Data-Driven Thermoforming

Many industries have been “disrupted” by technology over the years. Many processes have been “optimized” through software. In both cases, buzzwords notwithstanding, the application of new information (or information presented in a novel way) to existing business models has resulted in improved efficiencies. The rolodex? Salesforce CRM. Palm Pilot? Smart phone. Illegible utility bills? Energy dashboards. MS DOS? Windows/Linux/OS, etc. You get the idea.

But what about industry? Several large tradeshows this year have focused on “Industry 4.0”, the interconnectivity of machinery and processes. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it: “Industry 4.0, Industrie 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution, is the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things and cloud computing. Industry 4.0 creates what has been called a “smart factory”. Only time will tell if this truly is worthy of the ‘revolution’ moniker, but there is no doubt that ever-increasing amounts of data are being gathered and analyzed.

Servo motors, intelligent control systems, networked plants and remote access are fairly well-established now in the world of thermoforming and extrusion. Simulation and process insight can be added to this list, though the adoption rates are still relatively slow. Data-driven decision-making is de rigeur in today’s companies with analytical skills in  high demand.  We’ve written about this before on our blog but now we’re working on a more compelling story that links upstream data with downstream end-products. At the recent Penn College Hands-On Thin Gauge Thermoforming Seminar, we presented some new data explaining how improved material distribution leads to better project economics. With some assistance from industry consultant, Dr. James Throne, and our friends at Multi-Plastics Extrusions, we explained how a tighter standard deviation curve (less variation) equates to less plastic being wasted (reduced starting gauge) when you don’t have to over-compensate for the thinnest spot in a part. As Dr. Throne likes to say, our friends in injection molding don’t have to give away anything to get uniform wall thickness.


A reduction in material thickness leads to an increase in material yield, i.e. you get more linear feet of material for the same weight of plastics on the same roll diameter.


In sum, the lower standard deviation in wall thickness measurements illustrate that a smaller tolerance range is possible through the correct use of plug materials and plug geometry. Uniform and repeatable wall thicknesses means that thermoformers do not have to overcompensate for thin spots, thereby reducing the amount of energy used to heat the sheet and gaining material yield. The end result is a better part with better overall project economics.

Still think it’s a black art?