3D Printing + Vacuum Forming

February 12, 2017 | ProgressTH 

Vacuum forming is a process involving heated, flat sheets of plastic placed over an object, and pulled around it using the suction of a vacuum. It is used on scales large and small, to make everything from handheld projects, cases for electrical equipment big and small, and even things as big as refrigerator liners.

Creating your own vacuum forming system is fairly simple, and lots of hobbyists around the world have been doing it for years.

With 3D printing, even if you lack a place to do wood or metal working required to make a vacuum forming box, you can print out and assemble one, which is what we did. That box is now up on Thingiverse here.

The set up includes a heating box needed to retain heat from a 2000W heat gun. Without the box, the heat dissipates too quickly and the plastic sheets being used won't heat evenly.

The sheets being used right now are HDPE, a semi-transparent material that turns completely transparent when ready for vacuum forming. It is important for the sheet to be transparent across its entire surface area before quickly placing it onto the vacuum forming bed.

Speed is essential. The frame holding the sheets of plastic should be held together with strong clips, and when placed onto the vacuum bed, placed quickly and all the way down without hesitation.

If a workspace is set up properly, and a practiced workflow used, consistent results are possible.

The only problem remaining is creating appropriate molds for vacuum forming. Not every object lends itself well for vacuum forming. Some objects become stuck once the heated plastic sheet is formed around it then cools. A good mold will be easy to release after the vacuum forming process.

What makes for a good mold will take experience. Experimenting will reveal what shapes create the strongest and best shapes for different applications. Looking around at preexisting examples of vacuum forming will also reveal possible forms to try when working on DIY projects.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 3D printed vacuum forming system, is the fact that it's a machine making a machine that makes things. 3D printed parts also are used to make additional 3D printers, CNC beds, and now even motors.

Now instead of wondering what you'd vacuum form if you had your own system, you can just print one out and give it a try.

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