Replacing Steel with Thermoformed Plastics

February 12, 2021

Sheet metal is a material that is used in many aspects of manufacturing, especially when it comes to the automotive industry. Although metal is the common material used, thermoformed plastics can easily replace the aforementioned material.  In fact, plastics are being replaced in many industries that formally relied on steel and aluminum sheet metal components. Constantly innovating, the manufacturing industries are beginning to switch to thermoformed plastics. Why? Well, there are very specific reasons for this transition. 

1 | Plastic is Lighter Than Metal

This is probably a given, but in case you don’t know, plastic is lightweight. Despite thermoformed plastic being lighter than metal, it is still resistant and durable. As used as an example before, the automotive industry has benefited from using durable plastics that have proven to be safer in the case of an accident. Plastic being lighter also positively factors into things when you consider that lightweight can mean lower costs. 

2 | Thermoformed Plastic Is Cost-Effective

Continuing on with the points made previously, thermoformed plastics are more cost-effective than steel. Sheet metal stamp tooling generally requires tool steel for large production runs. That can run upwards of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and take months to machine and usually is done exclusively overseas. Although there is no tooling cost, sheet metal fabricated parts require tons of labor for every single part for bending on a press brake or welding.

Thermoform tooling is relatively inexpensive compared to stamping and the per unit labor cost is low since the net shape is formed on a mold and trimmed off via 5-axis CNC machine. 5-Axis machines that trim plastic are also much less expensive than those that cut metal, further reducing your hourly trim labor costs. Many companies use wood or low density urethane foam to make forming bucks in days for relatively little money to make prototype runs of as little as a single part. Also, considering plastics are lighter weight, this factors into production, handling, and especially shipping costs. What’s more, you actually get the same finish quality while not having to pay more for metal.  Cost and weight are two reasons, besides safety, that your car’s bumper is now made of plastic instead of metal.


3 |The Manufacturing Process Reduces in Lead Time

The metal fabrication process can take longer than thermoformed plastics. Although for very short run metal fabrication can be faster than thermoforming, if you are making large production runs that per unit labor really adds up. If you are doing high volume production, stamp tooling generally takes 8-12 weeks to produce. Compared to 2-4 weeks for thermoform tooling you likely can have a medium to large production run before getting your first stamped samples. Thermoformed plastics reduce the lead time so you are able to engineer, prototype, and produce end stage products more efficiently. Faster prototyping and engineering means faster time to market, a better product, happier customers and more money in your pocket. 

4 | Endless Creativity and Design Freedom

Steel can be used for various things, but it does not have the design freedom that plastics have. Particularly with low cost metal fabrication, you can only make straight walled, boxy products. Using plastic materials allows much more design flexibility in regards to the form of your part. Curved, complex surfaces, deep draws and complex cuts are often no problem when forming. Thermoforming has an extremely versatile lineup of plastics to meet many applications, from food, medical and UL certifications, to chemical resistance and heat flame and toxicity ratings. Formable plastics include Kydex, ABS, PVC, PETG, HIPS, PC, HDPE and more. You can also integrate custom PMS/pantone colors, textures, paint and branding via bossed or screen printed logos. By trying to incorporate design needs into the steel manufacturing process, costs increase significantly. 


Choosing RapidMade as your Thermoforming Partner

Making the move from steel material to plastic is not as hard as you think. If it is something that your company is considering, RapidMade can help you determine the best manufacturing processes for your part production. RapidMade has worked with organizations and manufacturers including the the USDA, the Navy, and many, many Fortune 50 companies.

RapidMade lives in short and medium run thermoforming – no job is too low quantity or too short of a lead time for its team. Experts in 3D printing and contract manufacturing, the RapidMade team is well-versed in thermoformed plastics. Contact us today for a free and fast quote and process consultation.

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