The 3 T's of Modern Thermoforming

There was a time, not that long ago, when thermoforming was thought of as the "poor step-child" of the plastics forming industry. Though widely used during the Second World War, primarily for the production of aircraft canopies, thermoforming entered the 50's with a reputation as a brute force and ignorance manufacturing method. Take a sheet of plastic, apply some heat, apply some vacuum, form the part over a crude mold, and trim it any old way you could - that was thermoforming. Wooden molds, plywood fixtures, and bandsaw trim were the industry standards, and it wasn't uncommon to see an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner pressed into service as a forming machine's vacuum source.

Times have certainly changed, and a look at the 3 T's of modern thermoforming - technology, training, and teamwork - is a great way to illustrate just how far we've come.


While there are still shops that run as they did in the 50's (and many of them still produce fine work), their manufacturing methods generally limit them to creating prototypes, performing pre-production, and completing short run quantities. Designers, engineers, and purchasing agents who are looking for high tolerance, high quality plastic components that can compete with injection molding, have come to depend upon the new breed of thermoformers that make creative use of technology in every facet of their businesses. As a potential customer for thermoformed or pressureformed plastic components, why should you care about a vendor's commitment to technology? Here are just a few of the reasons:

  • Mold Design and Fabrication Options
    Your potential thermoformer needs Computer Aided Drafting (CAD), Solid Modeling capability, and an Internet presence so they can establish a common dialogue and communication link with your engineering staff. They need experience, supported by data, so they can recommend the right tooling strategy to achieve your desired results. They need a skilled in-house tooling department that can draw from a variety of innovative tooling approaches (Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining, casting, fabrication, metal arc spray, etc.) to produce the sophisticated tooling and fixturing required to meet your needs.
  • Manufacturing
    The complex shapes and intricate detail required of today's most demanding thermoformed and pressureformed parts can only be achieved with microprocessor driven forming machines allowing independent heat zone control and precise cycle repeatability. Trim functions that were once subject to the inconsistencies of hand fixtures and operator error are now performed by three and five-axis NC routers, ensuring that finished parts will meet specification every time.
  • Customer Support
    Integrated manufacturing software packages now allow for instantaneous monitoring and control of every phase of your project, from raw material procurement to bill-of-materials development, to work order generation and order fulfillment. The ability to access job history and product performance gives a modern thermoformer a powerful tool in their quest to drive down costs and improve your profits. Instantaneous communication via email, voice mail, phone and fax has made it possible for your thermoformer to respond immediately to the ever-changing requirements of your marketplace, regardless of their geographic location.


As the complexity of thermoforming technology increases, it has become vital for the modern thermoformer to implement specialized training programs for all veterans and new staff members. It is not an overstatement to say that every dollar invested in training comes back a hundred times over in improved quality, productivity, and customer satisfaction - not to mention the great personal and professional benefit to the employees themselves.

At Empire West Inc. we have produced a series of training videos, made in-house, that address every aspect of our business. Covered topics include simple machine operation and how to safely operate them, proper documentation and quality assurance procedures, and how to perform order processing and fulfillment. Employees get to learn by participating in the creation of the videos and they also get to see their co-workers perform the actual tasks being demonstrated in their own production environment.

We have also developed the Thermoforming Tech Academy as an actual online training and educational resource tool for our customers and staff. Establishing a common knowledge base is the gateway to the creative problem solving required for meeting tomorrow's thermoforming challenges.

In addition, many equipment manufacturers now offer extensive training programs in specialized aspects of modern thermoforming (Thermwood's 5-Axis Router School is excellent), and the Thermoforming Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers, through their thermoforming conferences and seminars, is a great educational resource. The key is specialized training, and the payoff is a modern thermoformer that can truly meet your needs.


The world class thermoformer understands that his company's output isn't really produced by forming machines and routers - it is produced by collaboration. Teamwork, at every stage of the process, is what turns plastic sheet into plastic parts.

  • Design
    If you don't allow your thermoformer to get involved early and actively in product design you're preventing them from doing their best work and providing you the best value for your dollar. Consider your thermoformer as part of your design team and you stand a much better chance of getting the parts you want at the prices you need.
  • Developement
    As the design takes shape the modern thermoformer brings together a development team made up of engineering, tooling, production and support staff. Together they map a project strategy that takes full advantage of their combined skills and experience. There are always a variety of right ways to do a project, but this team's goal is to find the best way to meet your requirements.
  • Delivery
    As a thermoforming customer you need a schedule you can trust, quality you can depend on, flexibility when market conditions change and prices that allow you to achieve your profit objectives. If you choose the old "us vs. them" customer/vendor model for your business relationship, you may get some of these things some of the time, rather than getting them every time.