Thin-gauge and heavy-gauge (thick) thermoforming
There are two general thermoforming process categories. Sheet thickness less than 1.5 mm (0.060 inches) is usually delivered to the thermoforming machine from rolls or from a sheet extruder. Thin-gauge roll-fed or inline extruded thermoforming applications are dominated by rigid or semi-rigid disposable packaging. Sheet thicknesses greater than 3 mm (0.120 inches) are usually delivered to the forming machine by hand or an auto-feed method already cut to final dimensions. Heavy, or thick-gauge, cut sheet thermoforming applications are primarily used as permanent structural components. There is a small but growing medium-gauge market that forms sheet 1.5 mm to 3 mm in thickness.
Heavy-gauge forming utilizes the same basic process as continuous thin-gauge sheet forming, typically draping the heated plastic sheet over a mold. Many heavy-gauge forming applications use vacuum only in the form process, although some use two halves of mating form tooling and include air pressure to help form. Aircraft windscreens and machine gun turret windows spurred the advance of heavy-gauge forming technology during World War II. Heavy-gauge parts are used as cosmetic surfaces on permanent structures such as kiosks, automobiles, trucks, medical equipment, material handling equipment, refrigerators, spas, and shower enclosures, and electrical and electronic equipment. Unlike most thin-gauge thermoformed parts, heavy-gauge parts are often hand-worked after forming for trimming to final shape or for additional drilling, cutting, or finishing, depending on the product. Heavy-gauge products typically are of a "permanent" end use nature, while thin-gauge parts are more often designed to be disposable or recyclable and are primarily used to package or contain a food item or product. Heavy-gauge thermoforming is typically used for production quantities of 250 to 3000 annually, with lower tooling costs and faster product development than competing plastic technologies like injection molding.