What Types of Plastics Can Be Used in Thermoforming?

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Thermoforming is a versatile manufacturing process that can be used for a variety of applications. The process involves heating thermoplastic materials into a shape using heat, pressure, and vacuum techniques. In addition, there is a multitude of plastics that can be used in thermoforming, each with its own uses and benefits. As a result, Thermoforming is a cost-effective way to manufacture high-quality plastic products with precision and efficiency. 

Learn about the common types of plastics used in thermoforming and find out which thermoformed plastics could work best for your needs.


What is thermoforming?

Plastic manufacturers use a process called thermoforming. First, a plastic sheet is heated to a temperature at which it becomes pliable. Then, the malleable plastic is cooled so it can harden into the desired shape.

Types of thermoforming

Pressure forming and vacuum forming are the most common thermoforming techniques. Vacuum thermoforming works by heating a plastic sheet that is stretched over a single-surface mold. The plastic sheet is then stretched against the mold using a vacuum. The vacuum forming process only works for certain types of plastic materials. These materials can include PVC, HDPE, ABS, and PC. 

Vacuum forming is ideal for permanent, sturdy products that include:

  • Heavy-duty plastic components for weather-resistant equipment
  • Automotive parts like dashboards and interior components
  • Airplane or bus bins and interior parts
  • Containers or components for medical supplies
  • Consumer packaging for cosmetics, food, and beverage products
  • Household plastics like appliances and yard equipment
  • Retail displays and promotional signage

Pressure forming is similar to vacuum forming. However, there are select distinct differences between the two. One difference is the way the plastic is fitted over the mold. The pressure forming process uses compressed air to shape the plastic sheet into the mold. A pressure box is applied to the non-mold side of the sheet, and the extra pressure is used to create intricate details on the sheet. 

Pressure molding delivers similar results as injection molding but for a fraction of the cost due to lower tooling expenses. In addition, it’s an efficient and cost-effective process, so many manufacturers may opt for pressure forming during a product’s prototyping phase. 

Pressure forming is ideal for products that require sharp details, such as:

  • Plastic bathtubs
  • Plastic utensils
  • Office equipment
  • Medical devices and parts
  • Exterior panels with gauges or controls
  • Housings for electrical devices
  • User-facing parts like doors and covers

Thick Gauge vs. Thin Gauge Thermoforming

In addition to the process used to shape the mold, there are two common thermoforming methods: thick gauge and thin gauge thermoforming. Each project has unique specifications, and these specifications determine the thickness of thermoformed materials needed to develop the end result. 

Thick-gauge thermoforming is required for sturdier materials and products. Products that require thick-gauge thermoforming typically include:

  • Dashboards and vehicle panels
  • Appliance components, like refrigerator liners
  • Sturdy enclosures for electronics, medical devices, and more
  • Exercise equipment, like treadmill panels
  • Outdoor products, like grill covers or plastic sheds

Thick-gauge thermoforming, sometimes referred to as heavy-gauge thermoforming, is the ideal method of shaping rigid products and structures. Heavy-gauge thermoforming refers to thermoforming that uses plastics that range from 0.06 to 0.5 inches thick. Thick-gauge thermoformed plastics can be shaped using the vacuum-forming or the pressure-forming method. 

Thin-gauge thermoforming, on the other hand, uses thermoformed plastics that are 0.01 to 0.06 inches thick. This process is used when you need plastic products that are durable yet flexible. Thin-gauge plastics are used to make the following products:

  • Coverings for cosmetic products
  • Recyclable materials
  • Disposable coverings for food products
  • Clamshell containers

Types of Thermoforming Plastics

At Global Thermoforming, we provide a comprehensive selection of product development and manufacturing services. We offer a wide range of thick-gauge and thin-gauge thermoforming plastics to ensure quality and consistency with every order. That’s why we offer a variety of thermoformed plastics to meet our client’s needs. 

Our expert team can work with you to select the plastics and processes that will work best for your needs. Here are some of the thermoformed plastics we offer and their common uses:

HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE, or high-density polyethylene, is an FDA compliant thermoformed plastic. It’s chemical resistant, absorbs a low amount of moisture, and it’s very durable. HDPE can be used for various purposes and is commonly used for food handling and containers. It can be used for thick or thin-gauge requirements.

HMWPE (High Molecular Weight Polyethylene)

High Molecular Weight Polyethylene is similar to HDPE as it’s also versatile and works well for thick or thin-gauge applications. It’s commonly used for material handling industry needs, such as wear parts and conveyor components. It’s also used for chopping boards. 

ABS (Acrylontrite Butadiene)

Acrylonitrile butadiene is an opaque polymer that can be used for both thin-gauge and thick-gauge processes, and it works great with the vacuum-forming process. It’s a stiff plastic with good impact strength. Acrylonitrile butadiene can be produced in a wide variety of colors and textures, so it’s used for a broad selection of applications. ABS is a flame-retardant thermoformed plastic. It’s a low-cost option that’s highly resistant to impact, which is why it’s used for a variety of applications. ABS is commonly used for machine housings, popular toys, 3D printing components, car parts, and recyclable containers. 

PC (Polycarbonate)

Polycarbonate is used for thick and thin-gauge applications. It’s a clear plastic with high impact strength that’s incredibly heat resistant. These properties make it an excellent alternative to glass. PC is typically melted and placed into a mold so it can be formed into a shape. PC is commonly used in the production of items like safety helmets, CDs, vehicle headlights, bottles, construction items, and more. 

PVS (Polyvinyl chloride)

Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, is one of the most widely-used thermoformed plastics. Sheets of PVC can be used for both thick-gauge and thin-gauge thermoforming applications. Thermoformed PVC can be found in several products, including faux leather clothing and shoes, electrical cables, flooring, medical device components, and cables. Vacuum forming is an ideal shaping process for PVC products.

PP (Polypropylene)

Polypropylene is used for both thick and thin-gauge applications. It’s a material that’s chemical-resistant, rigid, and has good impact strength. It also performs well at higher temperatures. These durable characteristics and their elastic properties make PP one of the most popular thermoformed plastics. It’s regularly used for toys, packaging supplies, and hinges.

TPO (Thermoplastic olefin)

Thermoplastic olefin is a resin blend that’s exclusively used for thick-gauge applications. This material has fantastic impact resistance and it’s available with a high-gloss finish. However, it can be more difficult to form this thermoplastic than other options. It’s used for car components like dashboards and bumpers. 


Acrylic is used for thick-gauge processes. This transparent thermoplastic is a cost-effective glass alternative that’s shatter-resistant. It’s lightweight yet durable and able to withstand prolonged UV exposure. Thermoformed acrylic is used to produce commercial signs, retail displays and shelving, fish tanks, TV screens, light fixture casings, and more. Vacuum forming is the ideal thermoforming process for molding acrylic signs. 

HIPS (High-Impact Polystyrene)

High-impact polystyrene is a versatile thermoformed plastic used in both thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications. It’s ideal for vacuum forming due to its malleable nature. It’s one of the world’s most widely-used plastic polymers. Thermoformed HIPS can be found in items like plastic cutlery, food containers, medical trays, electrical insulation, etc.

PEI (Polyetherimide)

Polyetherimide ultimately requires a thick-gauge process, and the material has a high temperature grade. It’s a high-performance polymer with a unique natural amber color. Due to its resistance to high temperatures, it’s one of the only thermoformed plastics approved for aerospace products. It’s used for aircraft components, medical devices, and electrical components. 

PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol)

Polyethylene terephthalate glycol is a clear plastic with great impact strength. It works well for thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications and works best with a vacuum forming process. It’s an ideal choice for thermoforming because it’s sturdy and can be molded with sharp detail. PETG is used to create food and beverage containers, sneeze guards, signage, 3D-printed materials, medical packaging, and more. It has several advantages and is cost-effective, easy to mold, and recyclable. 

The Global Thermoforming Difference

Global Thermoforming is a leading plastic thermoforming manufacturer that works with clients including Motorola, Nissan, and Boeing. We build our own thermoforming machines and tools in addition to extruding our own materials, allowing us to design and refine the highest quality products at an unmatched speed. 

Our plastic manufacturing capabilities provide our clients with a variety of customization options. In addition, our expert team has over 30 years of experience with vacuum forming and can assist you with your vacuum thermoforming and thermoformed packaging needs. We can develop, design, and deliver thermoformed products for your company’s needs, from small-run to high-volume vacuum-forming conditions.

Trust Global Thermoforming with Your Plastic Needs

We have the experience as well as the resources to find the right thermoformed plastics for your project specifications. Our team of experts will work with you to design and deliver high-quality products that meet your standards. We will assist you every step of the way and support full product integration at your facilities. Contact us to learn more.

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