Shaping the Future – 3D Printed Tooling for Thermoforming

>>Shaping the Future – 3D Printed Tooling for Thermoforming
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Shaping the Future – 3D Printed Tooling for Thermoforming

Many of the processes used to produce the thousands of day to day products we consume are shrouded in mystery for the average consumer.  Often, the packaging itself is a vital part of the marketing of a product.  And while most people have at times harbored thoughts of revenge and fury at packaging clamped tightly over a new purchase – the only tool capable of extricating our new toy or our lunch seemingly a chain saw –  most people focus on the presentation of the product rather than wonder how it came to be.

As 3D printing has begun to standardize as a value added process in Additive Manufactured Tooling and in the use of 3D printed jigs and fixtures in many industries, new and equally valuable applications are advancing as well.  One area where 3D technology is being applied with success is in thermoforming.


     In 2016, production of thermoformed parts worldwide was estimated at 380 kilotons with an expected increase in production of 4.2% year over year through 2025.[1]  Thermoforming is the process of using thermoplastic sheets and applying heat.  Once the medium is heated to the desired temperature the plastic is places over a mold by air, vacuum or press.  The resulting part, once cool, retains the shape of the mold.[2]  As in injection molding and the production of jigs and fixtures, this process has traditionally involved using expensive tooling in the form of the mold and is produced in metal or wood form to fix the shape of the product.

Thermoforming is used today in every imaginable product category:

  • Automotive: Thermoformed parts are used in many areas of the automotive industry such as air ducts, interior panels, dashboard assemblies and seating components.[3]
  • Aerospace and Aviation: Aerospace and aviation are ideal applications for thermoforming due to their requirement for lightweight material and ability to create contoured curved pieces.[4]
  • Building and Construction: Another “heavy” industry application is building and construction, where equipment enclosures, machinery covers and skylights are common uses for thermoforming.[5]
  • Transportation and Logistics: Heavier and more durable thermoformed pieces are often used in transportation.  They may take the form of stackable and reusable trays for products having an unusual finished shape to “square” them to a cube like a pallet for transportation, or, as bins or containers used for both storage and transportation. [6]
  • Packaging: Perhaps nowhere is thermoforming more evident to in everyday use than in packaging.  From consumer goods to electronics to medical trays to point of sale displays, thermoformed packaging is an efficient, safe and clean way to protect a product during transportation and display.  Thermoforming is also used heavily in the food industry for clamshell containers and other applications.

     With such a broad range of uses there are different types of thermoforming depending on the required characteristics for the part.  Common thermoform processes include:

  • Vacuum Forming: In vacuum forming, a vacuum is applied between the heated plastic sheet and the mold.  The effect pulls the plastic material into the mold cavity forcing it to conform to the mold’s shape.[7]
  • Pressure Forming: Pressure forming, or press forming, uses a vacuum as well.  However, air pressure of 50-100 psi is used to push the heated sheet into the mold.  This application is used for deeper and more complex mold cavities, sharp turns or corners within the mold and for thicker plastic sheets.[8]
  • Mechanical Forming: With mechanical forming, a male core plug is used to force the material into the core receiver.  This application is often used for thicker gauge plastics.

3D Printing in Thermoforming

     As 3D printing continues to gain acceptance for a broad range of uses within manufacturing, opportunities to apply the technology for 3D printed tooling for thermoforming are numerous.   Additionally, there are a few materials available for tool creation and the choice of material may depend on the gauge of the plastic sheet to be formed or upon the complexity and characteristics of the part. 

  • Fused Filament Fabrication: Because thermoforming does not require the high heat level required for some manufacturing processes, fused filament fabrication parts can usually withstand the heat and pressure required to shape the part. Fused filament fabricated parts can also be sanded, drilled and are inherently porous, allowing a more even vacuum draw and improved part quality.[9]
  • Material Jetting: For tools requiring a finer resolution or edge fit material jetting can be used to create tools with deeper draws and edges requiring precision fitting for later sub-assembly. These tools create a finish level with smoother surface contours depending on resolution.
  • Powder Binding: Some thermoforming, such as mechanical or press forming may require hard strikes of the core plug at a higher heat to induce the shape to an extremely thick-gauged plastic. In Powder Binding the layer of powder is struck by a focused energy beam such as a laser or electron beam to melt and form the part layer.  Additional layers of powder can be deposited and repeated to create a stronger tool.  For certain complex mechanical and press thermoformed parts requiring deep draws, sharp turns within the mold or for complex geometries at higher heat, powder binding can produce a tool that can take the required pressure for those methods.


Benefits of 3D Printed Tooling for Thermoforming

          Companies using 3D printed tooling for thermoforming can realize many of the same benefits captured when 3D printed tooling is used in other areas of production.

  1. Prototyping: The cost and time required to bring new products to market are often enormous and can take month or years to complete.  Product development can also run into the hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars.  As in the case of temporary tooling for injection molding, 3D printed tooling for thermoform molds can allow development teams to experiment and innovate at a higher level by using many design iterations not previously possible due to cost of tooling and time for tooling creation.  Many companies developing prototype products have seen development costs drop by up to 90% and time to market plunge by equally impressive margins.
  2. Small Production Runs: The cost of traditional tooling often meant that runs had to capture specific volumes for break even and profitability targets so the tooling cost could be spread over the life cycle of the product.  With 3D printed thermoform tooling, shorter production runs are possible at or significantly below traditional costs.  This allows more companies to take advantage of agile manufacturing to increase competitiveness by offering more product choices to consumers, shorter lead time and competitive pricing.
  3. Reduced Production Processes: With the ability to create complex geometries, 3D printed tooling can often allow for the creation of a hybridized mold to create a single part where previously two steps were required.  This reduces assembly and subassembly time throughout the production floor and reduces product lead time and cost.
  4. Setup and Safety: Lighter molds allow a reduction of setup time as the reduced weight means the mold can be moved and set in place faster.  It also improves safety and fatigue concerns on the production floor with reduced weight in lifting and handling.
  5. Packaging: Thermoformed packaging has proliferated within the last few years to help reduce transportation and logistics cost by reducing weight and space and is the largest single category for thermoforming.  This trend has created a marketing reality whereby the packaging is often vitally important to brand perception.  With reduced cost, increased design iterations for final packaging and the ability to test run shorter production lots before finally settling on branded packaging solution, companies can continue to hone the use of clever, environmentally friendly or cost-effective packaging to identify their brands as well as provide superior protection for the product.
  • Customization: 3D printed tooling for thermoforming has perhaps its strongest benefit in customization.  This benefit has two distinct paths.  One is consumer oriented and the other is technical.  However, each shine a light on the versatility of 3D printed thermoform tooling.
    • Consumer Level Customization – By speeding the process of tool creation as well as lowering costs, products can be customized more than ever before.
      • This means companies can take advantage of seasonal or cultural trends such as point of sale displays for movie related merchandise or other short-term trends such as themed or holiday products.
      • It also allows companies to create personalized products at a premium level of sale. Named products for individuals or for local sports teams, charities and other entities mean these consumer groups or individuals have access to products previously not affordable.
    • Technical Customization – With 3D printed tooling for thermoformed parts it is possible to create custom mold densities. These densities can include ribs, honeycombs and other structural variations that provide strength while reducing material cost and build time.  Densities can also be varied throughout the mold to augment strength in areas where the draw is deeper or where pressure may be greater.

The Shape of things to Come

     Additive Manufactured Tooling has helped create a renaissance in product design.  Whether temporary molds for injection molding or jigs and fixtures throughout the production process the benefits are enormous.  With the application of 3D printed tooling for thermoformed parts the value-added aspect of 3D printing continues to accelerate. 

     One key point in this renaissance is its inherent inclusiveness.  Not only can large corporations benefit from this technology, medium and small and even very small companies can take advantage of these opportunities as well.  While larger companies may have the deep pockets to fund the capital and educational requirements to produce 3D tooling for thermoforming of products, medium and small companies can, with the reduced time and dollar expenditures afforded to them with this technology, affordably utilize 3D service bureaus to help design and produce molds, allowing smaller companies to compete on the same playing field as larger entities.


IC3D has over fifteen years of combined experience to help you with your latest project or production and help provide a working solution for all your enterprise needs.  We can assist you in developing the AM tooling you need from design through production of the tooling itself to lower your development cost and bring your design to life.  From our in-house base of large format printers, developed by IC3D and specifically designed to reduce costs, IC3D is a 3D printing service bureau, consumables supplier and partner in your project from concept to prototyping to completion.

IC3D also produces its own line of 3D filament in ABS, PLA and Nylon and we don’t use recycled material.  Our filament is 100% virgin material that extruded in house in Ohio using strict production standards.   And all IC3D material is backed by a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

IC3Ds superior line of consumables alongside our 3D printing service bureau capabilities and our rapid prototyping services for 3D technology assure that you can create and produce your next project with confidence in both quality and speed.

Check out our line of materials online, or, if you’re looking for consulting, enterprise solutions or design needs, contact us and our staff will be happy to help guide you to the solutions you need.

[1] “Thermoformed Plastics Market Analysis by Product, By Process, By Application and Segment Forecasts, 2014-2025”, Grand View Research,

[2] “Fundamental Manufacturing Processes Study Guide” by SME,

[3] “Thermoforming Industries and Applications”,

[4] “Thermoforming Industries and Applications”,

[5] “Thermoforming Industries and Applications”,

[6] “Thermoforming Industries and Applications”,

[7] “Thermoforming”,

[8] “Thermoforming”,

[9] “Printing Vacuum Forming Tooling with FDM”, by Dominic Mannella, Mold Making Technology, 11/1/2008,

By | 2018-08-21T23:18:26+00:00 March 20th, 2018|Articles|Comments Off on Shaping the Future – 3D Printed Tooling for Thermoforming

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