraction of the weight of a traditional steel or aluminum tool. The reduced weight can improve efficiencies through ease of set-up and changeover as well as other tool-handling operations. Since FDM parts are inherently porous, allowing air to be pulled directly through the tool, there’s no need to include vacuum channels. With a little bit of post processing and finishing, the tool can be made to more selectively pull vacuum allowing for more precise feature molding.

How can manufacturers benefit from FDM thermoform tooling? It can help you achieve increased operational efficiency, economical low-volume production, and life-cycle sustainability. It also allows for lower costs, reduced waste, and shorter lead times than traditional tooling.